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Harnessing ‘virality’ the Holy Grail for MuggleNet founder Emerson Spartz

by Ed Cohen

October 19, 2012

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 The entrepreneur who created the world’s No. 1 Harry Potter fansite when he was 12 years old said he has spent the years since trying to figure out why things go viral. “Because when you understand why things go viral, that is as close to having a super-human power as you can have.”

Emerson Spartz (BBA ’09) created MuggleNet in 1999 when he was a brainy, restless home-schooler growing up in LaPorte, Ind., southeast of Chicago. Last year, the site generated more than 64 million page views.

Today, as the 25-year-old founder and CEO of Spartz Media, based in Chicago, the Notre Dame alumnus oversees a small empire of websites that specialize in user-contributed factoids, fads and anecdotes. Collectively, the 15 sites draw 160 million page views per month, he said.

Spartz returned to the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business on Oct. 2, 2012, in a talk to students in the College’s weekly Entrepreneurial Insights course and lecture series.  

Speaking for more than an hour at near super-human speed, the youthful entrepreneur described how his unique upbringing encouraged him dream big and become a disciplined learner.

He and his brother convinced their parents to allow them to learn at home because they were bored in school, he said. His parents had already been paying him a penny for every page of reading he did in lieu of an allowance. One of the conditions of the home learning was reading four short biographies of successful people every day.

“The success I had with MuggleNet coupled with these biographies got me thinking, ‘You know what, I’m going to do something really, really big. I’m going to change the world. If I can do all this and I’m only 12, imagine what I can do when I’m 15.”

Spartz said there are many ways to change the world, but virality—the phenomenon of things going viral on the Web or in real life—is a powerful tool. He gave the example of the “Kony 2012” campaign of the organization Invisible Children, a group that aims to bring attention to the decades-old civil war in northern Uganda in which thousands of children have been forced to fight.

“Kony 2012” was a film about Joseph Kony, leader of a rebel group known to have abducted children and turned them into soldiers and sex slaves. The Kony film has been viewed more than 100 million times online since its release in early March 2012, although Joseph Kony remains at large.

Spartz said he has conducted thousands of small experiments trying to find out what variables correlate positively to virality. One, he said, involved creating pages on Facebook early in the social-networking site’s history with unique titles such “Stop lying, that wasn't your last piece of gum.”

“If something went viral, I would pull out my investigator’s monocle, if there is such a thing as an investigator’s monocle, and see what made this thing go vital,” he said.

The results of the experiments inform Spartz Media’s ever-growing collection of sites, including GivesMeHope, where users share inspiring true stories in a few sentences. He mentioned this story about a girl and sign language, which originated on the spinoff site LoveGivesMeHope. It has been shared more than a million times on Facebook, he said.

Spartz said his company’s sites rely on a panel of 30 audience members who cull the best 5 percent of all material submitted. The chosen few submissions get promoted on the sites, which make money from advertising that runs next to the content, he said.  

Spartz said he’s exploring new ways to use this user-chooser dynamic, such as helping record companies discover which songs are most likely to become hits.

The young entrepreneur didn’t discuss how much money is being made by Spartz Media, which has grown to 30 employees, but he told the entrepreneurship students that lucrative opportunities continue to abound online.

“The Internet is still very much a wild, wild west of opportunity, where there are just piles of gold sitting in corners for people who have done the right amount of research to go over and scoop up.”

Entrepreneurial Insights is a fall lecture series and course of Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. It features entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and business leaders who offer their experience and advice in areas critical to the creation of new ventures, the ongoing viability of existing business, economic growth and the betterment of society. For more information about the series or the Gigot Center visit http://business.nd.edu/gigot_center/