Viral information outburst: cool things are more fun when you share them.

David at The World's Fair has posed another, "Ask a ScienceBlogger, Sort Of" question:

Essentially, as scientific types who tend to analyse, over-analyse, supra-analyse things, and who like to categorize and follow empirical trends, I'm interesting in hearing what you think it is that sparks these viral outbursts of information outreach? This question (and apologies for its convolution) also relates directly to your role as a blogger, where the assumption is that you revel in increased traffic, and are kind of looking for these tricks anyway. I guess, I'm just interested in hearing a scientist's opinion on this, as oppose to the usual IT expert/academic.

Shorter David: Why do some pieces of information take off and spread like head lice at a preschool? My guess: The pieces of knowledge (or culture or what have you) that really grab us are grabbing us as information it would be important or fun to share with others. Information rattling around in our own heads doesn't seem as valuable to us as information that has also been transmitted to the heads of others.

Confession time: I used to watch Beverly Hills 90210 even though, when it started airing, I was way too old to be watching it. Indeed, the first episode or two I happened upon while channel surfing didn't really grab me.

But then I discovered that two of my three brothers had started watching it regularly, and discussing it with each other. So I started watching it again, and discussing it with them. And I was hooked. The shared experience of deconstructing Aaron Spelling's creation ("Why does Steve Sanders have such horrible luck compared to Brandon and Dylan?" "No sideburns!") turned a silly hour-long teen drama into something wonderful. Admitting to watching the show all by one's self would have been kind of sad, but finding others who could share a certain ironic distance from it (as well as the secret names by which one referred to the show in public -- "Sideburns" or "Bev-Niner" to name just two), well, that was a bit of community building amidst the fragmentation of modern life.

I think that explains a lot of why cool things (or outrages) propagate so quickly through the series of tubes of the internet. What's more isolated and sad than someone sitting alone in his or her room typing at the computer? (Someone who leaves her laptop's power supply somewhere else and runs down her battery -- but that's another story.) We modern folk with computers at at serious risk of becoming the loser in the basement. (To those of you reading from the basement: I'm not talking about you; you're no loser!)

So we need to build a community. Sharing cool stuff we've found is one way to build a community. And, sharing with our community is a way to be reassured the the stuff in which we're delighting really is cool.

I don't actually think this is really a new facet of human behavior. Aristotle (among others) recognized that you couldn't really understand humans outside the context of a community. Kripke's version of Wittgenstein latched onto the notion that basic pieces of human machinery like language only make sense because we assume interaction with other people. All that's changing is the means by which we share our thoughts, our ideas, our units of culture. As we get more personal space, we rely more on the electronical portals to bump into other human minds.

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Yes, but it's new in the sense that we can have the communication, and the community, without the human contact. So we are inside and outside the community at the same time. Which, for some of us, is a perfect fit. :)

I'm actually only half joking there. I do believe that kids would benefit more from hanging out in person with their friends when possible instead of doing a majority of it through texting and the interweb. But, personally, I need an awful lot of elbow room and quite a bit alone time to feel comfortable. And this has progressively increased with age, a transformation from the party harder college student.

So, not only is the online community a lifesaver for those out in the rural wildernesses, it is a perfect fit for those who want to commune when it suits them and from a distance, if they so choose. Not to mention the coolest of the cool part, that the community has become freakin' global! In your dreams, Aristotle, honey.

Stuff that we virally spread online is also way cooler than the stuff spread by unconnected people. Theirs is either personal gossip or something served by the mass media.

We get to invent and spread stuff that we want and like, yet with a much broader appeal than local gossip.

Your example of 90210 reminds me very much of my experiences with Lost. When I first caught it, I thought it was crap and ignored it. But all my friends kept discussing all the crazy theories and whatnot on their LiveJournals, to the point where I almost had to start watching.

I would say that a huge amount of that show's following is due precisely to that effect. I mean, nobody wants to be out of the loop, right? So you get people who do watch a show (read a blog, download a viral video or a game) to start talking about it, and the folks who don't watch will feel uncomfortable, like outsiders. So they eventually get drawn into it themselves, just to integrate into the group.

I wouldn't be surprised if the other side of that phenomenon (i.e., the people who go out and actively proselytise for their favourite TV shows) had a very similar motivation. They found something cool, so they want to create a new group based around it. Hence, they convince as many people they know as possible to start watching it and discussing it.

Humans are such social creatures, and a lot of our psychology does involve in-groups and out-groups. It makes sense that the viral information phenomenon would be tied into the idea of creating new in-groups.