Jennifer Lawrence + the elements that make your content go viral
What makes stuff go viral?
Jennifer Lawrence charmed the hell out of me at the Oscars Sunday night. The next day – after I’d already posted a video clip of her post-show interview on my Facebook page – I noticed she was trending on Twitter. Last time I checked, that same video on Youtube has been viewed almost two million times (nearly three million by the time I posted this).
And people are giving her love. God this makes me feel better about our world, someone commented on my FB page, and others quickly Liked their agreement.
She’s an interesting comparison to Seth MacFarlane, who also generated attention following his performance as Oscar host – if nowhere near the same level of affection.
In his book CONTAGIOUS: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger identifies the “principles” behind remarkability. As in: what compels people to remark on stuff, to talk about it and share with friends. I see two of these principles at work here – emotion and story – and since story packs emotion, you could fold them together.
Both Seth and Jennifer triggered emotions: Seth touched off some anger for the perceived misogyny of his (rather lame and disappointing) witticisms Sunday night, while Jennifer invoked genuine humor.
What both anger and humor have in common, Berger points out, is that they are physiologically arousing.
When we get energized is when we tend to take action. We kick something. Or forward the piece to our friends. Or subscribe or click or buy.
Compare these to the “low arousal” emotions of contentment and sadness. When you’re content, you’re relaxed and blissed out. When you’re sad, you’re maybe curled up in the corner with a pint of Ben + Jerry’s. What you’re not doing — so much — is interacting with the world.
People are much more likely to share things that wind them up and get them going. (For the research that supports this, check out Berger’s book.)
I shared Jennifer’s video because it got me laughing; I responded (multiple times) to an article on Seth because some of the comments pissed me off.
People are much less likely to share the things that send them downward, that decrease their arousal.
I’m reading an absolutely beautiful memoir by the talented writer Emily Rapp and yet I haven’t been talking it up (the way I have, say, Jess Walter’s incredible novel BEAUTIFUL RUINS). The fact that the subject matter carries such grief and sadness (and triggers memories of a tragedy in my own past) probably has a lot to do with this, although until I read Berger I hadn’t made the connection.
So that part – concerning emotion — seems straightforward enough. Jennifer Lawrence, though, takes things a step further: we’re not just sharing that clip, we’re tweeting about how we want to make her our new BFF. We’re falling in love with that girl. She makes us feel better about our world. Is it just because she tripped going up the stage to collect her award for Best Actress – and joked about it afterward? Is it because, in her post-show interview, she was so naturally and candidly herself?
Authenticity is powerful, no question. But a lot of people – both online and off – are authentic and funny and yet fail to break through the noise, or compel that kind of “ohmigod I love her” response.
As Simon Sinek lays out in his book START WITH WHY, there’s a big difference between when you say you like something and when you say you love something.
You’re operating from different parts of the brain.
To like something is to have a rational and logical appreciation for the benefits it bestows. Liking takes place in the neocortex. It’s not hard to articulate why we like a thing or what we like about it; the neocortex is all about the verbal.
When we love something, however, we’re moving into a deeper, older part of the brain: the limbic, which is nonverbal and emotional. We experience a surge of feeling that we struggle to translate into words.
We fall in love first. Then we search for reasons to justify that love, to explain it to ourselves and others. It’s as if love exists on one side, language exists on the other, and in between lies silence and mystery. This is why you don’t understand why your friend loves her idiot boyfriend whom you absolutely cannot stand and know is no good for her; chances are, your friend doesn’t understand either.
That’s the limbic at work.
That’s why story is so powerful.
Story takes raw data – the facts and information that appeal to our rational, logical, linear-thinking, verbal neocortex – and creates a narrative around it that delivers an emotional charge. It doesn’t just talk to us – or at us – but also moves us, in a way that can open up our subconscious and slip into our belief system.
In his fascinating book THE STORY WARS, Jonah Sachs talks about how evolutionary advantage has shaped our brain to respond to certain story elements. Because anything that disrupts our normal environment signals a potential threat, our attention automatically goes to what is novel and different. We pass over Plain Joe and notice the freaky dude in the corner, or the supermodel by the water cooler.
And because altruism and cooperation are so necessary to our survival as a species, as well as our advancement as a culture, we notice that which violates social norms and upsets the status quo. If it upsets the status quo in a good way – that aligns with our personal values – we cheer. If in a negative way, we shake our heads and throw tomatoes.
You can’t watch Jennifer Lawrence without absorbing the context around her, the world she is in; your brain is seeing a story, whether you’re fully aware of it or not. She catches our attention because she breaks the normal pattern: she trips. It’s sudden and surprising and sets her apart. It makes her vulnerable: we feel for her, possibly remembering some “oh f*ck!” moment of our own (an incident in seventh grade, in which I overturned a tray of drinks and caught the attention of every single person in the crowded cafeteria who then started laughing and howling at me, came to mind).
In her post-show interview, she is honest and expressive (check out her frowning expression when a journalist asks her if she worries about peaking too soon). She’s so easy to read that it’s easy to trust and empathize with her because we know she’s thinking the same thing that we are: Wow, these questions are lame.
We weren’t supposed to be talking about JLaw today (except for her Academy win). We were supposed to be talking about Seth, and the red-carpet fashion, especially the plunging necklines and rampant cleavage. Despite the incredible accomplishments of many of the women in the audience, over and over again they were served up as objects for our consumption. They were stunning and sexy and preternaturally youthful.
The male-dominated world of Hollywood equates being relevant (if you’re female) with being nubile — with being, to put it crudely, highly f*ckable. Actresses preserve and play off their sexuality in order to get that next job. So they go for the Botox, the fillers, the plastic surgery. We admire their beauty while knowing that it comes at a price most women can’t afford. Some of us are quick to criticize those women for participating in that system in the first place.
Enter Jennifer Lawrence, with her comparatively modest dress and her girl-next-door glow. In a milieu of spin doctors, public relations training and carefully manufactured appearances, she comes off as real and authentic. She doesn’t show her breasts or sing about other actresses showing their breasts. She is perfectly and easily herself, in a culture notorious for telling women that who they are is never good enough.
And she gives us an opportunity to celebrate that, to pass it around and share with each other, in a way that — when you think about it — is nothing less than revolutionary.