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Why things don’t go viral on the Internet by accident

Vivian Tharrenos, 18, checks out an Apple laptop computer at a Toronto Future Shop in 2008. There’s a reason the Apple logo is right-side-up when the laptop is open.

Arantxa Cedillo/The Globe and Mail

Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster

With the Internet comes the rise of viral information; images, stories, ideas and jokes get passed around so widely they become common cultural currency. Most of the time, this sharing, online and off, is done democratically. But, in his new book, Jonah Berger asks whether viral successes can merely be named and understood, or whether they can be engineered into existence.

Mr. Berger, an associate professor at the Wharton School (of marketing) at the University of Pennsylvania, is confident they can. And in his jaunty, highly readable book Contagious, he sets out six concepts he calls principles by which to achieve this.

"Virality isn't born, it's made," he declares in the introduction, and in the ensuing chapters, he lists these principles and turns them into an acronym, STEPPS, drawing on examples and findings from his own research. (He never backs up his claim to have found a workable formula with any statistical evidence, which is one of the book's weaknesses.)

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STEPPS includes Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion and Public Recognition, and much of the book consists of him elucidating the ways that marketers can play on human impulse to get their products first noticed and then embedded into our lives.

The essence of social currency, according to Berger, is remarkability. Scarcity, exclusivity and insider knowledge all confer remarkability onto the person talking about whatever it is being marketed. One outrageously successful gimmick to get people to a particular bar in New York City was a secret access door, hidden in the back of a telephone booth and the tag line "please don't tell." In an age where identify is derived less by one's job and family background and more by what you wear and own, being in on what's hot means a lot.

"Triggers" refers to the practice of embedding links of mental association into a product, a brand or its messaging. Nestle reversed a sales slump in Kit Kat candy bars after an advertising campaign linked snacking on a Kit Kat with having a coffee break. Budweiser's "Wassup" campaign meant thoughts of the beer would be triggered by the simple act of greeting a friend with "What's up?" In a multi-tasking, attention-deficit culture, ubiquitous triggers are understandably a good idea.

The book is full of neat information, such as how Apple flipped its trademark logo so that it would appear right-side-up when people opened their laptops, for greater public recognition (the first P in STEPPS); how, if people are aroused by something – even if only physiologically by running on the spot, Berger found – they're more likely to share it; and how people's penchant for a good story can be a Trojan horse for effective "guerrilla marketing."

Still, while I salute Berger for putting together such a convincing formula for marketing success, I was sorry he didn't situate it in a larger and more critical context. And so, while I could quibble about some of the book's specific shortcomings, I have another concern.

The book exists in an intellectual vacuum. Not only does he draw almost exclusively from market-research literature (and present concepts like social currency as though he's coined the term, instead of linking it to the concept of social capital and its originator, Pierre Bourdieu), he doesn't consider the role and possible responsibility of marketing in current crippling levels of consumer and credit-card debt.

Nor does he question whether the public interest is perhaps ill served by an industry that can calculate motivation so effectively that it can almost play us like an instrument. Perhaps Berger will make this the subject of his next book, building on the success of this one.

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Heather Menzies is completing To the Shieling: A Memoir on Reconnecting with the Earth, based on her heritage in pre-modern Scotland when "commodity" meant deriving benefit from a situation, not a thing one could buy.

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