Social media has allowed us to see how stories spread through a population and also how people tend to create little isolation bubbles around themselves that shield them from differing viewpoints and opinions, thus creating a virtual echo chamber in which views are never challenged and only reinforced. There was also the incredibly valid concern of false news where fake stories and misinformation was deliberately spread to further a certain agenda. Social media has entwined itself into the very fabric of our lives and it affects us regardless of which platform you use or even if you use social media at all. For something that has begun to have a pretty significant effect on government, policy, politics, and the very way of living, it definitely pays to take a look back at what really captured the attention of the people at large last year. Turning back the clocks and having perspective and hindsight on our side, there might very well be quite a number of lessons to be learned from this “rewind”.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, this article focuses only on traditional media articles and leaves out videos and political campaigns. News articles and think pieces, magazine articles and political parodies, everything is fair game.
Therefore, in no particular order, let us begin.
MIRACULOUS ALZHEIMER’S CURE
This most definitely takes the cake as the most shared post on all social media. Science Alert, a popular Scientific news website, posted this article about new research that led to significant improvements in dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and researchers are hopeful that this will be suitable for humans very soon. The new treatment resulted in a 75% success rate in an experiment done on mice and is completely non-invasive, that is, no surgery is required. Needless to say, this particular post sits at the top of our list, with more than 5 million social media engagements.
THE TEST FOR OCD
Social media interaction and cross platform linking and sharing saw sustained highs in 2016. A prime example of this would be the OCD test quiz that went viral on Facebook. Purporting to show you if you are indeed OCD, in the pop culture sense and not as an accurate medical diagnosis, this quiz was widely shared over social media to the tune of almost 3.5 million engagements. This incident was following a pretty noticeable trend: quizzes are shared widely and are great for popularity.
THE 100 INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES POST
2016 was a difficult year, no doubt about that. With plenty of negative news, toxic political campaigns, terrorist attacks, and the demise of some very well-known people, it is hardly surprising that this Lifehack post featuring one hundred inspirational quotes on the “wisdom of life”, superimposed on impressive and professionally shot pictures, garnered over 3 million social media engagements. People need help in dark times and this offered just that.
THE POST THAT LED TO SIBLING FIGHTS
A German research study found out that first born children had significantly higher IQs than their younger siblings if any. While this fairly incendiary conclusion probably started a few lunch room fights, the benefit comes from experience dealing with a younger person and teaching them things rather than genetics or any fancy new discovery.
CONDEMNING DONALD TRUMP
Enough virtual ink has been spilled over the rise and the phenomenon that is Donald Trump that can probably be used to fill the virtual oceans of the virtual Earth. Donald Trump is divisive, to say the least. Of all the social media posts and opinion pieces published on a subject directly related to him, this open letter on Huffington Post reached the most number of users, at over 2.2 million shares on social media.
CHAMPIONING DONALD TRUMP
Donald Trump won the presidential election on a tidal wave of popularity brought forth by his frank and simple speech lacking rhetoric and the anti-establishment sentiment simmering in the minds of the general American populace. A virtually unknown author blogging on her personal thought voicing her thoughts into the ether resonated with the millions of Trump supporters out there and reached over 1.5 million engagements on social media.
UNCERTAINTY BECAUSE OF TRUMP
The mass hysteria surrounding the 2016 US presidential election coupled with the mass hysteria surrounding Britain deciding to leave the European Union via a popular referendum, otherwise known as Brexit, led to a global environment of total uncertainty about how the political landscape of the West might look a year down the line, maybe even a few months. A Medium post turned to history for advice and ended up garnering over a million shares on social media.
A PRESCIENT FILMMAKER
Michael Moore is known for award winning documentaries, most famously Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. The director penned an oddly prescient article about how Donald Trump will actually win the US presidential elections. The authorship of a famous documentary filmmaker notwithstanding, the article was in the listicle format popularized by Buzzfeed and was in sync with the zeitgeist, gathering over a million shares.
While the election campaign was quite underway in the US, the rest of the world was witnessing the rise of strong right wing personality cults increasing in popularity and winning elections, not very unlike the rise of the Nazi Party in post-WW-I Germany. This strong opinion piece in the New York Times Opinion Pages addressed this development and reached more than a million people on social media.
This Buzzfeed article talked about a particular story on how Hilary Clinton was alleged to be selling arms to ISIS and the impact of similar false news stories that are designed to spread misinformation and panic.
Pinterest is more than a place to search for wedding décor trends. This post about eating healthy was shared over 2.2 million times on social media. It also represents a general trend about people wanting more and more content on health and fitness, as evidenced by the massive popularity of the post on Alzheimer’s research.
BALD IS MANLY, APPARENTLY
Call it self-validation or genuine shock value, but this post about how scientific research points to baldness in men being perceived as more masculine and sexy (by whom?) was shared over 2.1 million times on social media platforms.
THAT ANCESTRY AD
A misleading video and associated articles on how people found out about their genetic makeup really stirred up a storm of reactions. The video was well made and had a very good and inclusive message overall, even if it was built on foundations that were scientifically shoddy. More than 2 million people were moved by this.
Business Insider posted an article about how intelligent people tend to be unorganized, use frequent obscenities, and are overall undisciplined. While that very well might be the case, many people, most probably unable to successfully differentiate between correlation and causation, immediately revealed in the self-gratification and shared the article over 2 million times.
WOMEN’S BRAINS WORK HARDER
2016 was not a particularly great year for women’s rights or feminism, but many found happiness in this small concession; an article on scientific research pointing to the fact that women might need more sleep because their brains sustain much higher levels of activity was shared just under 2 million times.
