Pure Virality is a Myth: The Science Behind Why Things Really Get Popular

“Originality needs familiarity, and even genius needs distribution.”

Daniel Pink is one of the world’s leading business thinkers and the bestselling author of Drive and To Sell Is Human. He recently joined Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic and author of the new book, Hit Makers, for a Heleo Conversation on the science of popularity. They discuss the necessary balance between the familiar and the new, the underestimated power of dark broadcasters, and the role of luck in shaping the world.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Daniel: What makes a hit? I went into your book thinking, it has to be something totally original. You say, “Not quite.”

Derek: I went into the project familiar with this idea that originality is the most important concept, and the best content always wins. But the evidence seems to say no. Originality needs familiarity, and even genius needs distribution. Then, it typically requires the soft kiss of luck. Ultimately, it became a book about the interplay between originality and familiarity, between content and distribution, and between greatness and serendipity.

Daniel: That’s a great layout of the core ideas. Let’s try to tease out some rules for how to get a hit. First, originality needs familiarity. Explain.

Derek: Raymond Loewy [is] the father of industrial design. He designed the modern locomotive, the modern car, the livery, Air Force One and the interior habitat of the first NASA space ship. He basically designed the middle of the 20th century in America, and he had a rule for why people like what they like, MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

What he said is that people are both neophilic and neophobic. We like new things. We want to hear the new song that our favorite artist just came out with. But we’re also neophobic. We like new things particularly when they remind us of old things.

What Loewy understood, which popular entertainers in film, television, music, and even marketing and politics understand rather intuitively, is that to sell something surprising, you have to make it a little bit familiar. And to sell something familiar, you have to make it a little bit surprising. It is in this interplay between familiarity and surprise where the strongest appeal lives.

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I’ll give you two examples. First, Spotify. Spotify has this incredibly popular product called Discover Weekly. It is a dump of thirty new songs into your phone and computer every Monday. When they were testing this program, they wanted all the songs and bands to be new. Accidentally, a bug got through the system, and it turned out that some people who were doing this internal test were getting songs and artists that they had already seen before. So they fixed the bug and they sent it back out again for testing. What happens? Engagement with Discover Weekly fell by a significant amount.

It turned out that having a little bit of familiarity gave users a sense that it wasn’t going to kill them. I say kill because the evolutionary psychology explanation for MAYA is if there’s a plant or animal that you recognize, that means it hasn’t killed you yet. There has to be something ingrained in our biology that preferences us toward the familiar.

The other example goes to this idea of “the aesthetic aha,” in that we love stories and television shows and movies that introduce us to wonderful new worlds, but we discover familiarity within them. Think about all the people who tune into Top 40 Radio. Why are they tuning into a playlist created by other people just to hear songs that they’ve already heard?

The answer is that we love being surprised by the feeling of familiarity. We love being surprised by hearing a song that we’ve heard before, but not knowing when it’s going to come on, the same way we enjoy being in new worlds in movies, but following the same narrative patterns: the hero’s journey, watching the outsider become the hero.

Daniel: Or even sequels.

Derek: Yes, exactly. In fifteen out of the last sixteen years, the majority of top ten movies in Hollywood have been adaptations, sequels, or reboots. MAYA is very much the dominant philosophy of not only music, but also Hollywood.

“People fall in love with the viral myth. We think that great ideas are self-distributing. You make something that’s inherently great, you introduce it to a few people, they pass it on to a few people, and eventually it’s the biggest thing in the world.”

Daniel: You say that genius needs distribution. It’s like the old line about book publishing, “an industry built on hope and distribution.”

Derek: A lot of people fall in love with the viral myth. We think that great ideas are self-distributing. You make something that’s inherently great, you introduce it to a few people, they pass it on to a few people, and eventually it’s the biggest thing in the world. For a long time we thought that ideas spread like viruses, but we couldn’t actually look at that information cascade and see—are ideas really spreading across generations and generations of one-to-one sharing? Or are they spreading in some other way? The evidence from network science says, “No, virality is a myth.” Practically nothing goes viral, even the things that we call viral.

The way these ideas get big is not through generations and generations of one-to-one sharing, like an actual viral disease. Rather, they go big through a handful of one-to-one-million moments. Essentially, a broadcast. I call these dark broadcasts.

Daniel: Why are they dark? Because we don’t know about them?

Derek: Right. There’s lot of broadcasts that we’re extremely aware of. For example, if there is an advertisement in the Super Bowl, nobody says, “That advertisement went totally viral.” No it didn’t, everybody in America was watching the Super Bowl and it was broadcast to 140 million people at once. Sometimes when we see a video or an article go crazy online, and several of our friends share it on Facebook, we say, “Oh my God, that video went viral.” We say that because we can’t see the broadcast mechanism that distributed it to lots of people at once. Publishers have access to technology that tells us exactly how all this information spreads. We know that when an article suddenly goes extremely big, what’s happened is that it hit the front page of Reddit, Drudge, or The Huffington Post.

