The Anatomy of a Meme: What Goes Viral?

“Making things go viral on the Internet is an elusive art…” according to an article run on Tech Crunch in August of 2010.  I would still have to agree with that.  I’d even use the term “magic” for attempting to make something go viral without incorporating what John Peretti suggests are the 5 Rules For How To Make Things Go Viral.   With the release a few months back of Facebook’s “Insights” more and more netizens are aware of a new definition of what gets our attention: “virality” – Facebook posts that go “viral” with some percentage of that being quantified.

So what makes something go viral?  What is it that grabs our attention AND gets our friends’ attention (Reed’s Law or the Social Media Effect) as well?  The something is a meme and how it propagates so quickly on the Internet I think is best understood by qualifying what kind of things make a meme go viral.  What is the anatomy of a meme?

Having a client drive me to give a clearer definition of this “elusive art” and talking that over with a friend who suggested the title of this article after looking at my categories, I decided to write this post.  And as I promised, attribution for the title idea goes to my friend and fellow geek, Jeremy Hodges, former graphic artist now evangelist living deep in the heart of TX.

So without further ado and much hope that these insights will prove helpful in your understanding of what goes viral, here is my list.

Things that go viral (true viral memes) fall somewhere under these categories:

  • the unexpected (ex: great but unexpected performances from previous unknowns like Susan Boyle at 48 and (then) frumpy (and what’s wrong with that, I ask?!) singing like a Broadway star in a jaw-dropping performance. Ted Williams, the homeless man with the “Million dollar voice” was another “unexpected” )
  • the super hilarious (slapstick and the uber-cute, political parodies, etc. Ex: Medieval Help Desk  )
  • rubber-neck accidents and atrocities (ex: the little chinese girl  who gets run over  twice and is passed by 18 people who do nothing to help her. This is a category where a news story gets run by several different content producers which defines it as viral)
  • anything in the OMG category: horrendously bad singers and performances, famous people trying to get attention doing the outrageous, the disgusting etc. Ex: Chris Crocker’s ‘Leave Britany Alone‘  Disclaimer: Vulgar language)
  • the RickRoll effect: self-explanatory (google it)
  • the educationally mind-blowing (ex: the ever-popular and once prophetic “Shift Happens” More recently, the Known Universe)
  • the “gifted” ( can be great but not necessarily great ( perceived as great is often good enough)  – the latest releases from pop and rock stars come under this one)
Some I have not listed here because they come under the category of  Peretti’s “Big Seed Marketing” (Rule #3).   These would include movie campaigns and the like that are paid for.
What makes a meme go truly viral?  With the above categories in mind, maybe you can grab that elusive quality!
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