Michelle McCudden is a Manager on the Client Strategy & Innovation team at Social Media Group.

On Friday February 17th, SMG participated in Social Media Week Toronto by hosting an Ignite-inspired event, with each speaker given five minutes to speak on their topic. I delivered a talk entitled “Let’s Stop Saying Viral” and you can watch the video here:

We had a great time, but five minutes goes by really, really quickly. (As an added challenge, I could probably discuss my distaste for the term “viral” for hours on end.) So, as my colleague Cam Finlayson did yesterday, I wanted to take some time here in the blog to follow up on a few points and dig a little deeper.

Much of my thinking around the idea of viral content is covered by the excellent series “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead”by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf, with Joshua Green which I would highly recommend for a nuanced take on the issue. In short, “virality” is a weak metaphor for how content is actually shared, because it downplays the role of the user—the person who will actually choose to share it with their networks. It’s preferable, the authors argue to think about content as “spreadable” instead:

“A spreadable model emphasizes the activity of consumers …in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets.”

Let’s look at a recent example of a piece of content that has been incredibly popular over the last month (in fact, you’re probably sick of it already):

social media manager11 Lets Stop Saying Viral

 

The “What People Think I Do/What I Actually Do” meme’s first appearance was as a photo on artist Garnet Hertz’s Facebook page on February 2, 2012, according to knowyourmeme.com. The original version, depicting the profession of “contemporary artist” received only a handful of comments and just over one hundred likes, but 5,124 shares (for reference, Hertz has about one thousand Facebook friends).

From there, this concept was shared and repurposed quickly and widely. It’s hard to say for sure how many times it’s been shared, but it’s garnered coverage on Mashable, Gawker, and PCMag for its ubiquity. There’s also at least 20 Pinterest boards dedicated to collecting examples. It’s fair to say that most would say this meme went “viral,” or as I would argue, was highly shareable.

However, Jenkins et al. argue: “Content is spread based not on an individual evaluation of worth, but on a perceived social value within community or group. Not all good content is good for sharing.” So what made this meme so shareable?

Let’s look to this meme using the key qualities of shareable content from their article:

  • It expresses something about the user or their community. Because it’s easy to modify (source a few pre-existing images, type simple text on a black screen, and ta-da—you’re done!), this content is almost infinitely adaptable.  Versions have been created for professions as niche as Laptop DJAnalyst Relations,and Keyboard Player. Whatever your job, whatever your community, there’s either an existing take on it, or it’s incredibly easy to make your own.
  • The message serves a valued social function. There’s a clear social value inherent in this meme. By sharing it to with colleagues or those who work in a similar industry, users are able to provide something that is intended to be humorous, relevant, and resonant. By sharing with those outside of one’s own profession, there’s an opportunity to comment on how they might perceive your job.
  • The content gives expressive form to some deeply held perception or feeling about the world. What I Do/What People Think I Do allows users to demonstrate how they believe their job is perceived by others, and society at large. It’s a commentary on the perceived worth of a given profession.
  • Individual responses to the content helps users determine who does or does not belong in their community. In sharing this meme, users are providing a piece of content for others in their networks to converse around. If for example, someone posted a version specific to their profession to their Facebook wall, what might they expect? Some, particularly those with similar jobs, may express their agreement or amusement with the content in the form of a like or comment. Alternatively, there’s an opportunity to critique or disagree with the meme’s depiction, or ignore it all together. These responses will help the original poster to learn about their social network.

What People Think I Do/What I Really Do clearly embodies the qualities of spreadable piece of content. Looking at others that have blown up recently (I’m looking at you, Sh*t People Say), I would expect to find much of the same. What’s your take? Can we please move away from viral as a model for how content is shared?