Our own lead developer, Paul Reda, recently had success "going viral." On Thursday, he uploaded a timeline biography of 1900's Chicago private investigator Cora M. Strayer. By Friday it had received over 4,000 unique visitors.
How and why did Paul's Cora Strayer piece go viral? The initial promotion was simple, Paul tweeted to his 145 followers: "So over the [weekend] I researched the life of a woman who was a PI on the South Side in the early 1900s. She was awesome." And then fizzled out. It retweeted only eight times. One of those people did think it interesting enough to submit it to weblog BoingBoing.
That evening, Boing Boing published the article, calling it "a fascinating, and often tragic, timeline of extraordinary adventures." From there it spread to link aggregation site Reddit, and community blog Metafilter. Combined with sporadic blog referrals, it received an additional 2,000 views over the weekend.
It is interesting to note that the article itself was posted as a static webpage, and featured no social or interactive features at all. It was an incredibly simple execution. Its merit was entirely in its written content, not any gimmick.
Paul's Cora Strayer article went viral because it's an interesting story. It's historical truth with some salacious implications, and it had never been told before. People who read it were intrigued, and wanted to share that feeling with others. That's the core of why anything goes viral. It makes us feel something that we want others to feel too.
The inconvenient truth is that there's no way to predict what will go viral, and no way to make something go viral. In this instance, it took unique and engaging content, and a day's worth of work. There is never going to be easy way to do that.