On What Goes Viral

Exploring why some content spreads... and most content doesn't

The Forgotten Sundial

I’ve been on a reading hot streak lately. A number of the books I’ve read this year are among the best I’ve ever read. Particular among them was a novel called The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (whom you might know as the author of the short story The Lottery). It’s one of those rare books that seems to check off everything I love in a work of fiction (eerie, funny, beautifully written, thought-provoking, surreal, ambiguous, etc.).

The Sundial’s UK First Edition cover

Even for Shirley Jackson herself, The Sundial was the best Shirley Jackson novel. “Nothing I have ever written has given me so much pleasure,” she wrote about it.

The problem: I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard of this book. And why is that? Why are some classic books (which often don’t stand the test of time) so widely known, while others (like The Sundial) are, for the most part, forgotten?

Let’s broaden this question and ask: What is it that stops great writing from being discovered? How many amazing books are out there that no one has ever heard about? And why aren’t they well known? By asking these questions, can we learn something about what makes content more likely to become a hit, and in doing so, help content creators of hidden gems become… unhidden?

How Content Spreads

Let’s create a new framework for how to think about distribution of content. A good framework would work for both books published in the 1958 and for videos posted to social media in 2023.

For content to spread, it needs to go through the following simplified steps:

  1. Someone must discover the content

  2. Then they must consume the content

  3. Then they must enjoy the content

  4. Then they must evangelize the content

This is cyclical. The process of evangelism causes new folks to discover, thereby returning us to the first step. It’s what growth strategists refer to as a flywheel. Except it’s not a very efficient one. It’s a flywheel with a few pieces of gum stuck in the machinery. That’s because the bucket is so leaky. We’re bound to lose a lot of people at each step of this process.

Here’s a secret about flywheels: They spin faster the faster they’re spinning. As in physics, kinetic friction (the phenomenon that slows you down once you’re in motion) is weaker than static friction (the phenomenon that keeps you from getting started). Put differently: Content that’s already being consumed finds its audience faster.

Why is that the case? It’s because of the human psychology that takes place at each step of the above cycle:

  1. Discovery - People ignore most of the bombardment of content they’re presented with daily, so when they do discover something, it’s often because it stood out from the noise. People are more likely to discover content if it’s coming from either a trusted source or from several sources at once.

  2. Consumption - People don’t like wasting their time. The cost of engaging with unfamiliar content is high, and the benefits are questionable. The solution: make the benefits more readily apparent. People are more likely to consume content if they know others are already consuming it.

  3. Enjoyment - Some of the value people find in content is not intrinsic to the content itself. It’s derived from the context in which the content is presented. People typically enjoy content more if they can contextualize it with something positive. As an example, viral videos tend to accelerate their virality solely because people who watch them know they’re watching something that’s “going viral”.

  4. Evangelism - Willingness to share content is not the default state of most consumers. Yet as with dynamic friction, once something’s moving through the population, it’s easier to keep it moving. People are more likely to recommend content that someone has recommended to them. We’re more likely to forward an email, for instance, if it’s one that’s been forwarded to us.

Improving the Flywheel

Last summer, I wrote an article called The Improbability of Aliens and Literature. In it, I discussed an equation that showed how many amazing books could have been written but never were. Here, I’m taking it one step further and thinking about how many books have been written, but never found their audience.

If you believe in efficient markets, all content (books, videos, etc.) should be thought of as governed by the laws of supply and demand. And as with any market, if there is demand for a good (or a book), there should be someone willing to supply it (for the right price). The fact that The Sundial never found its proper audience—just like billions of other pieces of content—shows the inefficiencies that exist in the content market.

Let’s go back to that flywheel with gum in it. I have to believe that there are people (many people in fact) who, had they picked up The Sundial in circumstances where that gum wasn’t so sticky, would have loved it and helped it spread. They would have…

  1. Discovered it from friends or the media

  2. Consumed it because they knew others were consuming it

  3. Enjoyed it

  4. Evangelized it to their friends

…thus spinning the flywheel more and more.

Like any “random walk” phenomenon, I don’t believe it’s possible to predict what content will spread and what won’t. But I do believe that content is more likely to spread if one understands why virality happens and how they can grease the flywheel just a bit more. And a slightly better flywheel means a slightly better chance of success.

And who knows? Maybe by writing this, I’m helping the flywheel spin just a little bit faster for a particular masterpiece by the late genius Shirley Jackson. I think, for great art, particularly hidden gems, that’s one of the best things we fans can do.

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I mentioned I’ve read great fiction this year. Here are a few that you may not have heard of before: