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About:Media — The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You

Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, January 21, 2014

In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content—in his case, a speech—persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

The irony, of course, is that the more data we mine, and the closer we come to determining a precise calculus of sharing, the less likely it will be for what we know to remain true. If emotion and arousal are key, then, in a social application of the observer effect, we may be changing what will become popular even as we’re studying it. “If everyone is perfectly implementing the best headline to pass on, it’s not as effective any more,” Berger says. “What used to be emotionally arousing simply isn’t any longer.” Those in search of evidence for this should look no further than, a site that was started just eight months ago and is already the seventh most popular site on the Web, at least as measured by Facebook shares. As I type, the lead story on its front page is “Her Little Boy Has No Idea His Mother Is About To Die. What She’s Doing About That Is Amazing.”

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