Mick Fanning and the attack of the sharers

Mick Fanning’s infamous encounter with a shark at Jeffreys Bay was among the most shared news stories on the planet last week.

The graphic below shows the birth of the viral phenomenon. It’s taken from our Likeable Engine software that tracks the sharing of news stories on social media.


Each line on the graph represents a single article as it amasses Facebook and Twitter shares over time. The steeper the curve, the faster the story is spreading through social media.

Midnight on Sunday, July 19, is circled. This is the point at which six articles about the Fanning incident were published. As you can see, three of them soon started gaining quickly on Facebook and Twitter. The other three were on a slightly slower burn. Fox Sports’ version attracted the most shares: almost 52,000 in the 24-hour period following publication.

The fact this story was plastered all over the homepages of news sites around the world — and then shared so widely — is not surprising. You don’t need to know anything about news or social media to realise footage of Fanning being attacked by a shark was ‘AMAZING’, as many described it on Facebook.

But isolating the reasons why it shared so well is a valuable exercise. What lessons can news editors draw from the Fanning phenomenon that they can apply to the next viral candidate?

This story was extra special because it contained an unusually high amount of elements that in, our experience, drive sharing (we go deeper into these in our upcoming book All Your Friends Like This – How Social Networks Took Over News, which hits the shelves in September)

  1. Novelty
    The desire in sharers to be first with the news in their network is strong. Our analysis of shared news stories shows this ‘town crier’-style behaviour – which we call Newsbreaking –contributes about 20 per cent of total news story social distribution. Newsbreaking behaviour is driven by people sharing stories about something new that has happened (as opposed to people sharing comment and speculative pieces for the purpose of judging others, which we call Teaming). The more novel or unique the story, the more it’s shared by Newsbreakers. And this was one novel story. There are all manner of reassuring statistics about shark attacks. The chances of dying from an attack are said to be anywhere between one-in-11 million and one-in-3 million. You are more likely to die in a collision with deer than an encounter with a shark, according to Florida’s International Shark Attack File. Of course, the odds are a lot lower if you’re bobbing in the water at Jeffreys Bay on the southern tip of Africa, bang in the middle of great white migration route. Still, the observation of a shark attack on live TV in the final of a professional world tour surfing event is extremely rare.
  2. The Reverse
    This isn’t shark bites man. It’s man punches shark. Any familiar story type (shark attacks person) that is turned on its narrative head (person fights off shark and survives) has a head start in Sharingland. This is a classic structure that – like novelty – has been a mainstay of story-telling as long as stories have been told.
  3. Heart-starting
    How did you feel when you viewed the footage of Fanning’s attack? I was more activated than a Pete Evans almond. My pulse noticeably quickened as Fanning was knocked from his board, even though I knew he survived. In their seminal study at Wharton School in the US, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found that physiological activation increases the likelihood of people sharing content. They even discovered people were more likely to share content after jogging on the spot. You can see this effect in the tweets Australians were sending on Monday morning after they woke up and saw the footage for the first time. Lots of all-caps comments such as INSANE and OMG!
  4. Celebrity
    Okay, he’s no Kim Kardashian in the global recognition stakes but Fanning is probably the second most famous surfer after Kelly Slater. This footage would have been massive even if it was an anonymous surfer featured. But as news editors have always known, things that happen to famous people are more interesting because of who they happened to. Yet another old-school news rule-of-thumb that holds for sharing.

Oh, and we use the term ‘shark attack’ advisedly. It looked like an attack to my untrained eye, but some experts are saying there wouldn’t have been too much splashing and thrashing had a great white wanted to make a meal of Mick. It would have been over in one big chomp.

Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

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

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