What is social media?
The main idea centers around conversations. It's still traditional communication in the sense of people sharing and exchanging ideas with other people, but the experience is enhanced and even automated at times, through new technologies. No longer are we required to remember our interactions with others. We can simply copy+paste content, or refer back to perfectly documented logs of history. As everything we do begins to shift towards the digital world, we must keep in mind the well-known quote by Marshall McLuhan, that "Medium is the message." The medium through which we receive a message is the most important factor of how we understand it. Imagine Obama's inaugural address only being sent out by email–the effect would not nearly be as riveting or awe-inspiring as hearing and watching it on tv.
Another point to think about in this new age of social media is the change in ownership and trust. Whereas information used to travel in an authoritative, top–to–bottom fashion, we now see the prominence of a more grassroots, bottom–to–top exchange system. The way we found out about products, services, and news used to be from advertisers and broadcasters. Now, we get information from our friends, peers, and others that participate in the online user–generated content creation. This naturally results in a more trustworthy environment where the people talking to you are more "real". We trust something we see or read more when we know who is speaking to us. User-generated content thus puts the power in the hands of the people; we are responsible for the content, and are entitled to "own" whatever we create and share.
Brain Solis & JESS3's The Conversation Prism gives a good comprehensive map of different types of social media networks. As you can see, there's almost a network for everything you could ever imagine.
If that doesn't impress you, here's some other charts from a report titled The Global Online Media Landscape: Identifying Opportunities in a Challenging Market from Nielson that show how prominent social media has become lately. [source]
So with so many types of social media out there, and with the power of content creation in everyone's hands, how does any one blog, video, or person become "popular"?
Social proof is the psychological phenomenon where, in ambiguous social situations, people behave in an imitative way by assuming others around them are better informed. Dr. Robert Cialdini writes in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persausion that "O]ne means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct...We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it" [source] When we extrapolate the idea of social proof to the digital world, we see evidence of this to explain the popularity of the most well-known blogs, videos, articles, etc.
To become popular, you must rack up a high number of votes (digg), authority (Technorati), favorites (YouTube), or subscriptions (blogs). How else does a single uploaded YouTube video become seen by the masses, when "people are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, ten hours of video is uploaded to YouTube." [source] Social proof gives legitimacy and authority to the content. Dan Zarella, self-proclaimed social media and viral marketing scientist, says it well: "We notice, trust, and share things more when we notice that others did it before us." [source]
Internet memes are the phenomena of widespread hyperlinks or digital files of cultural content. This is a term that stems from the term Richard Dawkins coined, "cultural meme" in his book The Selfish Gene, in which he describes "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." [source] Essentially internet memes are those things that have been passed around and shared so much online that they have become part of our pop culture: videos, websites, blogs, and images that when someone mentions, everyone knows exactly what they're talking about.
Which is what it means to go "viral." An internet meme spreads infectiously. It starts conversations, and is brought up in conversations. In this way, a digital phenomenon can influence and effect the physical world. Below are some examples that come to mind:
In order to go viral and continue spreading infectiously, we should think about some key factors:
Ownership: As an internet meme is passed on, can each person then take the original and make it his or her own?
Ex. "Charlie bit my finger" Though this video came out years ago, you can now search for it in YouTube and find hundreds of other user-generated variations and parodies of the beloved little brothers. [source]
Permanence: If I happen to be a late receiver of the content, will I still be able to refer back to it later? Will it still have an online presence, hyperlink, page, at all?
Ex. Chuck Norris jokes. They started years ago, and they're still there. [source] And in fact, there are even iPhone apps made from them. [source]
Strategic Seeding, Reach, & Audience: Is the content being placed in the right media outlets to be seen and then distributed? Does it have the social proof to legitimize the content? How big and how influential is the audience that is receiving the content?
Ex. JK Wedding Entrance video influenced the sales of Chris Brown's "Forever" to the Top 10 list on iTunes, though the song was first released a year ago. [source]
Of course, there are many more considerations and reasons on how something (particularly "bad" or "useless" content) goes viral, but after all, it is a true phenomenon: who can really explain it?
Takeaway: when thinking back to the earlier discussion of social media, we should realize that social media is a key tool and influence on something going viral. It's the ultimate medium for "trustworthy", real-time, instantaneous content sharing.