Cracking the Viral Code

Ask any purveyor of content and they will tell you that there is no formula for “going viral.” Scott Galloway, a Clinical Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business and the founder of the L2 Think Tank, has been studying the viral phenomenon for years.


In the latest installment of Big Think’s Edge, Galloway shares his insights for making content that creates conversations.

Traditional Media vs. New Media

While there are no hard rules, it’s safe to rely on the principle of timing. Stories spread the fastest when they’re tapping into the zeitgeist. Social commentary on the big news stories of the day reliably travel far, according to Galloway. The content must provide surprising insights. He explains: “Where it’s a bit different than what traditional media tends to find popular, something that is raw, authentic, and not produced.”

Tap into Social Controversy

The web is full of conversations—make sure that your content brings something interesting to the discussion. Galloway shares a personal example: an email exchange with a student who didn’t agree with his late policy that led to the student being kicked out of class for not showing up on time. The exchange went viral after Galloway shared it with his class, as an indelible reminder of his late policy. This tapped into the larger discussion of the rising price of education. As he explains in the video below, Galloway added to an important discussion.

There is No Code

Ultimately, there is no code. But by understanding what has gone viral through the case studies Galloway presents in the latest installment of Big Think’s Edge, you can start to develop your sense for tapping into the conversations the world wants.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.