The 7 C's of Internet Popularity, Part 2: Celebrities

Cara Bowles    By under Brand Messaging.

In my last post, I kicked off a 7 part series to examine 7 of the most influential factors on internet popularity. The series was inspired by my post on The Novelty Bubble, a term I coined to describe the confluence of brain quirks and algorithms that limit our view of the world to that which is shocking, controversial, awe-inspiring, counterintuitive, and novel, often at the expense of accuracy.

Playing into this is the rise of celebrity culture on the internet. Both stories about celebrities and content shared by celebrities play a vital part in what becomes popular on the internet, and if you fail to understand how this celebrity culture works, you will, in all likelihood, fail to reach a large audience with your content.

Let's take a look.

The Internet Didn't End Gatekeeping, it Just Replaced the Gatekeepers


I have a confession to make. I slightly misrepresented how information spreads across the internet in my initial post on the Novelty Bubble. Here is what I told you:

"With the rise of social media, we've traded in our gate keepers for the voice of the people. The benefits of that are obvious: more diversity of thought, less control over the distribution of information by a small minority, more widely available marketing for smaller businesses, and so on. But the trade-off is a decrease in accuracy."

Almost everything here is something I do still believe, but I slipped up, and I should have known better, because I've talked about this issue before.

See, the internet hasn't really gotten rid of gatekeeping. According to a study by Sharad Goel, information doesn't spread through social networks via "the 6 degrees of separation" which themselves appear to be a myth anyway. A more realistic target to shoot for? A 20% lift on your initial audience.

In a more resent study, Goel and his team analyzed 1 billion Twitter events and found none that could be described as "viral" in the way that we typically think of it. By this, I mean that none of them had a viral coefficient higher than 1. The viral component of a message was important, but the correlation between virality and actual popularity was relatively low:

virality and popularity graph

The truly amazing thing is that, while videos and pictures are more popular than anything else, they're actually the least viral and, in fact, pictures show a negative correlation between virality and actual popularity. And from the paper:

"For images and vidoes, for example, even the very largest cascades, comprising 10,000 reposts or more, exhibit median structural virality of less than 3, barely more than the theoretical minimum of 2... for the largest observed news cascades, comprising 3,000 reposts, median structural virality is still less than 8, [equivalent to a branching tree of 3 or 4 generations]"

If you're curious, structural virality here refers to the average number of nodes separating any two tweeters involved with the tweet.

In short, while sharing between peers plays an important part in elevating the reach of content, popularity has more to do with popular tweeters than popular tweets.

And who were these influential nodes in the network? In attempting to explain the especially low correlation for videos and images, the paper notes:

"...that the vast majority of the most popular Twitter accounts belong not to news organizations or petition sites, but to celebrities, whose postings often contain images and videos."

The Strategic Implications, AKA: "It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know..." Or Is It?

The reality of how information spreads through the internet challenges many of the democratic beliefs we have about its possibilities. Does the incredibly disproportionate influence of celebrities and personalities mean you need to be part of an "old boy's club" in order to reach a sizable audience?

Not necessarily. First and foremost, it's important to acknowledge how many celebrities, or at least "microcelebrities," exist entirely because of the internet. These people may be the gatekeepers when it comes to which information goes "viral," but there weren't any gatekeepers preventing them from getting where they are now.

As Goel's first study demonstrates, it's reasonable to aim for content that boosts your initial audience by 20%. If you can keep that up, and more importantly, retain your existing audience each time, it is possible to achieve exponential growth. The important thing to realize is that this growth comes as a result of incremental expansion with each publication, not one epic viral success. That makes audience retention the most important factor for this kind of growth, something that is lost on the majority of people trying to earn attention through social sharing.

Where such epic successes with a single piece of content do occur, celebrities of some kind are always going to be involved.

Now, does this mean that you need to pal up with internet celebrities if you want a piece of content to bring in more visitors than you typically do? Well...yes and no.

Ultimately, for a post to bring in outlier levels of reach, you're going to need influential people on the web to see it. But there are multiple strategies and tactics for making that happen:

  • Becoming friends or acquaintances with them, yes. This is certainly fruitful, although doomed to failure if your motives are completely self-serving.
  • Working on a mutually beneficial project.
  • Creating content with specific celebrities in mind, and sometimes following up with them afterward, or during the process of creation.
  • Quoting the work of celebrities in your content, particularly if you include those who often share content that mentions them.
  • Inviting controversy (more on that in a later post) by taking the opposing stance of a celebrity.
  • Hiring a celebrity (or microcelebrity) for work on a project, a piece of content, your site, etc. Obviously, obey FTC laws and, if you care about search engine rankings (we certainly do!), Google guidelines when doing any project like this. Bear in mind that paid celebrity work doesn't have to come in the form of a traditional "endorsement" or advertisement. It can result in a more tangible product or piece of content.
  • Doing any of the above with close friends of celebrities.
  • Creating content that does well enough in a certain community that it gets picked up by the celebrities within that community.

Celebrities play a crucial role in internet popularity. Ignore them at your own peril.

Read more in this series:

The Novelty Bubble.

The 7 C's, Part 1, Conspiracy Theories.

The 7 C's, Part 3, Comedy.