Going viral: Here’s what makes people share popular posts on social media

PHILADELPHIA — Whether you’re a tweeter or a TikToker, a simple check on your favorite social media can have you scrolling through the app for hours. In fact, the average person spends about three hours a day on social media. Now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania may be able to explain why people love to share all types of posts.

According to the study findings, what drives people to read and then share a post with people they know comes down to a principle called value-based virality. In other words, people share posts and other information they feel is relevant to themselves or their followers.

People go on social media for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s to stay up to date on what their favorite celebrity is doing, stay connected with family and friends, or read updates on how to stay safe from a new COVID-19 variant. The team says their findings could help to better formulate public messaging for important causes such as facts about climate change or vaccine-busting myths.

“Sharing information is a critical component of individual and collective action,” says Danielle Cosme, PhD, in a university release. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we needed to quickly spread accurate information about what was going on, how to protect ourselves, how to protect each other. Information spreading within social networks can be really impactful for changing our individual behavior, and also changing our collective behavior through shifting our perceptions of what’s normative.”

Relevancy leads to more shares

The research team studied the behavior of over 3,000 individuals on social media and their frequency of sharing posts. The participants viewed several article headlines and social media posts on health, climate change, voting, and COVID-19. Each participant completed a survey rating how likely they were to share any of the messages and how relevant they found the posts to themselves and people they know.

Regardless of the topic, people were more likely to share posts and messages if they believed it was relevant to themselves or others. When researchers asked people to explain why a message was relevant to themselves or people they know, they were more likely to share the post right after.

The findings could help social media marketers create messages people are more likely to share within their network. One way is to write a personal or socially relevant message without compromising the key message. Dr. Cosme and her team have developed templates people can use to shape their messaging.

“We developed message frames that could be paired with existing news and social media posts,” says Emily Falk, the study’s senior author. “This means that the same prompts that worked in this study could be tested easily in other contexts as well.”

Sharing posts is a treat for the brain

The next step in their research is looking at brain activity when people share social media posts. According to previous work, one reason people pay attention to and share posts they find meaningful is because when you share information with others, it activates the brain’s reward areas. By using fMRI scanners, the team will better understand how the brain perceives self and social relevance.

“This study highlights key psychological ingredients that motivate people to share information about topics that impact our wellbeing,” explains Dr. Falk. “Sharing is one key lever for shifting cultural norms and motivating larger scale action, so it’s really important to understand what makes it happen.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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