THE PINTEREST HEALTH CRAZE PART DEUX
This article about the best exercises for your abdominal muscles was widely shared on Pinterest and Facebook for just under 2 million times, again pointing to the trend that Pinterest is no longer the destination of frustrated brides-to-be.
A RAPE VICTIM RESPONDS
In one of the most disgusting instances of judicial miscarriage, rapist Brock Turner who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster was given six months in jail instead of the maximum penalty of 7 years. His victim penned a letter after the trial was over.
A HEART-WARMING STORY ABOUT CONNECTION
A four-year-old at the aisle of a grocery store says to a fellow shopper “Hi old person! It’s my birthday today.” What follows is one of the most heart-warming stories of 2016. No wonder it was shared over 1.5 million times on social media.
A BREAKTHROUGH ON CANCER
New research on how a chemical derived from Dandelion could rapidly kill cancer cells was greeted with immense enthusiasm on social media; nearly 1.4 million people shared this article.
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
Trends come back, as history has shown. Back catalog music largely outperformed current releases in 2016, culminating in Mozart outselling Beyoncé and Kanye West to clinch the crown of selling the most albums this year, 225 years after his death. Ain’t life grand?
MOZART THE BEST SELLING MUSICAL ARTIST OF 2016
You thought it would be Kanye West or Drake or even Beyoncé, but it is not. Mozart, 225 years after his death, took home that particular crown with the release of “Mozart 225” by Universal Music.
No reason behind this, but over 1.3 million found this article share worthy. It is about an inflatable Irish pub that you can install in your backyard for a party and wind up, literally, after it is done.
Another heart-warming story about how a penguin Braves over 5000 miles of the ocean every year to meet a man who once saved its life went viral this year. And why shouldn’t it?
War always has its consequences, the rules notwithstanding. The plight of the people of Syria was brought to the forefront when it was revealed that an air strike perpetrated by the US air force was off target and instead killed over 60 civilians.
This iconic photo of a 5-year-old Syrian boy identified as OmranDaqneesh reverberated through the internet as the deadly conflict in Syria continues. In what is bound to be one of the most widely shared images of the year, the boy’s blank gaze exemplifies everything that is wrong with war.
With rebel forces driven out of Aleppo, the future of the Syrian conflict hangs in the balance. The loss of the key city and the identifying point of the war for many in the war is now lost.
The lifeless body of 3-year-oldAylanKurdi washed ashore in Turkey; the photograph exploded on social media and mainstream media with the hashtag #HumanityWashedAshore. The picture summed up Europe’s worsening refugee crisis that does not seem to have any end in sight.
2016 saw many celebrity deaths and outpourings of grief but if there was one that affected people widest was the passing of Price. The 57-year-old singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and actor died in Minnesota over the accidental overdose of fentanyl, an opioid painkiller.
Another Business Insider article that went crazy viral on social media was about a Harvard psychologist who said that first impressions, especially in the workplace, were actually not directly related to attire. The crucial factors were trustworthiness and respect-worthiness if you were interested.
THE CEO’S SWAN SONG
Nokia was the biggest phone manufacturer in the world and squandered its advantage during the smartphone age, unable to compete with the iPhones and Androids. After agreeing to be acquired by Microsoft, the entire upper management broke into tears. This LinkedIn article on what came to pass for such a development really resonated with users on social media.
Pokémon Go came out of nowhere and people suddenly found themselves rushing to the streets to catch Pokémon and fight other players. Pokémon Go truly was “the” phenomenon of 2016, and this Observer article on how it got so popular without any marketing whatsoever went equally viral.
A titan of music and someone who connected with entire generations of grateful listeners, the death of David Bowie came as a shock. Thanks to the oddly prescient music video Lazarus that Bowie shot right before his death, the entire event flared up very quickly, crossing international borders.
HOW FAKE NEWS GOES VIRAL
2016 was definitely the year of fake news and as the hullaballoo over the US elections died down, the reasons for the upset floated to the surface. This New York Times article really struck a chord with people who felt angry at the stunning upset of the elections in favor of Donald Trump and was shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media.
WHEN PREDICTIONS ARE NOT PREDICTIONS
This article explaining how Pablo Reyes predicted the election and Harambe and the death of Prince back in 2015 went promptly viral once people let curiosity get the better of them. As it turned out, Mr. Reyes simply used a Facebook feature that can be used to post articles earlier on one’s own timeline by editing the date of the post.
After a 17-year-old silverback gorilla was shot dead after a child fell into its enclosure, Harambe became a worldwide phenomenon. This change.org petition gathered more than half a million signatures to prosecute the mother of the child for negligence and failure to supervise as well as overzealous zoo officials who shot the animal without probable cause.
So what did we learn about what makes a story go viral? There are some key takeaways here that we should keep in mind from a marketing standpoint. Of course, all of these might not be made to order but knowing the effect these have on end users might very well come in handy.
Emotional connect: Stories like Harambe, the child in the grocery store, and even the deaths of Prince and David Bowie went viral simply because people were moved. These were the stories that just showcased fate, outside anyone’s conscious control, thereby elevating them to sacred status. In today’s hyper-marketed hyper-sexualised world, genuine emotion is hard to come by and when it does, people respond.
“Science” stuff: Some of the most popular articles on the year were research articles explained in an easily digestible format. The word “science” or “research”, especially in the title, seems to validate the article immensely.
Opinionated articles: As a backlash to the political correctness we see from the “establishment”, raw opinion had a field day last year. Its most famous example is, of course, US President-elect Donald Trump but some of the most popular articles of 2016 were think-pieces and Op-Ed columns.
Health: Fitness and food are again on the forefront, with people always ready to share them all over social media.