A fascinating story in the New York Times reports that while it s generally thought that bad news is more popular in traditional media, “if it bleeds, it leads,” the opposite is the case in social media. The finding is based on a study of which Times stories have been e-mailed by readers.
One of his first findings to be reported — which I still consider the most important social-science discovery of the past century — was that articles and columns in the Science section were much more likely to make the list than nonscience articles. He found that science aroused feelings of awe and made Times readers want to share this positive emotion with others.
Readers also tended to share articles that were exciting or funny, or that inspired negative emotions like anger or anxiety, but not articles that left them merely sad. They needed to be aroused one way or the other, and they preferred good news to bad. The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared, as Dr. Berger explains in his new book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.”
“Stories about newcomers falling in love with New York City,” he writes, were more likely to be e-mailed than “pieces that detailed things like the death of a popular zookeeper.” Debbie Downer is apparently no match for Polly Positive, at least among Times readers.
In particular, people were more likely to e-mail articles that on scans lit up the portion of the brain that dealt with thinking about others.
Personally, I find this fascinating because I find it so frustrating that whenever I talk to a reporter about access to justice I try to interest them in the exciting access innovations that so many of us are working on, and then find that the article ends up focusing only on the crisis of the lack of lawyers. Maybe if writers take the message that readers want to share good news about things like access innovations, we will have an easier time spreading the word about our work.
In any event, these findings do underline the value of our telling a positive story that is then more likely to be shared.
Less encouragingly, the article also reports on studies suggesting that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook tend to get depressed because everyone else seems to have better lives than they. So maybe telling about innovations might depress people who feel inadequate by comparison — perhaps the solution is to indicate how people can plug into these developments — action over passivity.