Alison Garwood Jones

Things are looking up

February 10, 2010

Push Send

Just when I thought smart phones were fast becoming the device of choice for philanderers, and sexting the most dominant literary form on these gadgets (“U look good naked,” etc., etc.), a new study shows that we’re using the email accounts on our phones and computers to spread more enlightening news.

An article by John Tierney in yesterday’s New York Times indicates that there’s hope for human nature, after all — not to mention long-form journalism which has been battered by quick ‘n quippy platforms, like Twitter and text messaging.

Tierney reports that from August 2008 to February 2009, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania followed the most popular articles e-mailed from the Grey Lady’s website and tracked the results every fifteen minutes; they even used computer algorithms to analyze the ratio of emotional words in the articles that generated the most traffic. It turns out, not only are we hooked on sharing stories with positive themes but we gravitate the most to long articles covering intellectually-challenging themes.

High on the list of stories that have gone viral: science articles on cosmology (that’s the branch of astronomy dealing with the evolution of the universe). Quirky also does well, like the story of the flock of free-range chickens found roaming the streets of Manhattan. But, to their delight, researchers kept finding that the most e-mailed articles had “a quality that went beyond surprise.” “An article about square watermelons is surprising,” Jonah Berger, the study’s lead researcher, told The Times. “But it doesn’t inspire that awed feeling that the world is a broad place and I’m so small,” he said. Berger and his team defined this quality as a feeling of “self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” It involves the opening and broadening of the mind.

Asked why we appear to be “spreading the awe” (my quotes) more enthusiastically than, say, passing on recipes or practical health or financial tips, which are also popular topics, Berger has a theory. “Emotion, in general, leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion,” he told The Times. “If I just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. If [someone else] reads the article and feels the same emotion, [in the end] it will bring us closer together.”

So push “Send” and spread the awe, then bask in the closeness. I know I will.


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