On the face of it – Tumblr and voicemail have absolutely nothing in common… except they can provide fascinating insight into human nature and why we share what we do.

Viral is a thing that happens, not something that is. Via Social Media Group

Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/will-lion

This is all going to make sense in a minute, but first – I’ll share with you the inspiration for this post. I love the “human RSS” factor of Twitter; I’ll never read enough to see all the interesting articles I should, but my carefully cultivated network never fails to surface wonderfully diverse content that sparks my imagination (when I have time to read it!). Along those lines, this past week a few people shared this article from Forbes about the most popular Tumblr post of all time.

The post is popular (over 8-million reblogs and counting) not because of what it is, but because of what it can be – anything you want. It’s had millions of titles (that’s all it is, essentially – a title), everything from “Mitt Romney sucks” to “Reblog if you are a wizard or a witch”, and it keeps going, and going, and going.

Reading it reminded me of something that happened in the mid-90’s when I worked in promotions and marketing at a national television network. The phone system in our offices would sometimes act up, and one Friday afternoon, I’d received a voicemail (remember those?) that was basically about three minutes of busy signal. Rather than delete it, I forwarded it to a colleague with a recorded introduction, (“I think this is for you?”) Later that afternoon, I got the message again, with about 15 forwards, (“I got this urgent message, I think you’d better deal with it,” etc.) it was hilarious, and I was fascinated that such a simple thing had gone so far. But the story didn’t end there. When I came in Monday morning, I was informed that the message had actually been forwarded thousands of times and had brought down the entire phone system over the weekend (I’ll let you imagine the memo that went out that week).

Why did this happen?

Neither of these memes has any of the characteristics we have been told matter so much in viral sharing:

  1. Great or compelling content (a random Tumblr title? A recorded busy signal?)
  2. Positivity (they’re basically neutral, and in the case of Tumblr – it can be whatever you want)
  3. Emotionally compelling (except for being slightly silly)
  4. Practical or useful

So what made the Tumblr blog in 2012 and the voicemail message in 1995 go so far so fast? The one thing I see in common with both is the almost effortless ability to make them your own, using the meme as a form of self-expression. Craft a ridiculous/humerous/provocative Tumblr title, record a message and fool your co-workers into listening – the act of creation equals instant participation in a community of thousands.

Essentially, these viral phenomena are so powerful because they let us both create and share in the joke.