Do you like to share awe-inspiring articles with your friends, like the many [New York] Times readers whose habits are analyzed in a new study? Or do you have other motives?
Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman, researchers at the Wharton University of Pennsylvania, have been analysing the New York Times most e-mailed articles list. They have been trying to determine what factors contribute to making an article 'most emailed'.
It appears that NYT readers like to share news about positive, long and intellectually challenging topics. Most of all, the study indicates that people most like to share topics that inspire awe.
Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list. In general, they found, 20 percent of articles that appeared on the Times home page made the list, but the rate rose to 30 percent for science articles, including ones with headlines like “The Promise and Power of RNA.” (I swear, the science staff did nothing to instigate this study, but we definitely don’t mind publicizing the results.)
“Science kept doing better than we expected,” said Dr. Berger, a social psychologist and a professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School. “We anticipated that people would share articles with practical information about health or gadgets, and they did, but they also sent articles about paleontology and cosmology. You’d see articles shooting up the list that were about the optics of deer vision.”
The report states:
An analysis of over 7,500 New York Times articles published over six months suggests that individual-level psychological processes ... act as a selection mechanism on culture, shaping what becomes viral. ... awe-inspiring articles are more likely to be among the newspaper's most e-mailed stories on a given day.
... our results suggest that transmission is not just about value exchange, but also about deepening social connections.
The report suggests that we seek or obtain some reflected kudos1 by sharing such articles. Reading between the lines we are saying, in effect:"I am clever because I understand this stuff.", or "This article is awesome, and so am I for sharing it with you."
In fact, Dear Reader, you could consider this new study to be firm scientific evidence of your own awesomeness. And if you want to share that feeling with anyone, you know what to do next.
Hmmm. Can I buy a degree in awesomeness?
Image source: Lady Fi
I suspect that the report's findings are of general application to all of the electronic means by which we spread comfort, joy and awe with our friends.
I began to wonder if search engine results could be improved if we allowed the likes of Google to snoop our emails. But then I realised the awful truth: the top results would be gleaned from the most numerous emails. Can you imagine the effect on search results of a statistical analysis of "Hey, friend! Have you seen this website? They have the very best shoes/watches/viagra/porn/essays/..." Yes, that's right. The search results would be just the same as they ever were.
 - credit; praise; renown.
All quoted material is sourced from nytimes.com, tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com and the report Social Transmission and Viral Culture. The report is downloadable as a free pdf from
the Wharton University of Pennsylvania Marketing Department.