Why Donna’s deviance drives distribution

Donna Simpson

Big goal ... Ms Simpson downs 70 pieces of sushi in one sitting.

Donna Simpson weighs more than quarter of a tonne. She became the world’s heaviest mother when she gave birth to her daughter in 2007.

The 42-year-old New Jersey native needs a mobility scooter to get around, eats 70 pieces of sushi in one sitting and costs her family more than $800 per week in groceries.

She is actively increasing her risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and a premature death by heart disease, stroke or cancer, which would leave husband Phillipe and their baby daughter without a wife and mother.

But Ms Simpson is determined to do something about her condition.

She’s fattening up.

Encouraged by Phillipe, who she met on a dating site for men seeking overweight women, Ms Simpson is stuffing herself with six-times the recommended daily calorie intake in an effort to hit 450kg and become the world’s fattest woman.

She’s financing the project with a website where she charges men to watch her eat.

It’s a strange tale and one that has been shared on Facebook more than any other ninemsn story in the past six months.

It contains two of the most powerful sharing triggers we’ve observed in our most-shared stories: deviance and ‘the reversal’, as we call it.

Rookie reporters are told ‘Dog bites man’ is no story at all but ‘Man bites dog’ is front-page material. This is the reversal – when the traditional narrative is flipped –and it’s a strong sharing force that my colleague Hal Crawford will examine in upcoming posts.

Perhaps even more powerful is the presence of deviance in the narrative: when the subject demonstrates perverse, repugnant, or criminal behaviour.

News media has traditionally focused on deviance – highlighting the unusual rather than faithfully recounting the events of the day – because normal service is mundane and weird is fascinating.

The unusual case of Donna Simpson is a good example. Most overweight people want to lose weight but our morbidly obese subject has consciously decided to go the other way. It provokes several pressing questions: why would she want to do this; what’s wrong with her; how could she do this to her family; isn’t it strange that men want to watch obese women gorge themselves?

This sort of deviance can create anxiety in readers because it forces them to examine their own behaviour and test their concept of what is normal. It also leads them to share.

Anxiety is state of arousal and we know from Milkman and Berger’s virality study that people are more likely to share media when aroused. Probably more powerful is the readers’ need to reassert their apparent normality within society – by sharing this story about deviant behaviour or thinking, they say to their network, ‘look how strange this person is’ and therefore ‘look how normal I am/we are’.

Exposure to this story has the same effect as an old-fashioned freak show – it makes the audience feel perplexed, inclined to share and closer to the mainstream.

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Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Microsoft's MSN. Twitter: @Huntzie

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