How to write a popular piece that spreads around in five easy steps -
1. Write a lot.
2. When you stumble into writing something that's somewhat interesting, go to step 3.
3. Spend a lot of time brainstorming titles that would entice people to want to click on it and read it.
4. Spend a lot of time writing and re-writing the first paragraph to grab people and take them on a whirlwind adventure tour right away.
5. (optional) Spend a lot of time on the last paragraph or sentence to end the piece in a satisfying way.
Now, honestly, I wish it weren't like that - I wish good, calm, stable content just won because it was good, calm, stable.
But that doesn't work as well if you want the maximum likelihood your pieces spread to new readers online.
If you write a piece called "A few thoughts on getting more things done," that's not as likely to spread as, "Kill your schedule."
"Pros and Cons of X" will tend to underperform a more outrageous, less balanced title. "Reflections on the Last Decade" is a lot less likely to spread than "Reflections on the Worstest Silliest Most Backward Decade of All Time"...
Not that they have to be negative topics, you could style things up in a positive way too. Though, negative topics do seem more conducive to spreading - for some reason it's more socially acceptable and appealing to write a filthy nasty rant than to just express appreciation for something you think works well.
I really do wish things were a little different. And maybe they will be someday, but I doubt it. Human nature being what it is, people click on absurd titles more often than respectable titles. Hell, people even do this if they expect to be offended - I think a lot of people secretly like to get outraged. Ultra-progressive people listen to hard line conservative radio to be outraged, and hyper-socially-conservative people dive into Howard Stern...
That's how things work, unfortunately - the underlying content does matter, but a little panache in title + first paragraph + conclusion makes things more likely to spread and spread faster.
If you really didn't like that it's this way, you could make a dent in the problem by spending some time promoting solid, unambitiously-titled content. I'd respect that, I'd actually love to live in a world where things won purely on some sort of objective merit, if such a world were possible.
But hey, things are how they are. You could fight it by promoting better content that's under-promoted. You could maybe transcend it with a highly curated reading list. You could decide you can't beat 'em, so you'll join 'em. Or you could pour gas on the fire by getting publicly outraged, ideally sparking a back and forth controversy of some sort, and playing right into the hand of the generator-of-outrage.
Anyways, you'll have to excuse me because we've got a Risk game to play in Beijing. I'm going for Australia.