Monday, 9 September 2013

Going Viral

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG /

Creating and sharing content is easier today than at any point in the past. This makes it both an exciting and challenging time for content creators. Ensuring that your creation cuts through the clutter and spreads is no easy task. Indeed it isn't hard to think of campaigns that failed in their attempts to go viral, or videos put up just for fun that have become worldwide phenomenons. If only there was an easy way of creating, or at least identifying, a sure-fire hit.

Well researchers at the University of California think they might have unearthed one secret in the mystery of what we tend to share [1]. They found that neural activity in the temporal parietal junction (the bit in red on the diagram below) was more pronounced amongst participants that did the most compelling job of recommending the ideas that they liked.

In the study, 19 students were tasked with the role of acting as “interns” which involved being content curators reviewing ideas for TV pilots and then recommending which shows should be considered for further development. They were filmed describing the ideas, which were then shown to their bosses, the “producers”, who were other students recruited for the study.

The researchers suggested that the activity they observed in the ventral striatum (part of the reward system), could index the appeal of the idea itself or possibly represent the expected value from sharing the idea. They proposed that activity in parts of the mentalising system, such as the temporal parietal junction, related to the effectiveness with which an individual could communicate an idea. Both of these elements would be essential in the successful propagation of ideas.

Of course with the cost of content creation so low and the cost of using fMRI so high, it is hard to see advertisers rushing out to test all of their material to see if it lights up these sweet spots in the brain. It does however open up interesting new avenues for exploration and raises the question as to whether analogous measures that are easier and more cost-effective to monitor could be found.

It is still early stages. The activity gives us some idea of what we are likely to share, but doesn't shed any real light on why. There remains a great deal to be learnt about propagation of content as opposed to ideas, and the spread in more complex social environments. For example, the study created an environment analogous to that of a worker sharing ideas with their boss, so conclusions about how we share amongst our peers must be drawn with caution. Nonetheless, what goes viral and why is an interesting question that is being investigated through a number of disciplines and I'm sure it is a journey that will fascinate us for years to come.

Dan Siddle
Research Innovation Specialist

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