If you work on the Internet of things, your goal is for your thing to go "viral"—quite literally have content spread like the flu, overtaking the world for a brief window of time so everyone will share it with everyone else and you’ll get, in Internet time, your 15 milliseconds of fame.
But it’s a mysterious thing, virality. Marketers, entrepreneurs, and scientists alike study the phenomenon, trying to reproduce the results of previous gangbusters and figure out why, exactly, bored humans on the Internet share one thing more than another. Yet no one’s really been able to nail it down.
One of the most famous cases of viral content is "The Dress." I assume I don’t need to describe it, but I will: a photo of a blue and black dress appeared to be white and gold, depending on a variety of factors affecting an individual’s eyes at any given moment (the above mashup has been modified). Some people saw blue and black, some people saw white and gold, and everyone on Earth talked about and shared it.
Since this simple dress broke the Internet more than any Kardashian ever could, it prompted attention from Devin Gaffney, a Ph.D. in network science at Northeastern University, who happened to be speaking at SXSW’s Beyond the Listicle: The Science of Virality panel this past week. After exhaustive research analyzing such primal human emotions as curiosity, visual stimulus, universal appeal, and so on, Gaffney was able to discover the true reason #TheDress became an instant worldwide hit:
The story goes: the original photo was posted to Tumblr and received very little attention despite being a prime candidate for virality. For 24 hours the photo received almost no response from the original poster's followers—until a friend of the OP saw the photo and shared it with their followers. At which point it exploded in supernova fashion.
Gaffney believes that The Dress would have, per its unique interest, gone viral eventually anyway. But the worldwide and virtually instant popularity was unheard of, and this early sharer became a "patient zero" of sorts.
Tracing the spread of the photo, Gaffney discovered that patient zero was a member of a popular online Paramore fan club, whose members lived all over the world, as only a popular band’s fan club could. Patient zero had no remarkable follower base to speak of, yet this one select group had such an Earth-encircling reach that they planted the content on every corner of the planet immediately. Then, given the content’s inherent interest, it exploded.
…It was an interesting anecdote that elicited laughter from the full ballroom. Then there was an awkward silence, as those in attendance tried to figure out what to make of it. How could the assembled writers and researchers use this information to their advantage moving forward?
Gaffney said, “So that’s it then—want to go viral? Target Paramore fans.”