STUDY: What does it look like when a Facebook photo goes viral?


Millions of photos are posted to Facebook every day — some of which are widely shared and become viral. A recent comprehensive study by Facebook shows that roughly 5 percent of photos uploaded to the site are then reshared.

While that might not seem like much, Facebook Vice President of Infrastructure Jay Parikh noted in January that there are more than 240 billion photos on Facebook’s servers right now, with 350 million more added to the site each day. Facebook’s photo storage grows by 7 petabytes per month.

It’s the viral photos that account for most of the share activity. Facebook Data Scientists Alex Dow, Lada Adamic and Adrien Friggeri recently published a paper, presented at the International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, about the anatomy of a highly-shared photo. They discovered that photos that are shared at least once are shared an average of 14.8 times. The top 0.5 percent of shared photos (those with more than 500 shares over the span of two weeks) account for 50 percent of all reshare activity on the site.

The team examined two pictures: one posted by President Barack Obama of himself hugging First Lady Michelle Obama shortly after Obama’s re-election, and a photo posted by Petter Kverneng, a young Norwegian man hoping to get 1 million likes so his friend would have sex with him.

The Obama photo (posted from Obama’s page) was shared 618,015 times by users, while the Kverneng photo (posted from Kverneng’s timeline) was shared 150,759 times.

Facebook illustrated the cascade created by these two photos. The Obama photo was helped significantly by shares from Michelle Obama and singer Alicia Keys. Facebook uses OVP for the Obama Victory Photo and MLM to signify Million Like Meme.

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Facebook found that both photos were shared most often within the first day of posting — 96 percent of the Kverneng shares were in the first 24 hours, while 90 percent of the Obamas’ photo came in that timeframe. The Obama photo was still being shared in February, with a push on Valentine’s Day. Shortly after Kverneng hit his 1 million like goal (18 hours after upload), he made the photo private and disabled sharing.

Obama’s photo enjoyed a large amount a share activity in the first hour after it was posted, and then was slowly shared after that. Kverneng’s photo started off slowly (as it came from a personal timeline, not a heavily-liked page), and then quickly gained traction. It peaked at 17 hours after posting, then quickly dropped off after hitting the 1 million like goal.

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Facebook also looked at the demographic data of the two photos. Naturally, the Kverneng photo was most popular among young men (only 19 percent of the shares came from women) and the Obama photo was shared most often among those who identified their political leaning as liberal. 27 percent of Obama’s Facebook fanbase saw the photo, while only 8.75 percent of those who liked Republican opponent Mitt Romney saw it.

Interestingly enough, both photos gained traction outside of their native countries. Facebook found that 70.3 percent of the impressions, 60.1 percent of the likes, 63.2 percent of the comments and 62.9 percent of the shares on the Obama photo came from users outside of the U.S. The million like meme photo, posted by a Norwegian man, was also highly shared throughout the world, with Russia and South Africa being popular share origins.

The researchers commented on the study:

In this paper we took a first step toward understanding the distribution and diffusion of viral content on one large social networking platform. We showed that while most content is not viral, a small minority is. This is likely a natural result of the limited bandwidth of users. With a large number of photos uploaded daily, only a very small fraction of photos could be sustained as viral without users having to reshare an unreasonable number of photos every day. By examining two specific instances, we showed that photos reshared hundreds of thousands of times are seen by millions of users, affecting a significant fraction of the user population and confirming anecdotal accounts of seemingly ubiquitous memes. We saw that there are different ways in which memes can achieve such ubiquity. In the case of OVP, the source was itself a large hub, and half of the shares were made by followers of the source. In the case of MLM, the growth was largely organic, although the meme may not have spread nearly as far without the help of the high branching factors of pages which reshared it.

Images courtesy of Facebook.