The strange case of babies sleeping in boxes

Screen grab of BBC webpage

The "most read" and "most shared" boxes on this website are compelling barometers of public interest. Giles Wilson asks: Do they tell us something about ourselves?

Shortly before babies are born in Finland, they are given a present by the state. It's a cardboard box filled, not with marketing bumf, but with truly useful things for the baby's first few weeks. Clothes, including a snowsuit, hat and mittens, all in non-gender-specific colours. Towels, a thermometer, a picture book. For many babies, the cardboard box itself becomes their first bed. Every baby, whether rich or poor, privileged or deprived, destined for greatness or not, is entitled to the same start in life. Finns are, the subtext goes, born equal.

You may already have heard this story, and you'd be in good company if you have. Three million readers of the BBC News website have read it in the past week alone - making 10 million in the past 20 months. On Wednesday evening it became what we believe to be the first story in the 17-year history of this site to have been shared one million times. A million readers have tweeted it, put it on Facebook, emailed it to a friend. Even more will have mentioned it in passing to the person sitting next to them, but it's a bit hard to count them, even for the BBC.

So what is it about the story which puts it even beyond such classics as The myth of the eight-hour sleep and even Sudan man forced to 'marry' goat, both of which were shared massively in their day?

Image copyright ALAMY

It's not that the story is "news" - the cardboard boxes have been given out for more than 75 years - but it will have been news to most people outside Finland. The headline - Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes - certainly helps because although it's not inaccurate, it could make some readers feel that an intriguingly weird habit has been uncovered. When they've read the story, readers may warm to the egalitarianism of the story. That is the kind of emotion which has been shown to make people want to share stories.

There's something else too. Since June 2013 when it was written for the BBC News Magazine by our correspondent Helena Lee, it's had three waves of popularity - what is termed a long tail. People who weren't interested in it the first or second time around may have found that it chimed with them on the third - perhaps when "baby stories" were more relevant to them.

Dr Alfred Hermida, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, is the author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters. As one of the team which launched the BBC News website, he has kept an eye on what makes stories super-shareable. It is, he says, difficult to forecast which stories will be huge on social media even if they have all the required elements of good stories and elicit the right emotions. There is no predicting, he says, whether people with large networks of friends will actually decide to share them.

In this case, the story may have particularly appealed to people having children, he says, which would help. "People between 24 and 34 are the key demographic which is active on social media."

But the factors which make people share stories in the first place are being researched by neuroscientists, Hermida says. Very early on when someone starts reading a story, they seem to be calculating what will be the value of telling their friends about it. "They're thinking, 'How is this going to reflect on me? Will it look like I'm in the know, and that I've found an interesting nugget that you will really want to know about?'"

It turns out it's not just journalists who like to show off.

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