The Stories of Our Lives: How Today’s Ideas Will Become Tomorrow’s Viral Mythology

Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_ChildCitizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people…we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth….

—From Mercury Theatre on Air, War of the Worlds, 1938

             On Sunday, October 30, at 8 p.m., something happened that would send people all over the country into a panic. The year was 1938, and a radio broadcast came over the airwaves that would shock its listeners into running for the hills—well, those who weren’t able to tune in from the start and here Orson Welles say that he, on behalf of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, was about to present War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, for their listening pleasure. The broadcast was done in a serious tone, with intense music and official sounding news bulletins. But many listeners tuned in a bit later, when Welles was past the introduction and deep into Wells’ story of a Martian invasion on U.S. shores—and took it seriously.

            Nuttiness ensued.

            Thousands of people called into their local radio stations, police stations, and newspaper offices. Many people in the New England area actually loaded up their cars with kids and a few goods they could grab, and fled the region. People flocked into local churches to pray and await imminent death. There were alleged reports of people having heart attacks, miscarriages, and early births. The panic was widespread as more and more people became hysterical, thinking the Martian inva- sion was real.

            Once word got out that it wasn’t real, and was just a pre-Halloween radio show meant to entertain, people became outraged and threatened to sue the program, and many people expressed their anger at Orson Welles for causing the panic.             But what had really happened was something that happens all the time: People got a piece of information, made an assumption before getting all the information, and reacted accordingly.

            Mob rule. Hysteria. Riots in the streets. Contagious panic. Collective fear.

As popular singer Adele might have sang during the chaos, “Rumor Has It….”

                         Cut to 2013 and all over the Internet, across social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the story is spreading like wildfire of an actual angel dressed in priestly clothing that turned up out of thin air at a terrible auto accident, and blessed the victims before helping rescue workers. Then he vanished into thin air, just the way he arrived. Every- one was flummoxed. Who was this mystery priest—this unidentified angel? The word angel, in fact, was everywhere, even before people took a breath long enough to wait for the real story to emerge.

            There really was a real priest there at the scene. He just didn’t want a lot of fuss made over his actions. His name was Reverend Patrick Dowling, from the Diocese of Jefferson County, Missouri, and he just did what God would have expected of him: He absolved and anointed the victim, 19-year-old Katie Lentz, and then got out of the way to let rescuers do their job. Simple.

            Just a few months before that, it seemed the entire nation was waiting breathlessly, anxiety mounting, collectively frenzied as social net- work sites BLEW UP with news of its coming—waiting and waiting, posting and waiting—until finally the moment came, when the SyFy Channel aired the premiere of Sharknado, starring Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, and a host of other less-than-B-list stars. The 90-minute movie was awful, to say the least, but it didn’t matter, because so many people tuned in that a sequel was ordered immediately.

            But it wasn’t the movie that is important here. It did, indeed, suck so badly, it would have scored a negative 10 on the list of the 10 worst films ever made. What was so utterly stunning to watch was the absolutely insane hype that spread like wildfire over Twitter and Facebook—any marketing firm’s dream—causing record-breaking numbers of posts that some say should have been reserved for major world events, like assassinations of presidents and terrorist attacks. Though it is highly doubtful that the next Sharknado will have that same effect, now that the novelty has worn off. But why?

            Why did so many people buy into the viral spread of this ridiculous campy motion picture?

Going Viral

            In the case of viral ideas, there may indeed be reasons why certain ones thrive, while others can barely survive.

            When Malcolm Gladwell’s highly influential The Tipping Point (see Chapter 1) set the marketing world on fire, talking of the importance of “influencers” as the responsible parties for the contagious spread of ideas and innovations, he may have left a big chunk out of the viral equation. A newer book, published in 2012, called Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan J. Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, posits that influencers are not any- where near as important as the receivers, the audience, and for an idea to go viral, that audience, especially when it comes to social networking, has to be enthusiastic or approving of the idea presented. And, he argues, rarely does common sense enter the picture.

Watts found that although influencers are one end of the yard- stick—and are indeed responsible for igniting the match that sets an idea viral and makes it contagious—what allows it to spread like wild- fire is the receptivity of the people who then post, tag, spread, share, and endorse. If they collectively do not respond, the idea could hit a wall.

            So whereas Watts, in his research, does admit that highly influential people are more likely to trigger a social epidemic, it’s the receptors that make or break it, and the more easily influenced those receptors are, the wider the idea spreads. Often, subject matter, timing, and the topic of the idea or innovation counts as much, too, as an idea may go viral, but again may hit a wall at some point if the subject isn’t one that has widespread appeal and the ability to evoke collective enthusiasm (or repulsion, as what goes viral isn’t always positive; just see the spider bite posts on Facebook to know what we mean!).

