…While Mr. Berger initially assumed that people would share articles with practical implications—he imagined lots of pieces on diets and gadgets—he discovered instead that the most popular stories were those that triggered the most arousing emotions, such as awe and anger. We don't want to share facts—we want to share feelings.
Why does this desire exist? Decades of research in social psychology have shown that people often share strong emotions as a means of fostering connection and solidarity.
“If I'm angry, and then you get angry, we can bond over what we're feeling,” Mr. Berger says.
The Internet reflects this ancient social instinct. The only difference is that, when online, we often can't express our emotions directly. (It's not easy expressing genuine joy in a tweet.) Instead, we're forced to spread arousal through short videos and articles, using the images and words of others as a proxy. “It's difficult to communicate strong feelings when we're not communicating face-to-face,” Mr. Berger says. “But sharing content on the Web allows us to get a parallel kind of connection.”
And this is why the online world is so biased toward arousing material. Although the Internet is often described as an infinite library of information, the most popular things online typically aren't very informative.
Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs. Such content can often seem frivolous and superficial. But the content isn't the point. The viral clip is merely a means to an end, an efficient way to tell someone else that, for a few moments at least, we'd like to feel the same thing.
Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.
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