Around a third of ninemsn’s most shared stories of the last year contain “a reverse”: a situation where the opposite of the expected has occurred.
There’s nothing deep or mysterious about the reverse. It appears in traditional journalism – “man bites dog” – and has a power that enhances all types of factual storytelling. Think about Beethoven, the genius who composed many sublime works when he was deaf.
The reverse is a special case of “something out of the ordinary” and I draw it out not as a profundity but as a simple tool for journalists looking for a shareable story.
The examples from ninemsn include the image of a frog who hitched a ride on the back of a snake during the Queensland floods last year. The man who submitted the photograph to ninemsn, Armin Gerlach, named the photograph “thelionandthelamb.jpg”. Armin’s Biblical reference points to the longevity of the reverse. That article was shared 54,000 times, and all because snakes normally eat frogs and here was one helping out the little guy (in the midst of a national crisis).
The Donna Simpson story, which Andy Hunter has written about as a great example of deviance, is also a reverse. Normally overweight people want to lose weight.
Weddings are susceptible to reversals, because they are archetypically happy occasions. The storytelling juice is particularly powerful if something bad happens to the bride. So we have brides getting bashed, handcuffed and hanging out of tall buildings. The bride frequently has a torrid time of it in sharing land.
Most reversals are not pleasant. There was the baby who drowned during a baptism, the toddler puffing away at his cigarette like a hardened barfly, a fast-food worker screaming obscenities rather than “have a nice day” at his customers.
Surprise is the key to the success of the reverse. Anything that is the exact opposite of the expected is going to be surprising – and in general, we find surprising things interesting. Why? You can answer that a few ways. You could look at the informational content. If we have a pattern committed to memory, subsequent repetitions of the pattern are not adding any data. This is the Gleick way of looking at surprise. The toddler who babbles and smiles and cries is delightful, but normal – the toddler who takes a drag on a ciggie and looks at you sullenly from the seat of a tricycle just added a whole bunch of data to your world.
You can also take a more psychological approach – the Kahneman way – and look at how the brain latches on to anything not already represented in its model of the world. We go around furiously looking for exceptions to our “world models” so we can update the model and be ready to make snap judgments. The mind craves deviance – and when it locates it, it puts it in a big file marked “pay attention”.
A consequence of both these theories is that no story stays interesting. Old data is old data – if you’ve seen something before, it’s no longer surprising. The old story is already part of your world view, and repeat instances become less and less noteworthy. This “story fatigue” is borne out in digital media daily, where editors using analytical tools see topics born, grow and fade away over the space of days and weeks.
Like all theories, “the reverse” stands or falls not on how well it explains existing phenomena, but how useful it is: can it be used to tell us something we didn’t know before? It should be able to predict story ideas that will be popular. Here’s a few thought starters:
• the taxi driver who gives money to his fares
• the disaster that improves the economy
• the fashion model who doesn’t care what she looks like
• the shark that helps a swimmer
• the refined criminal
You get the idea – there are reverses, and therefore hugely shareable stories, lurking everywhere if you are primed to recognise them. Just remember the tyranny of story fatigue and know that even if you find a winner, you won’t be able to rely on it for long.