School of Information Studies (iSchool) Assistant Professor Jeff Hemsley has been studying virality for years. He’s come to understand some of the qualities about the kind of content that captures the attention of social media audiences and causes them to repost and spread it repeatedly, sometimes many thousands of times over.

The essence of virality on social media platforms was the subject Hemsley addressed at the first “Research in Progress” talk of the 2018-19 year at the iSchool. The presentations are hosted by the School’s Center for Computational and Data Sciences (CCDS), where Hemsley is an affiliate researcher.

The focus of his current research, Hemsley told the gathering, is looking at whether content spreads on niche social media sites the same way, or in different ways, than it does on mainstream social communication platforms.

For content to become viral, Hemsley first explained, “it has to be interesting or funny or make people feel emotion. Things that are angry get spread a lot,” he observed, noting the high levels of virality typical of social communication on the topic of climate change experiences.

Why is virality worth studying? The spread of social messages can have tangible social and institutional impact, said Hemsley, who authored a book on the subject (Going Viral, 2013, with Karine Nahon.) “As viral events spread in our social networks, they can affect organizations, individuals and institutions. That [impact] can change the structure of our social networks. And as viral events spread and actually change the social network structures, you can make the argument that those network structures affect our social structures—as in power relationships, class, norms and culturally related things—and that can change social structures.”

Three Questions

Hemsley’s current research looks at how viral content phenomena occur, or don’t occur, in the same ways or in different ways on niche social media sites, versus how that happens on the larger, more well-known social platforms. “I suspect that if we study virality on other kinds of sites, we can begin to disentangle virality as a byproduct of fundamental human behavior [versus] what is a byproduct of the platforms,” he told the audience.

He is currently investigating that question using a niche website that is a forum popular with graphic designers, Dribbble. It uses a sports-metaphor theme and is called a “show and tell for designers.” Hemsley said he is hoping to answer three questions: “Are the same factors that drive viral events on Twitter present and working in the same ways on Dribbble? Can we computationally detect changes in players’ work that might indicate diffusion? Do players think about virality when using Dribbble?”

Gatekeeper Role

While social media is a democratic communication medium offering level access to nearly everyone, content spreads much further and becomes much more viral if “social gatekeepers” become involved in repeating the content, Hemsley’s studies show. Traditionally, those acting as gatekeepers on social streams are people in the media, such as editors, he said. However, other players can act in that capacity. “Gatekeepers don’t have to be the New York Times. They could be the top 10 percent of Twitter users,” he explained. They also don’t even have to be human; the gatekeeper social communication role can also be fulfilled “by the algorithms that shape what we see on the sites we’re on.”

Context is Key

Importantly, virality also happens within a context, Hemsley said. He illustrated that aspect by referencing the pace of news and inquiry that spread when former presidential candidate John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate. With that announcement, Hemsley said, “Any content about Sarah Palin would go viral. But now, Sarah Palin is much less socially relevant, so some things that would have gone viral then, nobody will notice now. Things have to be contextually relevant at a given time to result in virality.”

Social Structure Impact

Discussing subject interviews Hemsley conducted in live-subject research, he said results showed that viral events happening in Dribbble do occur much the same as viral events happens on the mainstream social site Twitter. He said that in both instances, virality can be driven by both on-site and off-site events. His research showed that Dribbble users say they use the site primarily to gain “inspiration” for their own graphic designs. Users also saved inspiring artwork they had seen into content buckets to tap for future inspiration for their own work, he reported.

CCDS will continue the series of talks throughout the remainder of the year. The series is designed to showcase research that iSchool faculty and students have in process.