The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on Facebook

Here at Cracked we have a whole series devoted to the fake stories that get shared on your Facebook feed without anyone checking whether they're true. But for today let's shove aside the question of why everyone keeps getting fooled by that bullshit and instead ask what causes us to smear stuff across our social-media walls in the first place. Why do we share one story with our friends and family and ignore another? A good general answer is "because it has kittens in it." But there are other reasons we hit the share or reblog button, like ...

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4
It Causes Positive Emotions

For years we've been told that negative news stories are the ones that get attention. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the battle-rhyme of the news media, and it's supposedly why our cable news channels are packed with stories of freak accidents and gruesome murders instead of clips of ducks safely crossing the road. But when it comes to sharing stuff on social media, those non-bleeding ducks actually come out on top. A 2008 study of shared online newspaper articles, replicated in 2011 with Facebook shares, found that stories and videos associated with positive emotions are shared far more than negative ones. A puppy getting fitted with a prosthetic limb goes viral; the guy in your town who got crushed by a garbage truck gets three shares and maybe a sad-face Facebook sticker.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookRandom_Moments_Photography/iStock/Getty Images
"You might say his story got buried under garbage."
"Just shut up and finish the eulogy, Frank."

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And mankind's bias for uplifting content goes further than that. Stories depicting purely negative events ("Young Father Tries to Pay Off Student Loans in Pennies, Trips, Is Literally Crushed by Debt") are shared less than stories about negative events that have been given a positive spin ("Man Being Literally Crushed By Debt Leaves Video Message To His Unborn Son"). On the other hand, other research has found that both positive and negative-themed content is shared more than content deemed to be emotionally neutral, although I'm not 100 percent sure what they mean by that. Maybe a video titled: "This mom stared at a wall for 10 minutes. You won't believe what happened next!"

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookMike Watson Images/moodboard
"Whoa. People have GOT to see this."

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We also share stuff because ...

3
It's Arousing

Not that kind of arousing, obviously: most of us are aware that our friends are happy for us not to share the piece of erotic Supernatural fan art we just found on Tumblr. But according to science's recent sharing-research, content that evokes "low arousal" emotions (like contentment or sadness) rarely causes people's "share" fingers to twitch. In other words, that blog post you just wrote about the James Patterson book you're quietly enjoying this weekend is unlikely to make it big.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookIPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images
"'This novel was quite up to standards.' There we go. Internet immortality, baby."

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Add an angle to the story that injects a "high arousal" emotion like anger, though, and things change: an angry take on a particular event is more likely to be shared than a more moderate one on the same event. Think of a negative-themed article as like a pizza base: when it's by itself, nobody is interested, but cram on some toppings (speculations and angles that make readers either extremely anxious or very angry) and all of a sudden people are hanging around your kitchen eyeing your oven and acting as if they like you. In fact, we love our bad-news pizza so much that it trumps our bias against negative content: negative stories that have been topped with fear- or anger-causing content will be shared as much as positive stuff about unexpected rainbows and baby geese learning to swim.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookElNariz/iStock/Getty Images
You don't want to know which part of the pizza represents Ebola.

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2
It Provides a Springboard for Our Opinions

Not long ago, we covered the fake but incredibly popular story about the woman who got plastic surgery to insert an extra boob. Thousands of people not only believed this tale but believed it enough to share it with their friends, even though it's about as plausible as the one weird trick she used to get her stomach that flat. Come on, there are no pictures of this woman apart from that one selfie? What kind of surgical team would agree to perform such a procedure? But hardly anyone even asked those questions, because the prankster, Alisha Hessler, did something masterful: she added a line claiming that she obtained the third boob "to make men find her unattractive."

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookVia eonline
Showing a misunderstanding of how boobs work, but still.

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This is an example of a distraction technique that magicians call misdirection, and in this case, the distraction was the hot-button topic of feminism. "Has feminism become so anti-men that women are now deliberately growing extra boobs just to avoid dudes?" asked countless people on Facebooks across the country, all the while ignoring the more important question of how the hell she got that extra boob. We overlooked the questionable supernumerary breast, just like we overlook the magician quietly pulling a replacement dove from his nose, because the subject Hessler raised gave us a chance to jump in with our opinions about something controversial.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on Facebookdolgachov/iStock/Getty Images
"Pay no attention to what my left hand is doing as I coincidentally invite you
to express your views on Vice President Joe Biden."

