What Makes a New York Times Article Go Viral?

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Diamond headlined “What Makes a Times Article Go Viral?”:

It started as a typical Tuesday for Amanda Hess, a critic at large at The New York Times. At 10 a.m., an article she had written was published on The Times’s website. But a few hours later, while she was filing her taxes, she received a surprising Slack message from her editor. “You’re the most read thing on the site,” her editor wrote. By 10 p.m., the article was getting thousands of views per minute.

Two days later, her editor messaged again: “I feel like it’s only gaining momentum.”

Ms. Hess does not track page views. She does not fixate on metrics. She rarely checks her Twitter mentions. In general, she says, thinking about page views — or lack of them — “would be paralyzing and I wouldn’t be able to write anything.” Yet as her article traversed the internet, she couldn’t help but notice the buzz….

The article, a profile of the singer Sinead O’Connor, amassed millions of page views in its first week of publication. It was Ms. Hess’s largest digital audience in her five-year career at The Times — today, nearly a year after it was published, it still is.

Maybe it was Ms. O’Connor’s global reach, or the novelty of her participation in the article’s comments section. Whatever the reason, in its first week of publication Ms. Hess’s story joined a cast of other viral Times articles such as “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and “The American Abyss.” Those articles vary in topic, and only one had a celebrity at the center — so what was the “it” factor that caused them all to go viral, and what does going viral even really mean?

According to Anna Dubenko, The Times’s deputy audience director, viral Times articles see significant traffic across social media platforms, from web searches and even via the home screen. They are widely shared by readers, and it’s likely that subscribers will “gift share” the article, meaning they unlock it from behind the paywall to send to family and friends.

But what makes an article something people want to click on, “gift share” or post about on social media? Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has been after an answer to that question for years. He became curious about why content goes viral while studying rumors and urban legends at Stanford University in the late 1990s. Years later, he realized he could apply knowledge about decades-old human behavior to our digital sharing habits. “People have been sharing things for thousands of years,” he said. The psychology of why we share content and what makes it engaging, he said, hasn’t completely changed.

In a 2012 study, Dr. Berger and his colleagues analyzed over 7,000 Times articles to understand sharing behavior. They found that articles evoking high-arousal emotions like awe, anger, surprise and anxiety were more likely to go viral. (Ms. Hess’s article certainly sparked surprise; “Bad Art Friend” might have triggered anger, and “Languishing,” perhaps, sparked feelings of relief.) Articles evoking low-arousal emotions like sadness or contentment were less likely to be shared.

Dr. Berger said we also share things “because they say something about us.” Sharing, he says, is a form of social currency.

In another set of studies, Christin Scholz, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam studying social interactions, and her colleagues found that the value centers in the brain that respond to physical rewards, like chocolate and money, are the same regions that are involved when we make decisions about sharing information.

In 2017, the researchers used neuroimaging technology to scan 80 people’s brains as they read and listened to headlines and summaries of Times health articles. Based on the areas of activation, the researchers were able to accurately predict which stories would be shared most frequently. Their data shed light on one of the core functions of sharing — to strengthen our social bonds. In 2019, they extended the study and found that people who didn’t often read the news were actually better predictors of real-world sharing outcomes, perhaps an indicator that an article with a broader appeal is more likely to go viral.

Dr. Scholz and Dr. Berger are among many scientists in the field exploring the gap between content sharing and deep engagement (the “share versus read” gap, as Dr. Scholz calls it). Dr. Berger hopes that by studying this discrepancy, he can encourage the spread of healthy information.

Though viral articles are not a goal at The Times, Ms. Dubenko said, they can indicate how well The Times is achieving its goals of producing journalism that is well-read, has impact and “delights our readers.” Ultimately, the audience team cares more that readers are able to find and engage with all sorts of Times journalism, and not just the biggest hits. The newsroom is “data informed, not data driven.”

Though Ms. Hess appreciates that a widely shared article means stories can reach people who don’t regularly read The Times, going viral is not her goal, either. When one of her articles causes a frenzy online, her focus remains on writing her next article.

She says she feels lucky that people read and understood the meaning of the profile of Ms. O’Connor. “But if not that many people had read it,” she said, “I still would have been happy with the story.”

Sarah Diamond manages production for narrated articles. She previously worked at National Geographic Studios.

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