Social Sharing, Awe and Architecture

An article in the New York Times reported on a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania questioning what kind of information travels fastest through social networks and why? A six-month intensive study of the most-emailed articles in the New York Times revealed some very interesting trends.

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Articles with positive themes were emailed far more often than negative or downer articles. After noticing that science articles received a surprisingly high rate of email shares, researchers concluded that articles that inspired awe were the most popular and most likely to be shared.

“More emotional stories were more likely to be e-mailed, the researchers found, and positive articles were shared more than negative ones…They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires ‘mental accommodation’ by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.”

Determining the root of this behavioral trend was somewhat trickier. Ideas of reciprocal altruism came up, meaning offering something of value and counting on a return favor in the future, as well as the possibility of status and competition, trying to elevate or maintain social status by portraying oneself and well informed. However, researchers concluded that people were actually seeking “emotional communion”

“Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion. If I’ve just read this story and that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to other about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”

– Dr. Jonah Berger

Can this research indicate anything about how architectural projects or ideas are valued and shared? I imagine that sharing awe-inspiring experiences or knowledge holds true for architecture. There are many projects – modern, classic and ancient – that we hold in our collective consciousness as being awe-inspiring. The Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, The Acropolis, Therme Vals, The Alhambra, The City of Arts and Sciences, etc, etc. These are projects that, whether we have seen them or not, we understand to be awe-inspiring and value them accordingly.

What makes us want to tell others about architecture we have seen or (preferably) visited? From personal experience I only share projects that seem to hold a connection to the land, people and environmental forces in creative ways. Others, while I may find them interesting, radical, good or absurd, I do not often find them worth passing on. Of the projects and cities that I remember best and tell people the most about that I have visited, it is always ones that carefully, brilliantly or perhaps subtly addressed the human.

Does the potential for people sharing and spreading the word on architectural projects influence the projects? For example consider the Burj Khalifa and the never ending race for the world’s tallest building.  Its seems that the power of awe is being used in a big way; it is difficult to imagine a building reaching half of a mile into the sky. Is it possible that awe is created but also used as a mechanism to ensure that everyone tells everyone and thereby validates the existence of the tower and concretizes Dubai’s prominence? I am also reminded of the building boom in Beijing prior to the 2008 Olympic Games. The projects were, in their own right, revolutionary, a testament to the building boom and the times, and successfully generated a lot of attention. Now, however, many of the projects and planning schemes are facing criticism for being empty, and for not considering their use and value after the Olympics. These two articles, one by The Architects Newspaper and one by the New York Times, look further into this issue and compare Beijing and Vancouver Olympic construction.

Awe is powerful and probably often overlooked, but research shows that we connect strongly to it and that it influences us to share the experience in order to connect to one another. What types of stories do you share? What architectural projects generate the most awe?

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