The paradox of popularity: how popular messages are not necessarily viral

In the post High-status, low-status conservatism in regard to a Tweet by Eric Trump, I discuss the paradox of popularity, which how popular messages are not necessarily viral. A social media post, commentary, or opinion may be popular in terms of social signals (likes, comments, retweets, views, etc), but this does not imply that is has a high propensity for viralnes. Popular messages that seem ‘self-evident’ or obvious, that appear to go viral, are more of a reflection of the popularity of whoever is espousing it, than the message itself having a high propensity for viralness. Social signals can be misleading, because it would seem the message is viral, but rather the person who composed the message is popular.

Consider the debate over whether or not trans women should be allowed to compete against cis-women in sports. Most people, including even liberals, agree that cis-women are at a major disadvantage against trans women, and that it is unfair. Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro and others on the so-called IDW-circuit put out highly popular podcasts and videos attacking the inclusion of trans women in sports. These videos get hundreds of thousands of views, with thousands of comments and up-votes in agreement. But does this mean the message is viral? Likely not. The same for Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin columns attacking immigration, which are popular and read by a lot of people but are likely not viral in spite of the outward appearance of virality.

Low-information discourse, which includes arguments that appeal to a black and white sense of morality and the oversimplification of complicated social problems, is popular in so far that a lot people are receptive so such discourse and agree with the simple, self-evident arguments brought forth, but such discourse does not lend itself to viralness. If one was to copy Joe Rogan’s or Ben Shapiro’s arguments and rhetorical style in the hope of organically gaining even fraction of the same audience size by espousing what is a popular message (such as opposing trans women competing against cis women in sports), they would be disappointed and surprised to find it does not work in terms of building an audience or going viral. Why is that.

The problem is, low-information discourse tends to appeal most to people who have average or below-average IQs (90-115 IQ or so), but because IQ and the the size of one’s social network and influence are positively corelated, a message that targets or is most receptive to an average-IQ audience will almost never attain the necessary chain reaction of of dissemination to go viral, whereas articles and commentary that appeal to smart people, who tend to have large social networks, have the potential to go viral, and do. This is why you will almost never see a Sowell, Coulter, Rogan, Krugman, Tucker, Malkin, or Ben Shapiro article or podcast ever go viral, but sites and authors who appeal to smart readers, as diverse as Wait But Why, Moldbug, and Slate Star Codex, were viral, organic successes.

So how are Rogan, Malkin, Prager, Coulter, Tucker, Shapiro, etc. so popular if their messages do not have a propensity for viralness. The answer is that these pundits and commentators typically have the backing of major media institutions or billionaires, who spend extensively on promotion in the hope of not only building a large audience (which creates the outward appearance of virality), but also profiting by pushing ads and selling merchandise and recurring subscriptions to this audience. I have seen Google ads, for example, promoting Ben Shapiro, paid for by The Daily Wire, which is backed by Texas fracking billionaires Farris and Dan Wilks. After many years and tens of millions of dollars spent on ads, even the most unoriginal, low-information commentator can have a sizable audience.