Annalee Newitz (who’s been killing it over at i09, not for nothing) has a really interesting piece up over why some compelling, thought-provoking posts don’t get any social media traction and why more superficial, or less ambiguous pieces do. Her article (and accompanying back-o’-the-napkin art) describe an uncanny valley of ambiguity where a piece of writing might raise questions and depict complexity in a way that intimidates a reader out of sharing of it for fear of being misinterpreted or appearing to be—shudder—too open-minded.
Her essay is not, thankfully, an “everybody is stupid and the web is just making that clearer” lament. It’s an enlightened, insightful look at online behavior. It reminded me of research that’s been done on online sharing that might illuminate this issue further. In his book, Contagious, Jonah Berger discusses research into what items get shared what items do not and one of the factors seem to be what are called “arousal emotions”. These are emotions that arouse certain physiological reactions, specifically ones that heighten physiological activity. For example, anger gets your heart rate up. So does excitement, or awe. There is a correlation between articles that spur these heightened states and articles that get shared more often. Alternately, articles that lower physionomy by inducing states related to, say, depression (e.g. slower heart rate), get shared less often.
Where the research Berger references gets really interesting in is the idea that it doesn’t even matter where the heightened state comes from. It doesn’t have to be an emotion. There was an experiment where two sets of subjects read content and then had the opportunity to share it or not. The difference was one group spent some time exercising first. The ones who read articles just after exercising were more likely to share that content regardless of the nature of that content than the ones who just sat there for a while before reading. It’s really the heightened state that seems to matter.
This brings us back to articles that challenge us either with their complexity or their ambiguity. Perhaps, and I haven’t hooked anyone up to an EEG while they read deep shit so this is just a guess, ambiguity doesn’t raise your heart rate. Neither does introspection or complexity or deep thought. This is nothing against those attributes, but they just don’t lend themselves to sharing. This may be another reason that the types of articles Newitz describes are at a disadvantage to happy cats or definitive truths.
And this sort of makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, right? Messages like “There’s a tiger over there!” get spread a lot more quickly than “What is a tiger, really?” So we have an evolutionary mandate to spread messages that evoke arousal emotions. Not so much the introspection or the ambiguity.
What’s more troubling is her assertion that the reason this lack of shareability endangers work that challenges is that advertisers rate the success of an article by just how viral it is. And here, I feel, is the flaw. Not in Newitz’s logic, but in the system. It may seem like “virality” (a flawed term in and of itself) is a good measure of the value of an article, but given the limitations around what actually gets spread it seems like a fundamentally flawed one. So if we have a system that rewards an article (or, more precisely, financially compensates content creators) based solely on virality, then there’s something wrong with the system, because it’s going to defund challenging work.
I actually like work that challenges me, and share it when I can; but I probably would have been eaten by the tiger.