What makes certain content bingeworthy? Why is some content so much better at getting itself spread around by word of mouth? How do certain packets of information get themselves copied from brain to brain? From book to brain? From tweet to brain? From brain to youtube to brain?
In other words, some content not only survives but flourishes while other content, no matter how valuable, worthy or true, just dies in a day like a Mayfly.
As a cognitive scientist I’ve been interested in this for over 40 years—before the rise of the internet and since. My first interest was in the context of the brain. Why are some thoughts infectious? Why are some ideas more interesting than others?
In the days when jokes were told I used to marvel at how some jokes had great ‘pass-on value’ and thrived but others fell flat.
In advertising, marketing and selling—an important part of business—I was keen to observe the commercial success of some campaigns compared to the failure of others. I wrote about WOMBAT Selling (2006) (Word Of Mouth Buy And Tell) and how some offers got themselves spread around by word of mouth and yet most offers were never passed on or recommended to friends.
In culture, religion, politics and art we can see the same selection pressures. Some religions (or variations) survive and claim adherents by the millions while others don’t make it all. Even some gods don’t survive, by Jove!
Political fads, preferences, poll results, and politicians come and go with such monotonous regularity that the whole show is largely ignored by the majority of people most of the time. Some political fireworks flare up and fade away quicker than others. Some endure.
Entertainment has its hits, superstars, bombs and extinctions. Heaven’s Gate is a 1980 American Western film. It’s notable for being one of the biggest box-office bombs of all-time, losing the studio well over 100 million dollars. Did you see it? Once? Twice?
In the late 50s and 60s, the bossa nova emerged among a small group of middle-class, non-professional Brazilian musician-composers—hobbyists–playing for enjoyment in their home lounges. It was an intimate, sophisticated sound. They took to playing their guitars and singing their songs on the beaches of Rio. Tom Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Leny Andrade, Roberto Menescal and friends. Today, every day and everywhere, you can still hear The Girl from Ipanema playing in cool cafes and high-rise elevators around the world.
In 2020 Netflix will spend around $10 billion on buying streaming rights for certain content. How does Netflix decide which content will be bingeworthy and which content, no matter how interesting, to ignore?
In most discussions about content the topic is discussed from just three points-of-view: the creator (writer/producer), the distributor (publisher/media) and the consumer (shopper/subscriber).
In Binge! we will do some lateral thinking and approach the topic from outside the box. We will explore a fourth viewpoint. We will look at content from it’s own point-of-view. From the content-eye. From the way content, itself, behaves. We will say things like, “This content was clever at getting itself copied here”. “Wow! This content has already acquired 4 billion brains!” And, “Sadly, this content was never able to survive its birth”. And so on.
I first wrote about this fourth viewpoint in The x10 Memeplex: Multiply Your Business By Ten! in 2000. It was based on research into memes and memetics and the viral or epidemiological behaviour of content in the information revolution and the internet. In particular, it was a practical book on how to apply these insights to business growth.
The bottom line is this: of the vast array of created content only a small selected amount ever survives long enough to get itself replicated, recommended and repeated.
So, with all this in mind, it will be interesting to observe the burgeoning bingeworthiness of Binge!
– Michael Hewitt-Gleeson,
At WOMBAT Labs we research what makes certain content bingeworthy in the human brain.
The first big problem with content is that most content fails to survive.
Because live content resides in the human brain. The trouble is that there is far, far more content than there are brains to accommodate it all. In a population of only 8 billion brains there are many trillions of competing content packages. Like musical chairs, some content will find a brain to stay in but a great deal of content will miss out.
So, live content can be found flourishing and travelling across human brains and dead (or dormant) content fills the stored records, libraries, dumps and dataclouds of the world.
The success of certain content is measured by how many people are attracted to it, how much population it accumulates, how many brains become ‘infected’ by it.
So, which content survives? Why? Which content fails? Since Darwin, we know that the answer is fitness.
There is relentless selection pressure and room for only a few winners from the vast crowd of starters. Only a tiny percentage of content packages finds brains to stay in.
Only the fittest content survives in the crackling chaos of the infosphere, the 24/7/365 whirling, howling, cacophonous wilderness of the greedy grasping content marketplace with its siren songs, ferocious fads, toxic wastes and vicious moods, its callous explosions, its viral plagues and epidemics and cruel and sudden extinctions.
At WOMBAT Labs we research what makes certain content bingeworthy in the human brain.
So, we tell our clients to remember the three Rs: Bingeworthy content gets replicated. It gets recommended. It gets repeated.
Replication is the name of the game
But most importantly, to survive at all, bingeworthy content first has to get replicated from brain to brain to brain.
Content derives its bingepower from its success at replicating.
In content wars, content that is better at getting itself copied wins. Content that does not, loses. This means content has two ways to win: increase ‘my’ copies, decrease ‘their’ copies.
Replicating bingeworthy content derives its copying power from high marks out of three traits: fidelity, fecundity and longevity …
fidelity means a true copy that is faithful to the original. It is clear and precise. It is reliable like a Xerox.
fecundity means a potent copy that is capable of multiple replications. It is fruitful and yields an abundance of copies like a McDonald’s franchise.
longevity means a lasting copy that will go the distance. It is robust and tangible like a time capsule.
By the way, content itself really has no wit nor will to do this or that: it has no intention, no personality, it is just a meme. An information replicator. It is just code. It is simply a research convenience for us to refer to content in this anthropomorphic way so as to study the traits of its bingeworthy fitness and potential.
What can seem like intentional strategies are just the way survival of the fittest turns out in the end. But we, as research observers, can take the content-eye view and say things like, “This clever content increased its bingeworthiness here, that dumb content lost out there” and so on.
Needless to say, there is really no clever content nor dumb content just copy successes and failures at the end of the day.
The Bingeworthy Scale
To assess the bingepower of certain content we use the Bingeworthy Scale. The Bingeworthy Scale is an algorithm that measures the attention holding power of five content levels – interesting, replicate, repeat, recommend and binge:
INTERESTING content gets itself watched through to the end.
The gateway to the human brain is attention. Content that can attract and sustain attention to itself takes the first big step to being bingeworthy. Performance content, like an opera or a political demonstration may be interesting enough to grab and hold attention.
REPLICATE content gets itself copied.
In a hyper-competitive, multi-media content environment which is ever-expanding certain content that can get itself copied from brain to brain to text to brain has a strong Darwinian survival advantage over other content that is not highly replicable. Survival content like cigarette warnings or airplane safety announcements may be replicable for every packet and all flights.
REPEAT content gets re-watched or its next episode watched.
Not all content creates a hunger for more. Some content has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has resolution. Like a puzzle or a joke. Content that satiates itself may be successful like a fad but does not create a strong need for repetition over time. Content that contains memes for repetition gets itself sustained over time. Content that uses gaming and skill acquisition can be successful at repetition.
RECOMMEND content gets itself wombatted.
Certain content has strong pass-on value. It gets itself copied from brain to brain by word of mouth, WOMBAT means Word Of Mouth Buy And Tell. Content that gets itself highly recommended by word of mouth we call wombatted. Content offering salvation, protection or secret knowledge can have great pass-on value. Saucy gossip involving a celebrity can get wombatted from brain to ear to text to brain.
BINGE content gets it’s next episode watched … NOW!
Urgency. Priority. Need. Certain content demands immediate attention. NOW! It has a direct impact on the limbic system of the brain creating a wide repertoire of emotions ranging from the big one – fear – and the others like shame and anger to sexual longing to surprise, joy, sadness, trust and disgust. Content that uses a successful combination of the other steps can summon strong urgency and priority.