Once you've worked as a writer and editor in the world of social media for a decade, the way I have, you start to notice patterns. For example, there are some stories that will never go viral, even if they are brilliant in every measurable way. That's because they lie in the "valley of ambiguity," which is sort of like the uncanny valley for viral journalism.
If a story is circulating in social media, even if it's a fancy character study for the New Yorker or incisive cultural analysis for the Atlantic, it's always chasing the viral tornado. Before the 21st century, stories became popular because people talked about them in other publications, or shared magazine and newspaper clippings with friends. Today, stories become influential if people share them on social media like Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, and Twitter. In most cases, nobody is going to read a story if nobody shares it.
This leaves a lot of writers and readers wondering why the hell some stories go everywhere and some never make it past three likes on Facebook. Here is one theory, based on my own anecdotal experiences and those of many other people I've talked to in the industry. It's not a scientific theory, and you'll notice that the diagram I have used to illustrate it is something that began on the back of a napkin. Still, I think it can help us make sense of the way that virality has changed journalism in the 21st century.
Basically, there are two kinds of stories that tend to go viral. On one side of the diagram, you can see the most obvious genre of viral story: the meme, or the single, simple unit of information that we share because it's funny or makes us feel good. The purest version of the meme online is the LOLcat, usually just a picture with a caption, which is the perfect pick-me-up bit of portable content. What the LOLcat shares with self-help guides and human interest stories is an invitation to credulous enjoyment.