February 11, 2010

What stories do people want to share? The most awesome of course

Do people prefer to share the good or the bad? Would you rather gossip online or spread stuff that leaves your friends, peers and social networks awestruck?

These are some of the questions the New York Times pondered amid a research project carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

The academics studied the paper’s list of most emailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months. They analysed the content of thousands of articles, using filters such as deliberate placement in the paper or on the home page to ascertain a true measure of what makes a newspaper article viral.

The findings are could be best described in one word: ‘awesome’. In short, the impulse that drives someone to share an article with someone else is much the same as the science behind the most popular and shared online videos.

The project revealed that people preferred emailing articles with positive rather than negative themes, and they would rather send long articles on intellectually challenging topics than short news stories.

What’s more, NYT readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, which was reflected in the popularity of science articles. More emotional articles were also more likely to shared.

But what makes a news article inspire awe exactly? The researchers defined the quality as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.”

They also set two separate criteria for defining the parameters of an awe-inspiring story: “Its scale is large, and it requires ‘mental accommodation’ by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way. It involves the opening and broadening of the mind.”

You can read more on the subject here. As a quick aside, I came across the article behind this blog post through the New York Times iPhone app, which IMHO is pretty awesome. By far, the best newspaper app I’ve used yet.