What makes Cheryl's birthday and other posts go viral

A post with a mathematical logic puzzle from Singapore on Cheryl’s birthday has gone viral. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
A post with a mathematical logic puzzle from Singapore on Cheryl’s birthday has gone viral. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

SINGAPORE - This could have been Amos Yee’s social media week. Instead, Cheryl came from nowhere courtesy of her birthday puzzle, and beat Amos and any other social media wannabe to a pulp.

A post with a mathematical logic puzzle from Singapore on Cheryl’s birthday has gone viral.

The question reportedly came from an April 8 test paper that students took, organised by the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiads for a competition. It was shared on the Facebook page of Singaporean Kenneth Kong on April 10.

Within days, it was picked up by mainstream media in Singapore, Malaysia, Britain, America and Germany. The New York Times had a lengthy word explanation for the answer: BBC and Slate carried videos that showed how the answer can be deduced.

Examiners later said it was a tough question to sieve out the best students: in other words, to isolate the genius students from the merely very bright.

No, I didn’t solve the puzzle. After reading the question and the explanation for the answer, I got a headache - the kind I got trying to figure out answers to the 10-Year Series questions for my A level Math two decades ago.

But then Math and linear logic were never my strong suit.

What I was more interested in, was figuring out why this puzzle went viral.

One analysis says it’s the puzzles that baffle most that go viral.

That makes sense. Think of #thedress puzzle, the colour sensation that took the internet by storm in late February. That was truly baffling.

But what is it about puzzles - or other stories - that make people want to share them?

The Scientific American this week has a report of a study on what makes content get shared online.

Katherine L. Milkman and Jonah Berger studied New York Times articles that get shared and concluded that content that evokes a strong emotional reponse get shared more. And somewhat surprisingly, they found that positive content gets shared more than negative ones.

The article said: “While content may be shared for many reasons, overall, content that elicits an emotional reaction tends to be more widely shared. In addition, stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral. This means that content that makes readers or viewers feel a positive emotion like awe or wonder is more likely to take off online than content that makes people feel sad or angry, though causing some emotion is far better than inspiring none at all. Also, anger-inducing content is more likely to be shared than sadness-inducing content because it produces greater emotional arousal or activation.”

The tip to writers: “What our findings mean for practical purposes is that if you’re trying to create content that will make a big splash, making the message positive is likely to help, and emotionality is key. Of course, more interesting, practically useful and surprising content is also more likely to go viral.”

Noah Kagan, founder of AppSumo.com, has an article from last year, where he distilled what makes content go viral.

“At BuzzSumo, we've analysed the social share counts of over 100 million articles in the past eight months. So it's fair to say we have a pretty good idea of what gets shared the most.”

One conclusion was that content that provoked emotion was more likely to be shared. Many articles that are shared provoke awe, laughter, or joy.

Cheryl’s Birthday puzzle certainly provoked awe. A 15-year-old kid can solve this thing when just figuring out the clues gives me a headache?

Another, to me surprising, finding was that long form content gets shared more than short snappy ones. That’s good news for newspapers, especially those like The Straits Times that still believe in devoting space to long form essays and commentaries.

As a writer and content editor of serious commentaries, I have become convinced that good, serious content travels well online.

A newspaper does not need to “go downmarket” to grab eyeballs online. It needs to continue putting out serious, credible content, but in a way sensitive to what readers want, and packaged to get attention. The medium is different, but the values and instincts are not much different from what journalists and editors have been doing for decades.

I track the stories put up on the Straits Times’ Opinion website. Just last week, I found that one serious commentary was widely shared. Titled Prof, No One is Reading you, it’s an article by a professor and researcher, calling on their colleagues in academia to write Op-Eds for newspapers if they want to influence policy decisions.

It had over 43,500 Facebook shares within days.

Articles that get people angry - if they disagree with the content for example - are also more likely to be shared, with the readers’ comments. Perhaps many of those who shared and read that article were fellow academics who disagreed vehemently with it!
Indeed, one of them, Aamir Rafique Hashmi, wrote a robust, spirited rebuttal.

It got me thinking what kind of picture of Singapore is building up in netizens’ minds, as an assortment of stories about the Little Red Dot goes viral.

Attention was focused last month on Lee Kuan Yew and his death, and his legacy.

Amos Yee got a fair amount of attention last week. But #Cherylbirthday and Singapore Math trumped.

And next week? It’s anyone’s guess. Or maybe someone out there is crafting a killer post that is positive, evokes strong emotional arousal, and is preparing to launch it.

One thing’s for sure. The meme of boring Singapore is being put to rest.

muihoong@sph.com.sg