Viral news stories don’t do much for me. Don’t get me wrong, I feel the excitement of breaking news and the subsequent hours following developments on Twitter, but all too often it seems like these stories inevitably would have “blown up.” I don’t view them as “viral,” but simply as breaking news.
In my judgment, a viral news story is almost an accident; it wasn’t planned. Take, for example, Ylvis, who recorded their top hit, “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).” with comedic intentions.
I’d like to recall two “viral” stories—one of which occurred just last weekend—and explain why, in my judgment, only one of them is truly viral.
Marcus Smart, one of college basketball’s top players and a thought-to-be genuine guy—check out this profile of Smart, one of my favorite athlete profiles—recently shoved a front-row spectator in response to the spectator’s heckling. Naturally, the story blew up. Reporters at the arena tweeted about it, and it was immediately “SportsCenter”’s breaking news item and dominant storyline.
CJ Leslie and Will Privette, on the other hand, found themselves at the center of a truly viral story. Privette, an NC State communications student who uses a wheelchair because of leg deformities, joined his fellow classmates in storming the court after the Wolfpack knocked off top-ranked Duke in a game last January. Amid the chaos, Privette was hit and knocked out of his wheelchair.
Despite being bombarded by fans, Leslie—NC State’s star player—saw Privette on the floor. He demanded those in his path to Privette move aside, and he scooped Privette to avoid him being tampled like Mufasa in “The Lion King.”
Leslie held onto Privette—“like how you’d hold a baby”—until his wheelchair was returned and he could leave the court safely.
The difference between a truly viral story and a breaking news item depends on the storyteller’s access. Think about Brian Morrissey, whose carousel photo during the peak of Hurricane Sandy was picked up by CNN.
With the Smart story, not only were there more than 10,000 in attendance at United Spirit Arena, but the game was also televised on ESPN. Anyone watching the game, excluding the reporters whose job it is to disseminate such an event, could have contributed to the story going “viral.”
Much of the same can be said about Privette’s story in regard to the game’s attendance and its televised nature. However, perhaps only a dozen people in the student scrum saw Leslie save Privette, and even fewer captured the moment. Heck, Sholder’s photo from above didn’t even surface until two days after the game.
In order for a story to be viral, the storyteller must have unique access. It certainly helps if the story’s subject, as with Ylvis, already has a following. And the plethora of social media outlets competing for users’ content certainly helps in these sharing efforts. But without unique access, it’s just breaking news.