A common criticism in popular culture is that as things move from fringe to mainstream popularity they get “diluted” or “watered down” to make them easier to sell. For instance, in the early 70s reggae record labels would record string parts to put on Jamaican hits to make UK audiences more interested. Does that hold true of viral culture, too?
I asked myself that question after reading this article by Farhad Manjoo about Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed – as you’re surely well aware – are the content factory behind hundreds of list articles, like “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity”, a combination of generosity, tolerance, sentiment and, inevitably, baby animals that’s racked up 1.6 million Facebook likes in a little over a week.
The question posed by Manjoo is simple: how does Buzzfeed do it? The answer, he says, is finding content curated by other people – mostly on Reddit – and passing it on. The online curation chain is full of aggregators and middlemen, so this shouldn’t really be surprising.
More interesting is how Buzzfeed owner Jonah Peretti talks about his methods. He points out the editorial decisions involved in curation, and discusses them in very familiar terms: “We’re making it into something that will delight and be understandable to the Facebook audience.”
So is this the same as putting strings on reggae hits? Internet memes and viral culture is a pop cultural form, so it makes sense that there’d be routes of transmission between ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream’. The only thing is, “dilution” isn’t exactly what Peretti is doing.
“It was almost more what we didn’t include that was the key to that post”, Manjoo quotes him as saying. “We didn’t include inside jokes and memes that most people don’t understand. We took it down to its emotional core.”
Kittens: MAINSTREAM. Memes: NOT.
If you’re one of the Redditors doing the unwitting legwork for Buzzfeed, you might see this as dilution (though according to Manjoo they don’t really seem to mind). But it’s just as much concentration – stripping away irrelevant material to hit a particular emotional button again and again.
And this may well be part of the secret to how spreadable these lists are. The work we’ve done at BrainJuicer on virality and emotion in advertising suggests that while the single key emotion associated with viral potential is surprise, the overall emotional intensity of a communication is crucial too. Something Buzzfeed’s technique of concentrated, clear emotional posts understands very well. If you want nuance, look elsewhere. If you want shares, on the other hand…