The science behind headlines and viral stories is complicated. Or is it? A close look at the Internet's sharing economy and the new site, Downworthy. 

Though it’s often treated as mysterious, the secret behind the viral spread of stories across the Internet has begun to transform itself from an instantly identifiable aesthetic. There is a rhythm and tone that information takes when its intended purpose is to circulate as widely as possible. A new plug-in for Chrome satirizes this phenomenon by offering to scrub these aesthetic deceptions from Internet stories and replace them with an equal and opposite deadpan.

Called Downworthy, this new plug-in transforms this headline from, “Nothing Could Prepare Me For What’s Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. OMG” into a sardonic cry for help attention, “Does ANYONE Fucking Care About What’s Revealed When This Glacier Melts. No One Cares. At All.” There’s a long list of words that, in most cases, are just replaced with their opposite and a new and slightly more honest characterization of the story emerges. “Literally” is replaced with “figuratively;” “Will Blow Your Mind” is erased in favor of “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment.” Intensifying words like “Amazing,” “Awesome,” and “Breathtaking” are tempered into “Barely Noticeable,” “Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working,” and “Fleetingly Inspirational.”

The aesthetic imprint of viral writing is familiar enough already to have become its own punchline, satirized or deconstructed in The Onion or Gawker, which themselves rely on business models that translate popularity into revenue. Virality presents just such a trap for Internet users. Even in Downworthy there is a fatalistic acknowledgement that while making fun of the specific content within the viral structure is satisfying, its basic structure must be retained. 

We’re driven to read by our ignorances and uncertainties, and often the result of reading leads only deeper into a network of unasnwerable questions spiraling out from the inescapable “Why?” Viral stories are the antithesis of this experience.

In a post on the scientific underpinnings of Internet virality, Maria Konnikova argues that all viral stories are formed with equal proportions of ethics, emotions, and logic, an Aristotelian formula that has adapted itself to the Internet age. Downworthy may focus on the hyperbolic extremes of language contained in viral posts, but even with their language moderated, there is still something functionally manipulative in what they leave behind. It’s not the fact of our being lied to that’s objectionable, in other words, but our increasing discomfort with its obviousness, which incessant repetition brings out.

Researcher Jonah Berger was originally prompted to investigate viral distribution of stories after noticing a significant difference in the kinds of stories a person read and the kinds of stories a person was most likely to share through their networks. His widely distributed findings showed that positivity and emotional arousal were definitive characteristics of stories people wanted to share through their own miniature publishing platforms. Beneath the affected word choices and exaggerated claims of emotionality, the structure of all viral stories work as a boilerplate for explaining phenomenon that is otherwise purposeless and its that purposelessness we want to snuff out.

We’re driven to read by our ignorances and uncertainties, and often the result of reading leads only deeper into a network of unasnwerable questions spiraling out from the inescapable “Why?” Viral stories are the antithesis of this experience; they offer evidence of an endpoint by fusing a fixed ethical point of view to a logical chain of events and suggesting an appropriate emotional response to it all. The networked structure of Facebook and Twitter, which allow users to follow the branching paths their posts take once injected into the system mirror this viral approach to rhetoric. Platforms like Twitter allow us to experience other people’s emotional responses within a logical structure that explains why that emotional response has value in the first place.

Gawker’s viral virtuoso Neetzan Zimmerman explained this approach in a post on his work for the site, arguing that “if the purpose of the Internet is to engender exchange, than anything not being shared must therefore, in this context, be worthless.” This statement contains an implicit, and unprovable, assumption that “exchange” is the purpose of the Internet. It’s truer to say the Internet has no purpose, and that exchanging or sharing things through it is only one of many possible purposes that we can think about but never actually prove.

Rather than having to wrestle with the question of what the purpose of the Internet should be, accepting the validity of its mostly widely visible functions spares us from having to originate thought. This then allows us to act as variated conduits, extracting a small bit of adrenal satisfaction from participating in a massive movement without having to stress about being individually called to account. It’s a good lie, and one we can’t stop spreading.

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry,, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.