“Going viral” is a term uniquely suited for the internet. Granted, the term comes from natural, real world viral outbreaks. It also doesn’t really explain anything different from fads, trends, and other terms used to describe popular ideas and contents being shared by many people. Still, when you hear the term “going viral”, you know what world we’re talking about.

Unfortunately, that’s usually all you concretely know about the term: the what. In some ways, the more important thing is the “how” if you believe that viral content can help you. Quite often, the individuals who create viral content do so by accident or luck. The process of making viral content is shrouded in mysterious for many people. Most unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Problems With “Going Viral”

The idea of “going viral” is problematic. When we see viral content (especially content that is logically pointless in substance), we believe that this process of “going viral” must be easy. After all, if random cat videos can get millions of hits on Youtube, why can’t I achieve the same level of success? The problem is, experiencing viral success the natural way requires the right circumstances and a good deal of luck.

Back in 2013, Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that the hype of viral content often blinds people to the basics. Regarding viral videos, Dr. Berger argues that a new understand of viral content (what he calls “viral 2.0”) is needed when it comes to business. Essentially, Berger explains that having a viral video alone isn’t enough for success in the business world. Business success requires more than just online content, and any viral component must be directly related to the business/brand in a way that produces shares rather than likes.

Dr. Berger’s idea of “viral 2.0” is an idea that holds the promise of a better understanding of viral content. Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t seem likely in today’s current climate created by “SEO experts”, “social media influencers”, and other internet gurus that promise the secrets of viral success for just the low, low price of whatever you are willing to pay. Knowledge has become an expensive commodity, and like with many things, you aren’t always paying for a quality product.

Viral Research Within The Ivory Tower

I obviously have a biased view on the subject since I come from an academic background, but in my experience, I know that academic research has a lot to contribute in the real world. I also know that the walls of the so called “Ivory Tower” can be thick at times. Once more, I also know that academics and internet users often speak different languages. As a result, there is a disconnect that exists between academic viral research and the practice of making viral content.

The bounty of academic research on viral content is plentiful. Since becoming a mainstream means of communication, the internet has been an academic phenomenon for many researchers. Within communication research alone (my background), many researchers have noticed that the different forms of digital communication (i.e. social media, email, text message, etc) have literally changed the content and substance of our communication. Viral content has been no exception.

Unfortunately, this line of research has also encountered the barriers of the Ivory Tower. Research is most often published in academic journals that go unnoticed by the masses. A typical research article might have an audience of a few hundred at best. What’s more, the vocabulary in the average research article often requires a specialized degree in the field to understand. In short, modern academics all across the board has an outreach problem.

What Viral Research Has To Offer

Understanding the mechanics of viral content can be tackled in any number of ways. Right now, the internet is cluttered with the “internet guru” mentality where people often label themselves as experts and share their wisdom with the masses. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and there is certainly a degree of useful information to be gained, but the issue of credibility and accuracy often takes a back seat to building a following.

Academic research takes a different approach to reaching the same sort of understanding. Credibility and accuracy take center stage in the form of peer review publishing, repeatable experimentation, and building on/improving the works of others. The scientific method offers a structured approach to understanding the mysteries of this world. Unfortunately, we have to overcome the barriers I discussed above.

Breaking Through The Walls

The simple yet complicated solution to this disconnect between viral content researchers and digital content makers is to close the gap. This is a common argument found in many academic circles: research ought to be published in more accessibe ways. Create work that is in a language that doesn’t require a graduate degree to understand. Publish work in commonly accessible locations instead of research journals that charge a fortune to access.

Many academics often bring up valid critiques and concerns to this line of thinking. For one thing, research journals enforce a higher standard of credibility through peer review practices. As for the language issue, there is something to be said for using a specialized vocabulary: it makes talking about the subject a lot easier.

I’d like to think that common ground can be found. Even if there isn’t, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of research in the first place. Understanding the inner workings of viral content is one thing, but it’s kind of useless if no one can take advantage of that knowledge. So breaking through the ivory tower’s walls requires active scholarship: taking the findings from the lab or classroom and letting them loose into the real world.

Take Dr. Berger’s work as an example. The distinguished professor from Pennsylvania has studied the viral nature of content: specifically what makes something more likely to be shared. In addition to publishing in traditional academic journals, he’s written a best selling book and regularly communicates and writes on sites such as the Huffington Post and Forbes. Essentially, he is taking the initiative to bring his work out to the people that can put it to use.

This leads me to the second half of the equation. Content makers and digital practitioners have to escape this “guru” fad that often fails to deliver what is promised. Viral content is mysterious enough. Having self-proclaimed gurus offer the secrets of success isn’t helping. People wanting to create virally successful content need to take the reigns in judging the quality of information, and in the scope of this article, becoming engaged scholars of viral research themselves. Once everyone has a different outlook on viral content and success, this gap between science and the real world will be a little smaller.