The Science of Emotions and Virality on Social Media

A recent study examines how emotions play into social media sharing and how these emotions elicit different reactions from audiences.

Users share a great deal of content online largely because their sharing habits are driven by emotion. Marketers have known this for some time, and many attempt to make viral content by playing to the emotions of media consumers. A recent study examines which emotions impact sharing, and how different emotions can elicit different reactions from the audience.

The study, Deep Feelings: A Massive Cross-Lingual Study on the Relation between Emotions and Virality, was conducted by Marco Guerini at Trento Rise in Italy, and Jacopo Staiano at Sorbonne Université in Paris.

The researchers used automated crawlers to collect the data from approximately 65,000 articles. All data was collected from, a social media news site with a built in “mood meter,” and, the online version of one of Italy’s most popular newspapers Corriere della Sera.

The data was indexed on a VAD scale: valence, arousal and dominance. Valence refers to positive and negative affectivity, arousal relates to how calming or exciting the information is, and dominance relates to how in control a user feels when presented with the information.

Emotions obviously had an impact on sharing and discussion, but different emotions resulted in different types of discussion. Emotions such as inspiration, happiness and amusement led users to broadcast the information to others through Facebook shares, and tweets. Emotions correlated with dominance were most important in broadcasting, partly because users feel in control when they feel inspired.

When users encountered emotions that made them feel out of control such as anger, sadness and fear, they were more likely to “narrowcast” the information, by engaging in discussion in comments, or sharing with smaller groups of other users. Arousal was most important when it came to narrowcasting.

The interplay of emotions is one of the largest deciders of online activity for users. Whether the story is sad, or it enrages users, there is no one simple answer to what makes content go viral. However, this study can provide significant direction to any content marketer or online marketing professional, as it details how the interplay of emotions affects users.

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