What Makes a Photo or Video Go Viral?

15th Mar

What exactly is it that makes viral images blow up? We take a look at the art and science behind the web’s most shareable images.


What's in a Meme?

Some truly weird and wonderful things have gone viral over the years, without any obvious rhyme or reason connecting them to one another. Believe it or not, though, we photography boffins have been hard at work nailing down exactly what it takes for a pic to break the internet.

Humans are, by nature, visual creatures, as Digital Information World emphasizes. We’re wired to process and react to visual information quickly: the human brain can process visual cues in .25 seconds. Considering that the attention span of the average consumer is about eight seconds, an image will always clearly communicate its point more effectively than even the most pithy slogan. The fact that we can interpret visuals so quickly is a big part of why we tend to see images and videos go viral much more often than text-based content.

But not all visual content is created equal. What is it about great images that grab our attention?

Fabulous Fibonacci

According to Kevan Lee of Buffer Social, the draw has as much to do with maths as it does with biology. Visually appealing images tend to share similar proportions. All photographers know about the Rule of Thirds, but there’s another maths trick that’s essential to good photography – one that’s well illustrated by this now infamous shot of a (somewhat chaotic) New Year’s Eve in Manchester.

The original tweet has been shared 29,499 times and inspired hundreds of reimaginings and parodies – which is good going for a picture of a fairly standard night out. So what gives?

Interestingly, Twitter user (and BBC journalist) Groen Maar Niet Gek demonstrated that almost every element in the image lines up with the Fibonacci spiral, a property shared with many iconic, classical paintings (including the Mona Lisa).


Play to People's Emotions

Along with its mathematical perfection, Hughes’ New Year in Manchester is emotionally evocative, a quality that’s key to any internet-shattering photo. Buffer explains that that nearly all the most successful viral images share three attributes: positive feelings like joy and trust, the ability to evoke a diverse array of responses and emotions, and the element of surprise.

A good example of an effective “surprise” is the idea that a cell phone picture of an indulgent New Year’s Eve (or a brawl in Ukranian Parliament) can share mathematical properties with highbrow works of art from the rennaisance period.

Putting It All Together

The internet has sparked a fundamental change in the way media is created, disseminated and delivered. Instead of creating for patrons, artists can go directly to the audience through crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Kickstarter.

In this brave new world of media monetisation, the real challenge is getting your message out there, meaning that you need to be able to produce viral posts and images again and again. Whatever your brand message happens to be, you need to know how to translate it into an arresting image. That’s where The Flash Pack come in.

Our bag of photo high-tech photo gadgets and gizmos turn any audience into a guerrilla social media team by letting them show off an amazing experience to all of their friends. Case in point: last year, we teamed up with Jack Wills for the #JWModelSearch campaign. In just nine days, our in-store booths generated 2,670 social shares, resulting in an estimated social reach of over 14 million! Not bad for less than a fortnight.

What makes viral images magical is that spark of unpredictability – even though science has pinned down many of the driving forces behind them, it’s impossible to know definitively which photos will and will not blow up. But if you’re looking to generate highly-shareable imagery – and to do it consistently – we recommend reaching out to the experts for help.