At what point, under what conditions, does an idea’s spread take on a life of its own?
(And, is it really worth anything much to have an idea/brand snowball, or is it just the proverbial snowball in hell?)

Online marketing, ever since the rise of social media networks, has been looking for messages that would go viral; blogging seems all about the greatness of content, as measured by number of readers, likes, and shares; photoquotes are obviously the way to go on Facebook, for they get liked and shared…

You must see this!” has become the currency of the social media realm – and it may well not be worth anything much. Not even out of a disdain for succinct statements or because of worries about shortening attention spans…

No, what hardly anyone seems to notice, blinded by the bright light of much-liked content, is the way in which likes and re-shares feed on themselves. They draw some elements to prominence based on mere number games and feedback loops – but hardly say anything about how good a content really is.
Rather, they speak to how well a content suits our psychology and is suited to prominence achieved through these same number games and feedback loops.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: "Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not."

And then, there’s that. (And yes, it’s a photoquote found on Facebook.)

You might have the greatest work ever, the idea that would change the world – but if no one sees it, it’s not there.

As Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, wrote in “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996),

“[Vincent Van Gogh’s] creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art. … Without such a response, van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.”

No disagreement with the link between visibility or popularity and “greatness” there. (But it’s worth considering that many a great artist wasn’t exactly successful, or even considered great, in his own lifetime. Don’t fall for the stereotype of the misunderstood genius, though; some were great marketers and self-promoters and managed to do more than well.)

The opposite, however, does not apply.

Example Network of Twitter Followers

Example Network of Twitter Followers, by Simon Cockell, Flickr

When a person with a million followers, some of them pretty ardent ones, shares something online, even if only 10% of them get to see that update (as it’s wont to get lost in the flood of updates on Twitter, may not even be shown if there hadn’t been enough interaction with the respective page on Facebook, etc.), and only 10% of those people like and share it, chances are that so many people will get to see it eventually, and some of them continue to like and/or share it, and more see how many have liked/shared it and feel compelled to also do so… It all becomes self-supporting.

Network theory can calculate some of that, and it finds the “seed groups” of viral content that work like the “patient zero” to an epidemic: Once/if they share it, it’s probably going to spread. Epidemiology has been mined for formulas. Similar trends as those that pertain to nuclear fission fizzling out or going critical, and nuclear isotopes decaying over time, may well apply.

Google Trends graph for Gangnam Style and "What's your excuse," Jan 2012-Nov 2013. The latter not shown because of too few searches (compared to the former), but check here

Google Trends graph for Gangnam Style and “What’s your excuse,” Jan 2012-Nov 2013. The latter not shown because of too few searches (compared to the former), but check here

In the fanfare over the understanding and potential opportunity that knowledge offers, no one asks whether it’s actually worth anything.

And thus, social media is a hell; hardly any post stands a chance of surviving it.
When a post turns into an avalanche, though, it can accrue “matter” so quickly as to freeze all over – and it’s not necessarily going to be because it’s really great, has any chance of standing the test of time or provides any true and lasting value. It’s going to be because it spoke to something, at once, that was enough for the reader/viewer to move that cursor over “like” or “share” and tell others to go see that.

As Henry Farrell writes in his take-down of the most prominent of “The Tech Intellectuals:”

Certainly, it is easier to find obscure books or bands than it used to be. But most people don’t want to find obscure things—they want to focus their attention on what everyone else is paying attention to. Those who are already rich in attention are likely to get richer, while the long tail still trails off into darkness and obscurity.

How much easier – and you’re welcome to call me a snob for saying so, but it’s the plain truth – to get attention that begets more attention for a Gangnam Style video or a personal development guru’s latest stroke of quick-fixes rather than for, well, plain truth and the things that would really give us a chance of living better, making ourselves more deeply at home in this world – if only we were willing to give it the effort required.

Which is all to say, Don’t worry so much about any measure of popularity, whether as creator or as ‘consumer’. Rather, look to create and market to your appropriate audience, and be successful enough with them; and ‘consume’ not what everyone is claiming to be so great, but look widely and deeply. And don’t forget to think for yourself, giving it time.

It won’t make you rich, though. In fact, it probably won’t even make you a living. Which is, of course, a challenge for its continuation… but, that’s the challenge of life.