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Why going viral is a myth and life still isn't fair

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

Nothing goes viral, really.

Something is either popular or it’s not.

In his first book, “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” Derek Thompson, an editor at The Atlantic, outlines how we landed on the viral myth and what we’re really reacting to when something becomes popular.

“The viral myth is the idea that we want to think that great content is self-distributing,” Thompson told Yahoo Finance.

“But what we know from data science is that almost all information that goes big almost always has a broadcast mechanism. That is to say, stuff doesn’t go big by social shares exclusively. It almost always has a ‘one-to-one million’ moment.”

In lay terms? You get famous by having the biggest platform and the most distribution. What you say or write or sing or act in doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you get the most eyes on it. Justin Bieber is famous because Usher used his stature to develop Bieber, not because Bieber is a great singer or dancer. There’s a reason why talent scouts say they “discovered” a big new actor or singer — they could’ve found anybody.

And so the viral myth really revolves around the tension between the story that is actually playing out and the story we want to tell ourselves. “We want to think that if you make something that’s so beautifully original that if you just drop it into the world it will self distribute,” Thompson said.

“But familiarity is more important than originality, and a distribution plan is more important than the quality of the content.”

The belief that life isn’t fair really revolves around the idea that products that aren’t great, or people who aren’t qualified, or ideas that aren’t good at all, still find ways to become prominent features in the culture. And it is this prominence that is inherently unfair.

But this unfairness is also backed by a sense that if I could only get my chance in the limelight the world would realize how great really am. And, well, depending on what it is you have to offer, Thompson’s book sort of argues for this being true.

All anyone or anything really needs is a big platform and four letters: MAYA.


Raymond Loewy, the 1950s industrial designer, developed a concept that sits at the heart of the book and drives most of Thompson’s overarching thesis: MAYA.

MAYA, which stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,” is an idea that says people want the newest version of something that is still, ultimately, old.

“People love new songs with old chord structures,” Thompson said. “We love new movies that are sequels or adaptations and reboots. We even love articles and television segments that take our interest and advance it a click.”

Which is all to say that we aren’t really looking for new things, just things that trick us into believing we are seeing something new. As one Hollywood producer described to Thompson, “take 25 things that are in any successful genre, and you reverse one of them.”

“My seven word thesis for the book is: Familiarity beats novelty and distribution beats content,” Thompson said.

But even though the familiar and the ubiquitous ultimately trumps the novel and undiscovered, what we still find threading through much of our culture’s most resonant artifacts is something life can’t give us but once: resolution.

“That’s what movies do, that’s what books do,” Thompson said.

“They give us stories that are more complete and more suspenseful and more absolute than real life is… what pop culture gives us is absolution and an understanding of who we are that real life fails to offer so often.”

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland

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