YouTube/Candace Payne

There's a lot lost in the tendency to label any popular video as "viral." This increasingly meaningless characterization belies the wild degrees of variability between a story like, "Batesville teachers’ year-end dance goes viral," which received a little more than 100 shares on Facebook, and the now-famous Chewbacca Mom.

Chewbacca Mom wasn't just "viral." Chewbacca Mask was a full-on worldwide epidemic, receiving hundreds of thousands of times the attention of the Batesville teachers' year-end dance. After breaking Facebook Live's record for views on a video (almost 150 million), Candace Payne—the woman joyfully applying a Chewbacca mask—has visited Facebook headquarters, gone on James Corden's show, got Autotuned, earned Kohl's millions of dollars, and told People magazine that "she's enjoying every single moment!" It's a colossus, and a recent study by a group of European researchers is a helpful guide in explaining to us exactly why.

In the Harvard Business Review, a handful of people from a content marketing agency called Fractl broke down a study authored by Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise on what causes something online to go viral. This study, Fractl says, breaks new ground on how we perceive which videos blow up (like Chewbacca Mom) and which don't:

The findings indicate that individual emotions may not determine virality — what really matters may be where the emotions fall within the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model. This scale is frequently used in psychology to categorize emotions. Each individual emotion is a combination of three characteristics:

  • Valence is the positivity or negativity of an emotion. Happiness has a positive valence; fear has a negative valence.
  • Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation. Anger is a high-arousal emotion; sadness is low-arousal.
  • Dominance ranges from submission to feeling in control. Fear is low-dominance; an emotion a person has more choice over, such as admiration, is high-dominance.

So! The study, in essence, tells us specific feelings associated with a video don't matter as much in determining its viral potential. For "social sharing," specifically, it's not all that important if the video is happy—or sad, or shocking, or depressing. Rather, the likelihood a story will be shared depends mostly on what the authors call "feelings of high dominance, where the reader feels in control."

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Back to the Chewbacca Mom. The Fractl authors later write that "positive content is primed for social sharing." This isn't new! This is one of the central tenants of the internet. But there's more to Chewbacca Mom than the simple positivity of the video, of course—it has to do with the sense on control provided to the viewer.

Most of the coverage of the video focuses on Payne's unceasing laughter after she puts on the Chewbacca Mask. And sure, that's pretty great. It's hard not to have a giant smile plastered on your face after watching her burst into maniacal giggles.

But the key to the video's success, if this study is to be believed, is Payne's preamble, where she presents herself as a wholly unthreatening, utterly affable character."I'm really excited to share with you something I got," she says at the start of the video, smiling and clapping her hands together. (Fear, on the other hand, reduces the likelihood a piece will be shared; if you feel powerless or intimidated by the subject, it's unlikely you'll want to show it to a friend.)

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To me, Payne exhibits the extreme end of the "in control" spectrum. Within seconds of the video, you just know: this woman is just goddamn pleasant. She talks about things just about everyone knows (Kohl's, kids, Star Wars) with self-deprecating humor and panache.

The laugh, of course, is a big part of the video's transcendent success. After all, "high dominance" is strongly correlated with happiness, which is in abundance here. It plays its part, but so does Payne's character, which is as unthreatening and charming as can be.

Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.