February 3, 2014

The Math Behind Virality

Few mainstream journalists can swim so well and so deep in the economics of and on the web as Felix Salmon. In his latest piece, Salmon tries to decipher a recent chart on The Atlantic which shows that Upworthy gets the most Facebook likes and Twitter shares per article, leaving the second place way, way behind.

He presents a formula he calls the mathematics of virality”:

You can see that a relatively small tweak to the variables in the S·F·C formula can make a very big difference to your total pageviews. Pretty soon you can double your initial pageviews, or treble them — and, then, when S·F·C exceeds 1, you achieve escape velocity: your article just keeps getting shared more and more and more. Getting S·F·C > 1, then, is the goal of all would-be viral content, and it’s by no means impossible: if 5% of an article’s readers share it, and those readers have 200 friends each, and 25% of people who see the headline click on it — well in that case, S·F·C is a whopping 2.5, or 250%.

The emphasis above are mine, and I urge you as a reader of these lines to think about your ever-growing role in the success of your favorite independent writer, podcaster, or musician. And if the anti-linkbaiter in you starts to wonder whether Salmon has gone social-media-guru, wait until his conclusion.

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