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Jonah Berger says his goal is nothing less than entirely upending the premise of The Tipping Point, the book that launched both the ongoing trend of big-think pop-science books and Malcolm Gladwell’s career as a famous and well-paid corporate guru. In classes he taught at Wharton, Berger told students that “Fifty percent of The Tipping Point is wrong. My job is to show you which half.” Big talk from a relatively obscure marketing professor.

Contagious, the book Berger released earlier this year, challenges the alleged centrality of the influencer, the idea that there are certain key people who set the agenda of the culture. The lesson absorbed by marketers from The Tipping Point was that if they could convince these influencers (Gladwell categorized them as mavens, connectors, and salesmen) to adopt and promote their products, then those products would “go viral,” with sheep-like regular folks following the tastemakers’ lead.

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Berger, on the other hand, says influencers—“those six hipsters in the East Village”—are not actually that important. “There is no data to show that influentials actually lead things to catch on, that they are more important than a randomly selected group of people,” he says. Rather, it’s the actual content that drives something to go viral. “By focusing so much on the messenger, we’ve neglected a much more obvious driver of sharing: the message,” he writes in Contagious. (This point recalls a classic bit of dialogue from the Whit Stillman movie Barcelona: “But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?” “The text.” “OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.”)

Based on several years of research into various kinds of content, Berger has assembled a set of criteria that he says truly explain why some things go viral: STEPPS, which stands for social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. For instance, after studying what articles made it onto The New York Times’ most-emailed list, Berger found that awe (in the “STEPPS” framework, that gets an E for emotion) was especially effective at making stories popular. That same observation also applied in other media, such as Susan Boyle’s emotionally affecting singing on Britain’s Got Talent, which later became a worldwide Internet sensation. “It’s hard to watch this video and not be awed by her strength and heart. That emotion drove people to pass it on,” writes Berger.

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“By focusing so much on the messenger, we’ve neglected a much more obvious driver of sharing: the message.”

But Berger’s program doesn’t truly answer one of the most important questions: Why did Boyle succeed where thousands of others did not? It’s of note that awe was found to be more conducive to virality than sadness, but the real variance in success is between content that provokes awe and content that tries to provoke awe but fails. Obviously people want to make music that fosters an emotional connection; producers have been trying to accomplish that for as long as there’s been music. In full marketing-pitch style, Berger insists that while the other guys’ explanations for virality are based on “theories,” his own scheme is based on “cutting-edge science.” But many of the specific examples he discusses seem like just-so explanations, full of untestable post-hoc reasoning. “Gangnam Style” succeeded because it included a dance, says Berger—a performance of liking the song (that gets a P for public). That’s all well and good, but what about all of the other wannabe hit songs that had their own dances but went nowhere? Some of the rules about making catchy messages are just insipid, the kind of repackaged common sense that fills so many pages of pop-science-informed guides on how to succeed in business and marketing. “Compelling content hinges on one key detail: its sharability.” “People want to seem smart.” And so on.

It’s clear that Berger’s explanations don’t reduce the art of making viral content to a science, as he claims it does—which is obvious, or everyone who read the book would now know just how to do it. And while the content of a message surely affects its sharability, so does the path it takes through the web of human relationships, bouncing between social hubs and spreading out into spokes.

During this discussion of content versus influencers, it’s emerged that Gladwell himself has backed away from his former position. “The more I’ve thought about this since writing The Tipping Point, the more it strikes me that the argument I was making was really specific to a certain kind of idea—to complex, relatively new, and sophisticated ideas,” he told Fast Company. “If you are talking about a popular song, I think it’s foolish to talk about connectors and salesmen and mavens,” he said. Maybe when dealing with the more mundane questions in life—what sugar water to drink, which car to drive, or which logo to display on your sneaker—people take their cues not from personable connectors or knowledgeable mavens but from the famous people we idolize. Judging from the billions of dollars spent on endorsements, there’s a lot of corporate honchos who think that’s exactly the case. 

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Amos Zeeberg is Nautilus’ digital editor.

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