Lots and lots of people may discover it along some point along the information cascade, but it got out to all these people because it hit a one-to-one-million moment. It’s a broadcast mechanism, but it’s often obscured by the information cascade.

Daniel: Give me a sense of the scale of these dark broadcasts.

Derek: There are tens of thousands of people reading The Huffington Post front page every single hour. There are millions who read it every single week. You are talking about something similar to a television rating when you [add] up all the people who have clicked on The Huffington Post homepage.

Daniel: These dark broadcasters have a huge amount of power.

Derek: [They] are unbelievably powerful. What people don’t realize about Fifty Shades of Grey is that even before anybody in the New York publishing community had heard of it, the author already had millions of online readers all over the world on Fanfiction.net that were simply invisible to the metrics that publishers in New York were looking for. Fanfiction.net served as a dark broadcaster of this story. It was a dark hit before Random House bought it and illuminated it for the entire world.

Daniel: I think this is one reason why some in the mainstream media missed the Trump phenomenon early on, because that was a lot of dark broadcasts. It’s also why you can have conversations with people in one realm and mention somebody who’s enormously popular in another realm, and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about. You talk to somebody in the spiritual health realm and they have no idea who Ta-Nehisi Coates is.

Derek: Right. I think a lot of people on the East coast had no appreciation for the scale of Breitbart. Here was this digital publisher that we considered alt-right, strange, and weird. The strange cousin of the internet. “No one important reads that,” but of course, they all have votes, and we all felt exactly how powerful those numbers are when November rolled around. This is one of the reasons why there is value in keeping track of what is metrically the most popular stuff. We have to keep our eyes open to the fact that our networks are not the world.

Daniel: [When] trying to create a cultural hit, you also said [it needs], “the soft kiss of luck.” What do you mean?

Derek: It’s hard to imagine that the most significant cultural products that we know got lucky, that they weren’t somehow destined to become the hits that we know that they are.

Duncan Watts, this brilliant sociologist, thinks it’s all just a game of mathematical chance [why things succeed]. He’s built these digital worlds where he’ll trigger a network once and it’ll be a dud, and he’ll trigger the exact same network again and it’ll be what he calls a global cascade, a Fifty Shades of Grey, Star Wars-style hit. The entire network lights up.

I want to give the idea that we might be living in an extremely probabilistic world an interesting story, which is hard to do because the roulette wheel of life only spins around once. The story that tells this lesson beautifully is the story of “Rock Around the Clock.” Everybody knows the tune, the beat. It is the second bestselling song of all time.

“Is ‘Rock Around the Clock’ inherently a hit? Or is it inherently a flop? Because technically it was both in consecutive years.”

It came out in 1954 as the B-side to a song called “13 Women” and did quite poorly. It charted on Billboard for one week, which was very disappointing to the label. It sold 75,000 copies, just a tenth of the song that Bill Haley had released a year earlier. It failed.

The next year, by an amazing coincidental happenstance, a nine year-old boy named Peter Ford buys the record. Peter Ford is the son of a Hollywood actor named Glenn Ford, who’s starring in a movie called Blackboard Jungle. The director of this movie goes over to Glenn Ford’s house and says, “I need a jump jive tune to kick off the movie.” They ask Peter Ford, this nine year-old kid, does he have any music lying around that might be able to kick off this movie? He says yes. He hands them a vinyl record with “Rock Around the Clock.” That song becomes the first thing to play in the movie Blackboard Jungle, Blackboard Jungle becomes the 13th biggest movie of 1955, and “Rock Around the Clock” becomes the first rock and roll song that year to hit number one in the Billboard hot 100.

The song that had utterly failed in 1954 suddenly goes from absolute piece of oblivion to one of the biggest cultural asteroids to hit this country in the 20th century. Is “Rock Around the Clock” inherently a hit? Or is it inherently a flop? Because technically it was both in consecutive years.

Daniel: It’s a quantum answer. It’s both and it’s neither.

Derek: Yes, exactly. Stories like this are important to tell, not so much because they give people a clear strategy of what to do, but rather argue for perseverance. Sometimes people talk about luck as if it’s debilitating, that nothing you do matters because it’s all just about exogenous circumstances. The way that I think about it is, if cultural products are probabilistic, think of it like batting. Even the best batters, there’s a 30% chance they get a hit in every one at bat—the key is to give yourself as many at bats as possible. In fact, there is an antidote to luck, in terms of personal efforts. It’s perseverance. It’s the only answer. Nothing is guaranteed, and you have to keep giving yourself at bats. Enormous cultural moments can hang by fragile cosmic threads, like a nine year-old boy in California.

Daniel: Roll the dice more, pick another card, shoot another free throw. I’m with you, because the bigger point here is not so much luck, which is fraught with meaning, but that it’s built on probabilities. Anything built on probabilities, the more bites you take, the more likely you are to get what you want.

