The lure of the trivial

The University of Pennsylvania has determined why some people e-mail certain stories they find on Web sites and not others. Researchers studied the “most emailed” lists from the New York Times in making the determination in its report “Social Transmission and Viral Culture.”

It requires a certain keeping of a straight face while reading:

One emotion we focus on in particular is awe. Stimuli that open the mind to vast and often unconsidered possibilities can inspire awe, a unique human emotion that expands a reader’s frame of reference (Keltner and Haidt 2003). Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self (Haidt 2006). It occurs when two conditions are met (Keltner and Haidt 2003). First, people experience something vast: either physically vast such as the grand canyon, conceptually vast such as a grand theory or finding, or socially vast such as fame or power. Second, the vast experience cannot be accommodated by existing mental structures.

Intellectual epiphanies, natural wonders, and great works of art can all make people feel a sense of awe (Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007). Similarly, news stories about a treatment that may cure AIDS or a hockey goalie who continues to play even with brain cancer may both inspire some level of awe.

The Discover blog noted that stories about science are predominant in these lists and finds no difficulty explaining why:

The thing about people online is, geeks still run the joint. Sure, lots of normal people are online, I assume to buy pet products and find out if Abe Vigoda is still alive. (Yes). But geeks use the web. We share information on the web. We read stuff and send it around, and we like science.

The analysis is silly from the start. First, anyone who’s ever run a Web site knows that there’s no real correlation to be made between what people are primarily interested in and the most-emailed lists that you find on Web sites (including this one).

What gets e-mailed are quirky, often trivial things that aren’t found somewhere else. That’s why at this moment, for example, the most e-mailed story on the MPR Web site is about the guy who made a Valentine’s Day greeting out of manure for his wife.

Does this mean that more people are interested in manure-inspired love notes than, say, the death of an Olympian? No. It means that if a story is available on 10 million Web sites, it’s probably already well-known to most of the world, and e-mailing it to someone else has no purpose, whereas there’s a chance your friend hasn’t heard about the manure Valentine’s Day card.

Nobody needs a Master’s Degree to figure that out.