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What makes something go viral? | Dao Nguyen

Last year, some BuzzFeed
employees were scheming to prank their boss, Ze Frank, on his birthday. They decided to put a family
of baby goats in his office. (Laughter) Now, BuzzFeed had recently signed on
to the Facebook Live experiment, and so naturally, we decided to livestream
the whole event on the internet to capture the moment
when Ze would walk in and discover livestock in his office. We thought the whole thing
would last maybe 10 minutes, and a few hundred company employees
would log in for the inside joke. But what happened? Ze kept on getting delayed: he went to get a drink, he was called to a meeting, the meeting ran long, he went to the bathroom.

More and more people
started logging in to watch the goats. By the time Ze walked in
more than 30 minutes later, 90,000 viewers were watching
the livestream. Now, our team had a lot
of discussion about this video and why it was so successful. It wasn't the biggest live video
that we had done to date. The biggest one that we had done
involved a fountain of cheese. But it performed so much better
than we had expected. What was it about the goats in the office
that we didn't anticipate? Now, a reasonable person could have
any number of hypotheses. Maybe people love baby animals. Maybe people love office pranks. Maybe people love stories
about their bosses or birthday surprises. But our team wasn't really thinking
about what the video was about. We were thinking about what the people watching the video
were thinking and feeling.

We read some of the 82,000 comments
that were made during the video, and we hypothesized that they were excited because they were participating
in the shared anticipation of something that was about to happen. They were part of a community,
just for an instant, and it made them happy. So we decided that we needed
to test this hypothesis. What could we do to test
this very same thing? The following week, armed with the additional knowledge
that food videos are very popular, we dressed two people in hazmat suits and wrapped rubber bands
around a watermelon until it exploded.

(Laughter) Eight hundred thousand people watched the 690th rubber band
explode the watermelon, marking it as the biggest
Facebook Live event to date. The question I get most frequently is: How do you make something go viral? The question itself is misplaced; it's not about the something. It's about what the people
doing the something, reading or watching — what are they thinking? Now, most media companies,
when they think about metadata, they think about subjects or formats. It's about goats, it's about office pranks, it's about food, it's a list or a video or a quiz, it's 2,000 words long, it's 15 minutes long, it has 23 embedded tweets or 15 images. Now, that kind of metadata
is mildly interesting, but it doesn't actually get at
what really matters.

What if, instead of tagging
what articles or videos are about, what if we asked: How is it helping our users
do a real job in their lives? Last year, we started a project to formally categorize
our content in this way. We called it, "cultural cartography." It formalized an informal practice
that we've had for a really long time: don't just think about the subject matter; think also about, and in fact,
primarily about, the job that your content is doing
for the reader or the viewer. Let me show you the map
that we have today. Each bubble is a specific job, and each group of bubbles
in a specific color are related jobs. First up: humor. "Makes me laugh." There are so many ways
to make somebody laugh. You can be laughing at someone, you could laugh
at specific internet humor, you could be laughing at some good,
clean, inoffensive dad jokes. "This is me." Identity.

People are increasingly using media
to explain, "This is who I am. This is my upbringing, this is my culture, this is my fandom,
this is my guilty pleasure, and this is how I laugh about myself." "Helps me connect with another person." This is one of the greatest
gifts of the internet. It's amazing when you find
a piece of media that precisely describes
your bond with someone. This is the group of jobs
that helps me do something — helps me settle an argument, helps me learn something
about myself or another person, or helps me explain my story.

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