“There’s no point in joining a dating app that only has one person on it. It only becomes useful when you get a thousand people. The question is, how do you get from one person to a thousand instantly if it’s not going to be useful to any of those 900 people in the interim?”

Derek: A third lesson is that sometimes people say, “It can’t just be about finding the biggest broadcasters, because some of those broadcasters might not be right for my product. It’s about the fit between the content, the distributor, and the audience.” When you’re making something, don’t just think about the people that you’re selling it to. If you want them to pass it along, you have to empower them as producers, as broadcasters, so that they’ll get something out of sharing it with their audience. Then that group of people will get something out of sharing it with their audience. Don’t just think about your consumers, think about the consumers of your consumers. Some technology companies have utilized this idea—if it’s difficult to make an idea go viral, then how do I begin to get a critical mass of people on a product?

With a dating app, for example. There’s no point in joining a dating app that only has one person on it. That’s a useless product. It only becomes useful when you get a thousand people. The question is, how do you get from one person to a thousand instantly if it’s not going to be useful to any of those 900 people in the interim? I talked to Whitney Wolfe, the CEO of Bumble. She was the former marketing head at Tinder. She had a really interesting strategy for doing this, piggybacking. She would go to a college campus and say, “I need to get a lot of people on this app all at once.” She would visit a sorority, the most attractive sorority at a southern college campus, and she would say, “I have this dating app. I will give you all gifts if you all get onto this dating app all at once.”

They would do it, and she would go right over to the best looking fraternity at the school and say, “Guys, open up your phones, look. The most beautiful women on campus. Everyone get on this dating app because these are the kind of girls who are getting on it.” With two bowls, she’s gotten all of these pins knocked down. The best looking sorority and the best looking fraternity, which she can now sell to other sororities and fraternities in that network.

When thinking about a new product, you want to think not only about that first sell, but then what’s going to happen when people get your product. What are they going to do with it? How might they share it to create more organic distribution? It’s not going to go viral, but there are still ways to essentially empower that first round of customers.

Daniel: What’s an example of a way to do that? Is that a question of how you design the cultural product itself, you build in design elements that allow it to appeal to the audience of your audience?

Derek: It comes down to the fact that one of the best ways to build a digital network of people is to understand all the non-digital, offline networks of people that are already connected. For example, if you were selling an app to an immigrant community in the Baltimore area, where do they gather? Is there a restaurant that is essentially their hangout, where they all come together? Sell the product there so you can get all of them on it at the same time, talking to each other. That becomes the best way to slingshot your way to growth.

Daniel: You also mention merchandising, or moving across platforms. What do you mean?

Derek: Coming from journalism, where a lot of people are afraid of the business model dying off because of the growth of Facebook and Google, and the internet eating publishing advertising, one of the big questions for media companies right now is “how do I make money if my core product is endangered?” Broadcast television companies are thinking about this. Even movies have recognized that the North American cinema audience has basically flatlined and is not going to grow.

Kay Kamen, a mink hat salesman from the 1930s, sees a Mickey Mouse cartoon and gets this idea. He calls up Walt and Roy Disney and he says, “Your cartoon is really brilliant, but your mouse can be more than a cartoon.”

He goes to Los Angeles and says, “The future of movies actually isn’t in the movie theater. It’s in department stores. The biggest market for your art is in merchandising it.” Kay Kamen has this idea of turning Mickey Mouse into soap, shirts, a Mickey Mouse watch—which becomes the most popular consumer product of 1932. It turns out that this is much bigger than the movie business. Snow White, which comes out in 1937, biggest movie of that year, sold more money in toys in two months than the movie made in its first two years. Kamen teaches Disney that your core product was movies, but your business is in all the various things you can sell around the movie because people love your first product.

To attach this idea to media and journalism, some of the most successful new digital companies, like Buzzfeed and Vice, have realized that the future of their business might not just be in the old model of journalism, chasing advertising. It might be in selling companies the intelligence that “we understand virality, we understand millennials.” Essentially, they’re merchandisers as well. They’re operating from the same Kay Kamen playbook from the 1930s.

Daniel: Or The Atlantic becomes a conference business that happens to have a magazine.

Derek: We are a conference business that happens to have a magazine, but we also have our marketing business. We still make most of our money from adjacent advertising sales, but it’s the same principal. The magazine doesn’t just have to live in its initial medium on the pulp. It can live equally well in pixels, on stages, and through our marketing arm.

Daniel: The lesson for creators would be, “where else can the idea live?” Or “think across platforms?”

Derek: It would be your first business isn’t your last business. Understand that the way that you get into a market might be the way to build that first audience, but the way to sustain the company is in discovering auxiliary markets to sell into. The very definition of capitalism, as creative destruction, means that your first business is almost certainly going to be endangered, become super competitive, or die. As a result, you constantly have to be thinking about new businesses to sell into.