Why this Meme Exploded

by Jesse Galef -

[cross-posted on Measure of Doubt]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?”  And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Many of you saw it posted here earlier. Everyone else, take a look and see whether you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity:


Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks.  Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath‘s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but you can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen and even hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Anonymous

    To be honest, I just don’t search for groups to “like” on Facebook. Having a convenient on-click link to the page on reddit was what made me join. Maybe I’m just weird, or lazy, or just both.

    • Anonymous

      Nope, that’s not weird!  You’re absolutely right, having a link to click on made it *that* much easier for people to take action. 

      In Switch, the Heaths call that “Tweaking the Environment”.

    • Drew M.

      This, exactly.

  • Parse

    Oy.  The first thing I thought of when seeing “Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.” was, “That’s not right, the third one is Aramis.”

    Congratulations!

    • http://www.freedomloversacademy.com/ Kristina

      Oh my. Thanks for the laugh!

    • Drew M.

      That was hilarious! Thanks! :D

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    “There is no such thing as luck. There is only adequate or inadequate preparation to cope with a statistical universe.” –Dr. Samuel C. Russell in Robert Anson Heinlein’s novel “Have Space Suit, Will Travel”

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    He missed the fourth one: Mythos. Stories have power. 

    On the other hand, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.


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