(The Guardian) Inside Britain’s meme factory
If you think things go viral on the internet by luck, think again: there’s an industry gaming the system and Manchester’s Social Chain is leading the way
On a high wall in the corner of Social Chain’s Manchester office, with a look of serene exasperation, Jesus Christ looks down on the sea of millennials and Generation Zedders (or whatever the dominant term is for the under-20s this month) tapping out tweets and social media stories. The mural, which stretches across the width of the office, is a riff on Leonardo’s The Last Supper. The faces of the disciples at the table, however, are not dipped towards plates of food, but into glowing screens. There’s Luke, gawping at an Instagram story on his phone. There’s Judas, tittering into an iPad. Christ, meanwhile, stands at the centre of the table, flanked by his inattentive followers, shoulders shrugged, palms upturned in part vexation, part resignation.
For Social Chain, which has, with nosebleed velocity, grown from five staff to almost 200 in the space of two years and now has an annual turnover of £9m, it is a joke on which an empire has been founded. The company’s youthful employees (the head of video production joined at the age of 17) run several hundred of the UK’s most popular social media accounts covering sport, video games, fitness and food. Videos produced here, on a gleaming kitchen set that bakes in the glare of TV studio lights, are now watched more than 4.5bn times a month.
Steve Bartlett, the company’s 25-year-old co-founder, regularly boasts to potential clients that he can make any hashtag – that is, a word or phrase that classifies or categorises the accompanying text in shorthand – trend on Twitter before he’s finished his presentation. For those who work in marketing, it’s not so much a party trick as true magic: arcane, powerful, irresistible. “Traditional agencies have not been able to adapt – or even if they have, the staff there are not native social media users; they’ve had to learn this stuff as adults,” says Bartlett. It’s a compelling pitch. Social Chain’s clients now include Coca-Cola, Fifa and Spotify; one of its most recent recruits came from a senior position at Saatchi and Saatchi.
Hannah Anderson quit her teacher training course in 2014 to become the company’s first employee. On a chilly winter day, she stands in the open-plan staff kitchen (different to the studio kitchen, which is housed in another wing of the warren-like office complex), opposite the exasperated Christ, to address a few dozen employees in a daily “lunch and learn” session. These impromptu lectures are open to anyone – including, it seems, the five dogs that wander the office sniffing at new recruits (four a week at the current rate). The lectures aim to impart something of Social Chain’s culture and rationale (as well as some startling claims, such as: more people own a mobile phone than a toothbrush; 90% of all content online was created in the past 12 months).
Emotion is the fuel that fires virality, explains Anderson. The stronger the emotion that a Facebook post, tweet or Instagram story elicits, the further it will be carried by the churning waves of algorithm, she explains. Content – that icky, catch-all term of the moment for entertainment – only “goes viral” when people share it. And people share feelings, not information. “Low-arousal emotions such as contentment and relaxation are useless in the viral economy,” says Anderson. “They induce humans to close down rather than open up.” If you want to get anywhere in the social-media game, you’re going to need something stronger: frustration, anger, excitement, awe. “There is a lot of science behind all this, you know, and how it connects to human nature and how humans connect with each other,” she says.
To get us thinking about how to make viral content, Anderson splits her audience into four-person teams, each of which is given two sheets of paper. One is labelled with a demographic (our team gets “girls”); on the other, an emotion (“frustration and anger”). Our task is to come up with an idea for a piece of content that will attract angry young women.
“Hmm, what makes girls angry?” asks a teammate.
“Workplace harassment?” I venture.
“It’s good but maybe a little heavy,” says the third man in our group. “How about: a boyfriend who spends all day playing video games?”
The thinking about the psychology of viral content is relatively new at Social Chain. In the heady, early days, it just came naturally. One night, a few years ago, Bartlett’s co-founder, Dom McGregor, a second-year sports science student at Edinburgh University at the time, returned to his student house after a long night’s drinking to find that he was out of toilet roll. Mournful and tipsy, McGregor set up a Twitter account entitled “student problems”, to share his plight with the world. He began tweeting about the indignities of student life, anything “universally relatable”, he says, and soon had gathered an audience of 5,000 followers.
Meanwhile, in Manchester, Bartlett had just dropped out of a course in business management after a single lecture (“My mum didn’t speak to me for 18 months”). Incredulous that, in 2013, universities still used physical noticeboards rather than online ones, Bartlett developed an idea he called Wallpark, a network of web noticeboards, each one specific to a different British university. With a modest sum of investors’ money, he began buying online ads and posting flyers around Manchester, trying to encourage students to use the nascent service. The results disappointed. Then Bartlett came upon McGregor’s student problems Twitter account and had an idea: what if he could advertise his website directly to its followers?
Bartlett and McGregor met up at a bar in York (McGregor wore suit and tie) and Bartlett made his pitch. McGregor quit his course and the pair began posing as students, holing up in library rooms at Manchester University, where, if they arrived early enough, no one would check their IDs. Bartlett’s hunch proved correct. One post about Wallpark on the student problems account drove more traffic to his website than everything else he had tried put together. A magical strategy revealed itself: if Bartlett could persuade other people in the UK who owned popular social media accounts to join him, they could build an untapped audience to which he could market, not just Wallpark, but, potentially, anything.
“A follower was worth nothing,” says Bartlett. “Nobody recognised the value, including the people who owned these accounts.” Hannah Anderson was an exception to the rule. She ran a Harry Potter-themed account titled Hogwarts Logic. It was essentially a fan page, but one infused with wit (example: “On a scale of 1 to Horace Slughorn turning into an armchair to fake his own death, how good are you at avoiding your responsibilities?’). Anderson also had half a million followers.
One day she received a direct message from McGregor: ‘‘Hey man. Love the page.” He then offered to buy the account for £1,500. “At the time I was like, God, £1,500? I’m a poor student and that’s a lot of money,” she says. But she believed it was worth more, and not just in financial terms. “When a Harry Potter pun I’ve written gets 5,000 retweets it has the same effect on your brain as, I imagine, when a standup comic plays an arena show,” she says.” Giving up the venue she had built was unthinkable. Anderson replied to McGregor, suggesting that there might be another way to work together.
“When we met, it was clear that she fit the bill,” says McGregor. “She was young, and not tied down in a way that, say, a 45-year-old might be.” In early 2014, Anderson left Northumbria University to join the team.
That year the trio set up hundreds of new social media accounts designed to quickly attract a following. “We’d try an idea like, say, student life hacks. We would write 10 funny posts about, say, how to save money, or how to eat cheaply, then share those posts on all of our other pages and see what the response was like.” Indifference was not tolerated. Within 60 seconds, Bartlett says, you can tell whether a post is going to go viral or not. Without a sufficient engagement, the post gets deleted. “Nine times out of 10 the accounts wouldn’t work out. So we’d try again. Maybe four or five accounts each, every day.”