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This "get people arguing about shit" tactic applies to non-pranks as well. Take this poor guy who hit the "like" button on everything on his Facebook page for two days and then observed the flood of content that hit his computer like a wave of profile-pictured sewage. He discovered an oddly specific way that news sites encouraged readers to engage with their stories. The site would present a piece of news ("The governor of New York recently shot a horse! Just a random goddamn horse!"), add a controversial opinion followed by an exclamation point ("GOOD!"), and then finish with a question ("Do YOU agree that our governors should be shooting more horses?"). It's become a standard format because that shit works: readers are already so brimming with argument-energy that they're almost physically compelled to comment and share.

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1
It Gives Us an Identity

If you were anywhere near Facebook this last month, you probably saw this video of Ben Affleck spanking atheist author Sam Harris on the subject of Islamophobia. The video took off, even though there's no actual spanking involved, and even though it's pretty much just an angry dude yelling at an angry atheist. You could achieve a similar level of debate just by adding an "#atheism" to your next few Twitter posts and waiting for notifications.

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So why was the video so popular? Not because Affleck was in it. That guy doesn't have the rabid watch-and-share-anything-he-is-in fanbase of a J-Law or a Chris Pratt. No, I don't think we shared this video because of the subject or because of the celebrities involved. I think we shared it to say something about ourselves.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on FacebookEthan Miller/Getty Images
And that something probably wasn't, "I really enjoyed Runner Runner."

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See, in today's America, opinions about Islam and Islamophobia have been colonized by political sides. Visit the left-wing site AlterNet and you'll find articles like "Why the New Atheists Need to Stop Slamming Islam." Go to the extremely right-wing Breitbart and you'll find reports assuring readers that dangerous Islamic "lone wolf" attacks are being covered up by the mainstream media, as well as intriguing headlines like "Iraq War Vet Banned From Daughter's School for Opposing Muslim Homework," because what's the point of getting homework if you can't even rub bacon on it without it getting offended? This is America, damn it.

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When you think about it, this consistent political divide about the religion isn't logical: you'd think there were things a lot of AlterNet readers would find objectionable about every organized religion, and one would assume that most Breitbart readers, bless 'em, would at least appreciate all sincere forms of devotion to God. But this is the way things have worked out in this country, and now it seems so natural that most of us don't question it, just like most of us don't think about why eating free-range, local meat is something liberals do, but hunting your own free-range, local meat is arch-conservative.

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on Facebookpixelpot/iStock/Getty Images
And apparently eating a swan in public is "weird" and "barbaric," even if it looked at you funny.
Whatever you say, Americans.

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Now, two-thirds of Americans identify as either conservative or liberal, and social media is a popular way of expressing that identity: in a New York Times study, 68 percent of people said they shared content online to "give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about." But going on to Facebook and typing: "Hey guys, just want to remind you today that I'm a liberal, and not at all like my aunt who keeps posting misspelled memes about Obamacare" is somewhat crude, not to mention confrontational. So instead, why not share that Affleck video as a way of politely signaling the exact same thing?

The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on Facebookgpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images
Alternatively, you could just post a picture of yourself dressed like this.

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This isn't to say that we're all sitting around thinking about how to best inform people of our political views via Facebook videos, any more than people who purchase expensive handbags are asking, "I wonder if carrying this expensive bag will make people offer me more money if I ask for it?" or men buying sports cars are thinking, "I can't wait until this car raises my testosterone!" It's something most of us do unconsciously. And, of course, not everyone who shares a video on Facebook is doing it to subconsciously express their own personal political brand. Maybe you shared the Affleck video because you were genuinely interested in the debate, or maybe the subject resonates with you personally because you're a Muslim or you like writing Sam Harris erotic fan fiction or something like that. In that case, you're simply unlucky enough to have interests that line up on an unrelated cultural fault line.

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But maybe the next time you're going to hit "share" on a story about a subject you don't usually post about, ask yourself whether it's because it's something that actually touches you deeply, or if it's because you want to be seen as the kind of guy who shares it. And then whatever the answer, you should probably just post a picture of a cat instead. Cat pictures are the greatest.


C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.

For more from C. Coville, check out 4 Everyday Things That Make Us Way Angrier Than They Should. And then check out 19 Instagram Food Pics From Famous Fictional Characters.

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