Social media is everywhere you look. Even this article has the telltale signs of the social media age – buttons for social sharing. However, our growing attachment goes much deeper than giving a simple nod to a product, article or even a person. Here we’ll look at how social media works by exploring the most important concepts behind this powerful outgrowth of the web. (To learn more about social media and other trends, see The 6 Most Important Trends in Online Business.)

The Social Sharing Habit

At the heart of social media is our desire to share information. Long before the internet, people loved passing on tips about the best restaurants or where to go on vacation, as well as juicer gossip like who was sleeping in the wrong bed, which famous people were on drugs and so on. The news was a primary agent in dispersing information, but it was through conversations between friends that these stories were really heard, analyzed and promoted.

Pre-Social Media

Socially sharing information got a lot easier with the web, as forums, newsgroups, fan sites and emailed links emerged to help spread the word, in some cases even taking over from traditional media outlets. Again, the links emailed or posted by a friend or a trusted source were the most likely to be opened, read and sent on to more friends. In this sense, what social media has added to the existing habit of social sharing is a standard interface – not to mention simplicity.

The Simplicity of the Social Sharing Platform

If you communicate with your personal network through Facebook, you know you can share any piece of content with all your friends and acquaintances just by clicking the "Like" or "Share" buttons. Facebook does the rest, as does Twitter, LinkedIn or any of the other social media platforms. It's a simple way to spread any message because you don’t have to create a profile for each forum that interests you or CC all your email contacts. Social media offers a central platform, making social sharing both instant and painless. Instead of having coffee with all your friends to pass on that choice piece of gossip, you can now post, share, tweet or like it with the press of a button.

The Strength in Numbers

One of the aspects of social media that makes it so alluring to marketers, movie producers and organizations of all types is the ability to harness the collective intelligence of the crowd, whether to spread a specific message, improve their product or discover the next big trend. Large groups can yield important insights, provide a vital boost or, in a worst-case scenario, damn an enterprise before it even gets off the ground. In the business realm, social media acts as a lens that can focus group power, and deliver noticeable and immediate impacts both on- and offline.

Crowds Shape the Content

Through social media, advertising firms can send users to YouTube to see what videos have the most views. This ultimately influences the commercials you see on TV as well as online. You can draw a conceptual line from extreme advertising parodies like Powerthirst (2007) to mainstream campaigns like the Old Spice Guy (2010). And it’s not just advertisers who work to harness the powerful boost social media can provide; content producers of all stripes check sites like Mashable and Twitter in and attempt to draw lessons from content with large numbers of shares. If you feel like every headline on the internet is either inanely literate or an homage to The Onion and Cracked.com, you’re not crazy – you’re seeing social-media driven natural selection in action. More than likely, you’re also helping it along with every link you click.

Going Viral, Becoming Memes

So, when you combine an easy-to-use social sharing interface with an increasing number of internetworked people and groups,what do you get? In many cases, the conditions for something to be shared so much that it goes viral. Essentially the content, be it a video, a Flash game, an article or a photo, hits a critical mass where it is shared so widely that it becomes a piece of internet culture. Going viral can see a piece of content rack up millions of views in a very short period of time. That said, not all viral content reaches the status of an internet meme and becomes part of popular culture. Even for those that do achieve this coveted status, their shelf life is often very short. (Learn about internet memes and enjoy some of the most popular ones so far in A Beginner's Guide to Internet Memes.)

The Anatomy of Viral Content

To go viral, a piece of content has to have a hook to get and keep viewers right away. For example, articles generally depend on a good title and a strong lead to keep the reader going. Then, if the whole of the content meets expectations – or maybe even exceeds them – the viewer will be likely to share it. After a piece of content reaches the level of sharing needed to go viral – although there is no standard measurement for this – the actual content takes a back seat to the peer pressure of needing know what everyone else is viewing. What this means is that while the content matters up to a point, the actual mechanics of sharing may play a larger role in viral internet phenomena. (Unfortunately, scams and hoaxes are often designed to go viral as well. Find out more in 7 Signs of a Facebook Scam.)

The Role of Social Media Mavens

The magic in social media comes with the fact that not all social sharing is equal. In fact, it is not even close. In any social network, there will be people whose sharing does much more to spread content across social media realms than others. In the fashion world, these people are called trend setters. In social media, they are sometimes called social media mavens because the content they single out has a better chance of going viral than other content. These people are not valued for their ability to use social media as much as their ability to act as a hub between many networks.

Without social media mavens, viral sharing would saturate an immediate network of friends and then fizzle out (and this often does happen). When mavens promote a link, this allows it to jump into new areas and continue to spread. Within every network, there are people who act as mavens or sharing hubs.

Like all truly powerful things, social media is made up of simple concepts. We like sharing information and we tend to like things that people we know or trust like. Social media has simply taken these old tenets and scaled them up for the web, making our personal networks larger and more powerful than ever before. All this has been achieved with the simplest interface – a few buttons that you can use to tell your friends and followers what caught your eye today.