An associate of mine (whose site I helped build from a loose collection of “niche” web presences floating around on free web hosts to a social media platform in the Alexa 100k last summer), gave me a copy of Adam L. Penenberg's Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves to help me come to grips on some of the issues we were having to deal with in relation to that project (like “How could we have so much traffic and user minutes but so little ad revenue?”).
In this the concept of “viral” is directly addressed, which expresses itself mathematically as a “viral coefficient”, which is how many people one person will introduce the site, product, or concept to … a figure below 1 indicates low growth, a figure of 1 has slow growth, eventually stalling, but something that has a coefficient above 1 will eventually exhibit exponential growth, with figures as low a 1.2 quickly exploding up the graphs.
This is not, however, a math book. It is, frankly, more of a history of companies which have (or have not) had this sort of growth. One is tempted to think this has been solely a product of the Internet Age, but the near-instantaneous global reach has only super-charged the underlying functions of viral growth, and the book reflects this by first looking at companies like Tupperware in the 50's, and even to the somewhat related model created by the notorious Charles Ponzi in 1919/20. Of course, the dynamics which drove the growth of these examples found extreme expression when the Web came into the equation, and the book looks at many who won, lost, and rode assorted waves (it is amazing how many of these companies have been developed serially by a core group of entrepreneurs).
The dynamics of companies that have “gone viral” are picked apart here, and the concept of a “viral loop” introduced … of particular interest is this list of “Shared Characteristics of Viral Loop Companies”: Web-based … Free … Organizational technology … Simple concept … Build-in virality … Extremely fast adoption … Exponential growth … Virality index … Predictable growth rates … Network effects … Stackability … Point of nondisplacement … Ultimate saturation. Obviously, most of these concepts need the level of explanation that's given in the book (for instance, “Stackability” is the way that one viral company can piggyback on another, in the way that PayPal grew through the already viral eBay), so I won't try to even thumbnail all of those here.
Again, while there is quite a lot of theory in Viral Loop, the examples are always anchored to specific companies, and individuals, so this phases back and forth between a book about virality in general, and a historical document (having lived through the early evolution of the Web myself, I found it fascinating to “have a program” with all the players and their roles detailed!) which tracks the development of the viral model over the past couple of decades. Social media (much covered in this space of late) is only the latest manifestation of what these dynamics produce, and it's interesting to ponder where this all will be going next.
Viral Loop is a relatively recent release (last year), so it's likely to be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor if they have much business or internet product available. Amazon has it at about 1/3rd off of cover, and the new/used guys have new copies that you could get for under ten bucks (including shipping), so it's pretty painlessly available. If you have a more professional or technical interest in things in the Social Media sphere, this is likely something that you should be adding to your “to be read” pile!