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Why odd things go “viral”

March 22, 2012 - Art Smith

If you are a writer, photographer or video producer for a website two of your primary goals is for the content that you created to be viewed by a fair number of people and that at least the majority of those people will find it useful.

On a typical newspaper website those numbers can be fairly modest. A few hundred or in some cases a few thousand people will take the time to read a blog, a story, look at a photo or watch a video.

Sometimes the page views of one particular story can explode. When this happens it is referred to as going viral.

When content goes viral, the number of people viewing it explodes very quickly across the Internet.

I never have had any content go viral. The closest we have come on either the site or is a blog written by Erin O'Neill about being a dance mom. The blog written last summer has been viewed more than 13,000 times, more than any other single story on the site.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to something going viral. First, it has to be something that captures the public’s attention. It also helps if it is a bit on the wacky side.

The wacky factor has pushed some web content into the stratosphere in terms of the number of page views.   Millions of views of videos of babies laughing or a teenager singing a song about Friday are examples.

Normally a content producer cannot really make something “go viral.” It normally just happens, sometimes with a little help from people called taste makers. Taste makers are people who have a large voice. They blog about it, they mention it on their TV show, they post a link on their twitter feed. From there others spread it via their Facebook post and their own twitter feed. Kevin Allocca, of YouTube, does a great job of explaining how videos go viral in this video from

A few weeks ago an 85-year-old writer for the Grand Forks Herald wrote a column about the new Olive Garden opening in the North Dakota town. The review by Marilyn Hagerty went viral and  has been viewed more than a million times.  She has became a bit of a media hit, appearing on the Today Show, Anderson Cooper and the Morning Show. You can even order a T-shirt with her picture on it and a quote from her saying, "I've been a lot of other things, but never viral!"

According to the website for the newspaper, the food review has been viewed about a million times. That is more than the next seven stories on the site combined. The site has devoted an entire section to the sensation that the column has created.

The success of going viral can be good. Hagerty seems to be having the time of her life following the story. Or, it can cause problems for people, such as the case for the maker of Kony2012. Jason Russell had a very public, and naked, meltdown on the streets of San Diego following the explosion in the popularity of a video Russell made about an African warlord that has gotten more than 100,000,000 views.


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