            So, why do some ideas take on a viral quality and others fall by the wayside?

            It may be all in the presentation, and the power of persuasion. Say you are a vacuum cleaner salesman. You go door to door, trying to sell your product by telling people all its good qualities and how this hose is better than the old hose, and the floor settings contain two new ones over last year’s model, and look—it comes in green, too. You sell one or two if you’re lucky. Your colleague goes door to door and instead asks if their cat has ever emptied its food bowl onto the carpeting, or if the lady of the house has ever dropped coffee grounds on the floor, and then sets out to “solve a problem” by telling all the reasons why the vacuum can make the customer’s life so much better. He or she sells 10 in one day.

            One tries to sell on common sense, the other on emotional and personal impact.

Getting Contagious

            According to Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, there are specific ways to make an idea or any kind of content or information viral, and the secret is in getting contagious. In a research paper he wrote with Katy Milkman called “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” Berger came up with the following:

  1. Positive content is more viral than negative content. Yes, even in today’s  environment of “if it bleeds, it leads,” we tend to spread further those things that make us feel better.
  2. Content that evokes any high arousal emotion is more viral than content without emotion. If it makes you feel something, whether fear, anger, or joy, and feel it strongly, you are more likely to respond, repost, re-tweet, and repeat.
  3. Practical and useful content gets shared. If it is some- thing that someone needs to do something better, easier, cheaper, more fun, or more efficiently, it goes viral more often.

            Content, therefore, is not always “king” unless it meets the parameters by which it can be shared with larger groups of people, over wider networks. Certainly, our ancient ancestors shared with each other, and through time, with us, what was important to them, whether because they found it useful, it evoked emotion, or made them feel better. Or, they passed down what they were persuaded to by someone who could talk up a good storm full of passion and emotion and reasons why they had the information that counted.

            We pass on certain pieces of information, and ignore others we deem not important or fit to spread around. We might even do this because of our brains.

            A recent neuroscience study set out to prove why some ideas go viral and others fall by the wayside. What is it, the researchers asked, that makes an idea—which is, remember, information—buzz worthy? In the study, as documented in a Forbes article titled “Your Brain on Buzz: Why Some Ideas Go Viral and Others Go Nowhere” (July 6, 2013), a group of UCLA students were presented with 20 or so ideas for a potential television show while hooked up to an fMRI brain imaging machine. They were asked to pretend they were interns and evaluate the ideas to pitch to TV producers. Another larger group of students were told that they were the TV producers and watched the same videos of potential show ideas as the first group, then make their evaluations of which ideas were best.

            The idea was to see any differences in the brains of those “interns” who most effectively pitched the ideas and those who were not as successful in getting the “producers” to buy the ideas. The scans of the brains showed indeed that the interns who enthusiastically pitched and were the most persuasive had significantly more activity in the temporoparietal junction when they chose their favorite ideas than those who were not successful and enthusiastic about their ideas. This difference in activity was labeled the “salesperson effect” and showed that once a “buzz-worthy” idea hits the brain, a sort of “buzz alarm” goes off and tells the person that this particular idea or piece of information is one worth spreading to others.

            The only thing that has changed through time is the amount of opportunities we have to go viral, with today’s technology, via texting, e-mailing, social networking, radio shows, television, motion pictures, books, magazines, and so forth. But the reasons some ideas survive may always be a part of human nature that doesn’t change over time. Get them in the gut.

            VirMytBad Information

            Misinformation, which is just false information that gets spread by accident or lack of oversight, is everywhere. People take something that has not been sourced or proven true, and they spread it, and nobody along the way takes the time to check into the validity, until someone does finally question the viral wave and stop it in its tracks by looking for the real story. At the same time, we are being exposed to everything from disinformation, which is the purposeful spread of false informa- tion often by authority figures, to propaganda from our government, the media, and corporations that want us to think and believe one thing over another for their own motives and agendas. Though talk of conspiracies always leads to many a rolled eye, the thing is, we are not being given all the information all of the time, and we end up passing down to future generations only what we have been told.

            But is it true?

© Marie D. Jones and Larry Flaxman. Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from Viral Mythology: How the Truth of the Ancients was Encoded and Passed Down through Legend, Art, and ArchitectureNew Page Books, All rights reserved.

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  • BrianApocalypse

    The ‘War Of The Worlds’ panic story is itself a modern myth. It was apparently a hyped up story created by the newspapers of the time in an attempt to demonize radio news!

    • Calypso_1

      It is always amazing to see, as perspective transitions from group consensus reality to historical deconstruction, how manufactured the fundamental stories of any given time are.

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