The science behind Facebook’s viral #10YearChallenge

Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at The Wharton School, and author of ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On,’ discusses why people are suddenly eager to talk aging on social media.

Benjamin Franklin statue in front of College Hall
The Benjamin Franklin statue outside of College Hall.

It’s not obvious why showing off wrinkles and receding hairlines is suddenly hip. But, on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media channels, it is. 

Since 2019 kicked off, many who partake in social media have posted diptych images of themselves from approximately 10 years ago to 2019. It’s a seemingly surprising subject to go viral, inside a culture that avoids aging at all costs and spends billions annually on anti-aging products.

What gives?

Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at The Wharton School, chimes in with some insight, relating it to his past research on word of mouth, viral marketing, and social influence.

Why has this particular trend of posting then-and-now photos of a person aging caught on, with ostensibly no incentive for the person posting? Isn’t the idea usually that we put out the best version of our imagined selves on social media?

It might seem like there is no incentive, but there’s actually a big one: People get an opportunity to show off. ‘Look at me, look at how much I’ve changed,’ or ‘Look at me, look at how much I haven’t changed.’ They also get to participate in something popular, so they’re part of the zeitgeist, and unlike a complicated dance move or weird catchphrase, this trend is something anyone can do. 

Is there an academic way of explaining this as FOMO? Or a bandwagon effect?

It’s less about FOMO and more about jumping on the bandwagon. Once lots of people are doing something, others often join in to be part of the group. But notice that doesn’t explain why this challenge, rather than something else, took off in the first place. And that is where the STEPPS come in.
There are six key factors that drive people to share. In [my book] ‘Contagious,’ I organized them into a framework called STEPPS that stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.

What are those? And is there a combination of these that are most present in this scenario?

Social Currency is the idea that just like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, what we share is a signal of who we are. So, the better something makes someone look, the more likely they are to share it.

Triggers—top of mind, means tip of tongue. Why do we talk so much about the weather or where we’re going for lunch? People talk about what they’re thinking about, even if it’s not the most interesting.

Emotion—when we care, we share. The more something evokes high arousal emotions, the more likely people are to pass it on.

Practical Value—news you can use. People share helpful, informative things (e.g., discounts and health tips) to make others better off.

Stories—narratives are like Trojan horses, carrying information and ideas along for the ride.
All six factors are rarely present at once, but we often see some combination of Social Currency, high-arousal Emotion, and Practical Value in things that go viral online.

How is the process for deciding to make a Facebook post about aging different from the decision to share a blog post or video?

It might seem different but the drivers are actually very much the same. How will it make me look to others? Does it evoke emotion? Does it tell an engaging story?

How do you explain social transmission, in this case—thinking about how emotion spurs people to share? What strong emotion would they be having here that makes a person compelled to post a photo demonstrating their aging process? Wouldn’t this be a pretty negative emotion to share?

It’s important to remember that these photos are highly curated. People aren’t just posting any photo of their past but one they selected. So, just like a regular post, they can pick and choose what they want to convey through the image they choose. And if the photo was terrible, people probably just wouldn’t post it. Or they’d only post it if they were willing to poke fun at themselves.

You’ve studied how people react to social media photos, looking at posed photos versus candids. Where would you imagine this falls on that spectrum? As you mentioned, there’s a curated element to this, if not a posed one. Do you think those engaging with these photos actually look at them favorably?

Most observers look at these favorably and, like most photos, almost all of them are posed. And if not posed, so-called ‘plandids,’ where the photo looks candid but people actually carefully set them up. 

Do you think this post trend says anything about how we consume information on social media today? It’s a very visual post to put out, for example.

Visual and video have certainly supplanted text. When you scroll through a feed, think what grabs your attention. An image, or still from a video, is much more likely to get us to pause and check it out.

Is there a social media viral trend that’s happened in the past that’s similar to this?

This builds off the recent trend of naming ‘challenges’ to give them legitimacy and encourage participation. Everything from the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ to the ‘In my Feelings Challenge.’ Originally, people do it to stand out and be the first to do something, but once they gain steam, other people glom on to be part of the wave.

When these trendy posts become a thing, is there typically a postmortem on why that was? Are marketers paying attention?

Marketers are less interested in why one thing went viral and more interested in the science of virality more generally, so they can make their stuff spread. [The science of virality has] helped hundreds of companies and organizations craft contagious content and get products, services, and ideas to become popular. From political messages and technology devices to business-to-business software and consumer-packaged goods.

Do you have any research you’re working on now that’s related to this? What’s the latest in the study of word of mouth?

Right now, we’re using natural language processing and textual analysis tools to extract behavioral insight from text. In addition to why people share, we’re looking at what about online content leads to deeper engagement and longer reads. What about the way an article is written makes a reader want to continue reading? And how, by understanding that, can content creators design content that will have more impact?