I recently wrote an article about the way people make money on YouTube. Of course there are many more ways to make money in the internet, but that example showed that it’s crucial to reach as many people as possible; the more clicks you get, the more money you get. The conclusion is that, in order to be successful, you need to figure out what attracts people, what they like and what they don’t like, what they share on their social media devices and what they don’t share. Being able to manipulate this behaviour is obviously very powerful and leads to the final question: what makes things go viral?

It appears that Emerson Spartz got as close as it gets to answering the question. Mr. Spartz dropped out of school at the age of twelve and started home-schooling. A month later he launched mugglenet.com, now the largest Harry Potter fansite in the world, and was managing a crew of 120 people soon after. He said that his parents gave him absolute freedom regarding what he wanted to learn, with just one restriction they imposed on him: he had to read four short biographies of extremely successful people every day. Reading those stories of success made him think big and wanting to change the world. That’s when he got into virality. He thought that if you can make things go viral, you have influence on the people. If your message doesn’t spread, it doesn’t change anything. So he started reading — a lot. One non-fiction book every day for about 6,000 days until he graduated from college about anything that is in any way related to the final question of how things go viral: social network theory, business, neurology, psychology, politics, persuasion theory, and so on.
He came up with a business model and set up Facebook pages in order to test which variables of those pages are positively correlated with the virality of the page, and soon had millions of followers on every social network platform you can think of. Spartz Media is now running numerous websites that keep on publishing viral content, and most of us came across at least one of them. Those heart-touching stories of givesmehope.com; it’s them. Those fake iPhone-chat-histories; it’s them. Those facts no-one actually needs to know, but you still read when you come across them; it’s them. Those memes; it’s them. Those stickman-comics; it’s them. Once they figured out what’s going viral — and Emerson Spartz claims to be able to do so in a few moments — they keep on publishing it on different websites, and get hundreds of thousands of shares every time again.

That’s all really impressive and definitely a successful business, but for some reason I feel like it’s only the stuff that doesn’t actually add any value which goes viral. I’m not saying that this has anything to do with Emerson Spartz or other viral websites. It’s about society. Not so long ago I heard about a Chinese maths teacher who solved a previously unsolved mathematical problem, and no-one talked about it. No, there was probably no practical gain from solving the highly theoretical problem, but it’s still more impressive than another funny looking cat. I won’t deny that those memes can be funny, and entertainment definitely has its place in society, but I think it’s worrying to see how successful they are compared to the really valuable content. How many times do you laugh about a new meme with your friends and how many times do you discuss something of actual importance, even if it’s only for five minutes?