Johnnie 俞润中

Screenshots #3: Spreadable ≠ Viral

Apr 03, 2023

Spreadable media amplifies at scale through informal transactions, unlike media distribution. Viral media's language diminishes human agency in content circulation.

Media distribution is different from media circulation.

The former is a top-down spread of media content, a la the broadcasting paradigm. The latter refers to a hybrid system where content spreads as a result of informal transactions between media participants.

According to Jenkins, spreadable media travels across media platforms at least in part because people take it into their own hands and share it with their social networks. That’s why spreadable media doesn’t necessarily need platform leverage (although it helps). Media impressions when in circulation amplify at scale instead of degrading, as is the case with media distribution.

Using impressions as a proxy for reach, a lot of “viral” accounts that have successfully circulated media reach an audience hundreds of thousands of times their initial follower count at posting; on the other hand, under the traditional top-down distribution framework, you’d expect post impressions to be a small percentage of your total audience count.

The language of viral media diminishes the role of human agency in content circulation: ultimately, there should be an understanding that people are making conscious decisions to share media.

Jenkins clarifies that while viral media and spreadable media effectively address the same phenomenon, it’s the language of viral media is what detracts from the conversations.

Many talk as if things just happen to “go viral” when they have no way to explain how or why the content has garnered public interest. There’s a high degree of agency involved in circulating content. People don’t just unknowingly become “carriers of powerful and contagious ideas which they bring back to their homes and work place,” infecting others.

Usually, the desire to aid the circulation of certain content happens because they see it as a meaningful contribution to ongoing conversations with friends, colleagues, or family, a gift that they can share with people who care.

The “gift” analogy isn’t just anecdotal, it refers to the transformation of commodities into gifts. Jenkins explains:

We are used to transforming commodities into gifts. We do it every time we go to a store to buy a bottle of wine to a dinner party. We bought it as a commodity, we give it as a gift, and the moment of transformation comes when we remove the price tag.

We need to better understand the same transformation as consumers take content from commercial sites and circulate it via Twitter or Facebook to their communities.

If you’re old enough, sharing might be your expression of love – i.e. passing on those links and screenshots of articles that are relevant or could be helpful to people around you. I have so many family group chats and extended family groups that are often just article and screenshots that someone felt was important to the group or an individual in the group.

If you’re young enough, you’re not that different from the “old ppl” – sharing memes might just be your expression of love – i.e. with how many close friends do you actually have full conversations on Instagram and TikTok DMs? Admittedly, I’m only really good friends with some people because we stay in touch through memes. I can have a full conversation with images only!

Spreadable media is partly about technical affordances…

Spreadability has to be enabled by infrastructure. i.e. Tumblr has reblog, Twitter makes sharing links easy, TikTok allows you to remix, duet, and download videos from strangers, Youtube allows embeds, Instagram has that paper airplane “share” button.

In all those instances, it is easy to follow the path back to the content originator, unless someone went out of their way to hide their source (in which case they are sometimes publicly criticized for doing so).

I’m convinced that part of Quibi’s downfall (#tbt) has to do with the fact that it enforced DMCA *too *rigorously. There was just no easy way to screenshot a frame or have a conversation about the content on the platform.

… Spreadable media is also partly about social relations with media consumers.

What is the “why” behind someone sharing a piece of content?

What do consumers care about?

Beyond the problem that hopefully your product or service solves, how do consumers continue to interact or engage with your product category emotionally?

Is there purpose > product?

Brands often spend a long time researching and derisking their product (product/market/fit, problem/solution/fit), but don’t go through the same exercise with their content strategy.

Many founders understand that consumers in their category need “education” for the brand to succeed, and also understand the importance of using content strategy to educate consumers. But the missing bridge is: what is the best way to deliver that education? It’s probably unlikely that Instagram infographics will do it for a vast majority of brands I’ve come across!

The Framework

It is, admittedly, an oversimplified framework. But as I diligence social media and content strategy, it is clear that not all brands have this nailed.

From an organic content strategy perspective, I recommend operating no more than 3 content buckets, across 1 or 2 channels max., under each, you should be able to create serialized content. Think about it like episodes of a TV show that come together complementarily to complete a season. You should be able to create just one framework for each content bucket (or else you risk being unfocused).

(In the beginning, it is ok to be more scattered and test which content buckets work and just see what sticks. Getting the data on what works and what doesn’t earlier on is more important than being structured and “doing things right.”)


Our content-to-commerce cooking blog creates easy-to-prepare meal videos that young working professionals will want to save/forward to their good friends or significant others because it looks delicious and fun and helps reduce the stress of meal prepping or cooking during the work week, in turn associating convenience and time-saving with the brand and will proceed to purchase affiliate products used in videos.