Gawker hired Mr. Zimmerman in 2012, but he has been in the viral news business since 2008, when he started The Daily What, a site where he collected the most sharable stuff he found online. At first, he had no idea there was any money in sharable stuff. Viral content was Mr. Zimmerman’s passion, and he sought to treat it as seriously as a “real” journalist would treat the news. When he talks about his love for the crazy videos and photos we all share online, Mr. Zimmerman is apt to get carried away. “For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man,” Mr. Zimmerman says. “This is the stuff that people really care about, not the stuff that they’re pretending to care about at cocktail parties.
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.
TED videos, often seasoned with cheery platitudes, become viral for the same reason that grumpy cat pictures do. They don’t ask us to think critically — just to enjoy, or be amused and enlightened without the time-consuming labor of skepticism and doubt clouding our clicks. Why do we want to share these stories? Because in some sense they are not open to interpretation. You don’t have to worry whether your friends will wonder why you shared this – it’s obvious.
The same goes for viral journalism on the other side of my chart. These stories, like explainers, how-to guides, Mythbusters-style debunkery, and truth-telling investigative journalism, are in some ways the opposite of a stupid video or a LOLcat. They are about truth, rather than amusement. But in fact, they go viral for exactly the same reason LOLcats do. They are not open to interpretation.