Viral Marketing and Word-of-Mouth: A Pathology of Epistemology

Posted: Wed, 01 Apr 2015 18:59:48

I'm researching virality. How do ideas start and grow explosively? Everyone knows things go viral (cat videos, etc.), but very few understand why this happens. Although marketing agencies talk about this, practically none of them can do this repeatedly.

It turns out there are factors for virality (and there are factors which hinder or prevent virality). These issues are being researched at universities.

I began by looking at viral marketing. That led to Prof. Hendricks' research, which shows virality is a subset of bubbles, which are best understood as a pathology of epistemology.

The Pathology of Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that looks into how knowledge is formed, its rules, and its limits. If there are forms of useful knowledge, there are also failures of knowledge, which are situations in which the rules are broken, the wrong rules are applied, or knowledge is applied outside of its scope. Thus the pathology of epistemology.

A great deal of research into this was started by Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) which catalogues the heuristic methods of the intuitive mind. Kahneman showed there is no rational actor (the basis of the Chicago school of economics), for which he received the Nobel Prize in Economics. There is also Erving Goffman's work, including Frame Analysis (1974), which was the beginning of applied epistemology. See also Gregory Bateson's work on epistemology.

Two Types of Virality

There are different kinds of virality:

  • Emotional virality: Something goes viral because it appeals to the emotions. It can spike quickly (hundreds of millions of views within days) but fades away. It has to be authentic. It's very difficult to intentionally create emotional virality. Susan Boyle's Youtube video is an example of emotional virality. Because it fades, it's not useful for marketing.
  • Utility virality: Something goes viral because people find it useful and share with friends, family, and co-workers. Since these products are distributed by their users, the company doesn't really need to advertise or do marketing. Swiss pocket knives, cell phones, and so on are examples of utility virality. This kind of viral distribution can grow for decades (Swiss pocket knives have been around since the 70s). This fits into the Lead Design/Product-Market Fit model for startups.

Articles on Viral marketing and Word-of-Mouth

Several useful academic research papers on viral distribution, word-of-mouth, the network effect, and bubbles:

Right-click and save to your computer.

  • Prof. Jonah Berger teaches at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His articles are based on research while he was at Stanford. His book Contagious (2013) is the best book on viral marketing that I've read so far. He carried out extensive research to uncover the elements that allow viral distribution.
  • Prof. Vincent Hendricks is the Professor of Formal Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. His book Infostorms (2014) discusses how the web accelerates and distorts information. See

These articles may be distributed and shared. I appreciate very much that Profs. Berger and Hendricks shared the articles with me.

If you're interested in this, talk with me. Please first read these articles and the books listed below.

If you have written about virality or bubbles, talk with me. Send me copies of your docs.

If you know of other books or articles, please let me know. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is also good. Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford University School of Business.

Economic Theories of Bubbles

Bubbles have been extensively studied in economics because these create (and destroy) vast wealth.

There are competing economic theories (and some economic theories state there are no bubbles: the high risk for the investment is justified by the expected excessive reward), however, it appears none of the theories of bubbles are correct. Bubbles appear even when other factors are controlled. It seems bubbles are part of the nature of economic activity. We can describe bubbles, but we can't explain them.