The New York Times' most-emailed list, marvels Thomas E. Weber at The Daily Beast, "is one of the Internet's key barometers of news and trends, an essential way for the world to stumble onto stories and ideas that might otherwise get lost in the ether of the perpetual news cycle."

So why in the world did the world become engrossed last week in an obscure, three-week-old Times story on an exhibition of cuneiform clay tablets?

Well, actually, it didn't. Weber just cracked the paper's popularity code.

Weber set out to illustrate a lesson of the "viral media age" we live in:

Even at the biggest newspaper website in the world, the content that is spotlighted as most engaging reflects the judgment of a group far smaller than the overall audience, and can even be gamed by those motivated enough to do so.

Popularity, of course, is considered a key metric of the information age. From entertainers courting the spotlight to entrepreneurs who want publicity for their ventures--and don't forget journalists slaving away at their keyboards--"going viral" is a cherished goal. Exposure begets more exposure. With the electronic fire hose pouring out torrents of content each day, many turn to what's already been deemed interesting by others--whether it's their Facebook friends or the collective readership of a major publication--to help them filter.

Weber recruited an army of friends and colleagues to send the anointed article around using the Times' email function. Forty-eight hours and 1,270 emails later, the piece appeared as the third most-emailed article on the Times' homepage.

Weber's takeaway? "Out of the 30-plus million Times website visitors each month," according to his calculations, "it takes only one out of every 25,000 emailing a particular story to secure it a spot, at least for a day, in the hallowed most-emailed list."