What Does "Goes Viral" on Facebook Mean?

By Josh Fredman

Star Trek's George Takei is one of Facebook's most popular users, and his posts frequently go viral.
i David Livingston/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

You have probably heard in the news lately about things “going viral.” They’re not talking about actual infectious diseases, thankfully, but rather a growing phenomenon on the Internet where content from small, independent sources briefly catches the attention of a large number of people through indirect means. The rise of social networks like Facebook have allowed this phenomenon to become larger and more widespread than it used to be, enough so that public awareness of the phenomenon has itself “gone viral,” with everybody talking about how to make something go viral, or what the next big viral hit will be.

What “Going Viral” Means

The basic idea behind something “going viral” involves the concept of a chain reaction. First, somebody publishes a piece of original content. On Facebook, for instance, this might consist of a funny photo. Then, for complex cultural reasons, people find the content to be extremely compelling. A high number of the original poster’s friends reshare her photo. Next, a high number of their friends see it and reshare it too. This goes on and on, with reshare after reshare, until thousands or millions of people see the photo – the vast majority of whom are total strangers to the original poster. The term “going viral” refers to actual viruses, which spread in a similar chain reaction pattern, with one sick person spreading the germs to a few people near him, who in turn spread the germs to a few more people, and so on until an epidemic ensues.

Contrast with Mass Media

The concept of going viral contrasts with traditional mass media, where millions of people also see a piece of content, perhaps by watching TV or going to the movies. The difference is that there is no chain reaction. Instead of lots of small acts of resharing, people see the content directly from the source, thanks to the help of a large mass media distribution infrastructure.

Official Facebook Analytics

Facebook actually has an official definition for “virality” in its analytics jargon. Facebook defines virality as “the number of people who have created a story from your post as a percentage of the number of people who have seen it.” It goes on to elaborate that a “story” can consist of “liking, commenting or sharing your post, answering a question or responding to an event.” This leads to the concept of “viral reach,” which Facebook defines as “the number of unique people who saw this post from a story published by a friend.” In other words, with these analytics Facebook tries to quantify the concept of the chain reaction through which people see content because it got reshared by one or more intermediaries.

Appeal and Temptation

The complex cultural reasons that determine whether a specific piece of content goes viral elude precise human understanding. However, that doesn’t stop people and businesses from trying to artificially create a viral phenomenon in order to promote their brand and their products. Usually they fail. According to the Geekly Group, which studies Facebook analytics, only a very small percentage of posts on Facebook go viral, and most of those only go viral to a limited extent, reaching perhaps only hundreds or thousands of people rather than millions. Most of those viral posts come from personal users who aren’t publishing their content for promotional reasons. Nevertheless, it costs little or no money to post content on Facebook, so people and companies have no disincentive from trying. They can increase their chances of a post going viral by publishing timely, current content that has a broad appeal and either a humorous or heartwarming message, but it’s still a long shot.