The first time one of my Facebook friends posted a note listing “25 random things” about her offline self, I was slightly embarrassed for her. Was she lonely? Should I call her? What would compel her to draft a note to 25 of her online friends with a list of facts that ran from highly confessional to simply idiosyncratic?
The “25 random things” list has embodied the social media zeitgeist of late, which is to say, for the past week or so. Like most online cultural phenomena, reactions to the exercise run from disgusted eye rolls to exuberant participation. One friend posted Facebook status updates throughout the week stating defiantly that he would not, under any circumstances, be compiling a list of his own random facts. Roughly four days later, he changed his status to, “I gave in,” and sure enough, he had written a list of his own that was at turns illuminating and captivatingly mundane. It didn’t take me long to join him in posting my own list.
Inevitably, we will all forget the “25 things” list phenomenon by next week. We’ll be back to creating our own Shepard Fairey images on Obamicon or sending breakdance e-cards. Before the moment passes, however, it seems worthwhile to look at the exercise as a salient example of both social and viral media.
Can we pinpoint where the social part ends and the viral part begins? That is to say, at what moment does the exercise move from one that is shared among members of a group to one that carries its own momentum to self-perpetuate and even influence people outside of the immediate group?
If we examine the “25 things” list, we see that built into its structure is a method to turn the list from merely social to significantly viral: tagging. At the top of each “25 things” list is a set of rules:
“Once you have been tagged you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you because they want to know more about you.”
The instructions then tell the user exactly which buttons to use to find and tag people and then publish the new list. Tagging becomes a vehicle to viral because it disseminates content extremely rapidly among a group of 25 people who are all connected to hundreds more online friends beyond the intended audience of the note. While tagging does not guarantee viral success, it does increase the odds. Imagine if 25 people compiled individual lists and then tagged 25 unique friends, and then those 25 friends tagged 25 more? Within minutes, 15,625 people could potentially be exposed to the “25 things” virus.
Regardless of their personal feelings about the general usefulness or value of “25 things” (or even Facebook, for that matter), marketers can learn lessons from this phenomenon. Why did “25 things” become a viral sensation?
- It was simple.
Participants in the “25 things” challenge were handed nothing but a blank canvas and straightforward directions for how to get started.
- It “sold” compelling content.
Online readers are consumers. No, they’re not necessarily clicking on ads or filling shopping carts, but they are consuming information and ideas with alacrity.
- It took advantage of network effects.
As exemplified by my friend who finally “gave in,” the power of the network is in its insidious ability to convince you that you’re missing out on a global activity. “25 things” spread rapidly because its influence grew beyond the individual nodes; it began to affect enough people that it felt somehow rude to shun the invitations to participate.
Of course, it’s difficult to predict the effects of any virus. Some lie dormant for years. Others flare up and then quickly die. While no one can estimate exactly how long or far the “25 things” virus will travel before it runs its course, we can be sure it will leave its mark on the Facebook community