If you're familiar with the original definition of "meme," you know that ideas can spread and mutate. But what makes memes spread faster? Anger. Here's a video that explores how "angry thought germs" can spread, and reinforce opposing viewpoints.

Some quick background: The video, created by YouTuber CGP Grey, is based in large part on a 2012 investigation by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania called "What Makes Online Content Viral?" A preprint version of the article, which was published in the Journal of Marketing Research, can be accessed here, free of charge. (The video also draws heavily on the concept of a "meme," as first presented by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene – though society's conception of what constitutes a meme has changed so dramatically and ironically over time that CGP Grey chose deliberately to avoid the word altogether.)

In one part of their investigation, researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman analyzed the content of articles on The New York Times homepage and monitored how likely those articles were to be shared. Their observations revealed that the emotions an article kindled in its readers – emotions like awe, anxiety, and especially anger – contributed as much or more to its "virality" as its visibility on the NYT homepage. A table summarizing these findings, which also appears in CGP Grey's video, is featured here. [Credit: Berger and Milkman]


"For example, a one-standard deviation increase in the amount of anger an article evokes increases the odds that it will make the most e-mailed list by 34% ," write the researchers. "This increase is equivalent to spending an additional 2.9 hours as the lead story on the New York Times website, which is nearly four times the average number of hours articles spend in that position."

Anyway, CGP Grey's larger thesis is that anger-stoking content gives rise to these "thought germs" that opposing groups rely on to signal their allegiance in the Internet standoff du jour – the pitfall being that, when these groups and their ideas get big enough, they cease engaging with one another and shift instead to arguing with one another about how angry the other group(s) makes them.

In calling attention to this dynamic, the video does a couple of things particularly well. First, guides the viewer toward the obvious conclusion that this kind of infighting is actually hugely counterproductive, and wouldn't it be swell if we all took a second to breathe and take inventory of our beliefs and just, like, listen to each other man, and maybe keep that in mind the next time we're embroiled in The Next Great Internet Yelling-Match? Which... that's a good point. A bit facile, and one that's been made before, and explored in greater detail, repeatedly, since forever (and for a really fantastic take on it, I highly recommend Barbara Hernstein Smith's Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy). But a good point.


The second thing the video does well (and this is more unique and interesting, I think), is serve as a Rorschach test. Whatever controversy or controversies spring to mind when you watch this video, those are the positions you should deconstruct in the interest of sorting your own ideas from those that have, in CGP Grey's words, "passed through a lot of other brains and poke you where you are weakest."

[CGP Grey]