The Stages of a Viral Tweet

Late last year I was the benefactor (we’ll call it that) of having a tweet go viral. It was fortunately not a tweet in which I made myself look like an asshole (there are an abundance of those if you care to go looking) but it was nonetheless a unique and surreal experience. I joined Twitter in May 2008, shortly after I defended my doctoral thesis, hence my handle, @DoktorAndy. Like most people on the platform, I use Twitter to share things I find interesting, assuming that at least one of the people that follow me share my interests. One thing I’ve often done is post a picture of a page from a book whenever I read something interesting enough to share. Basically, I treat Twitter like that unfortunate soul sat next to you on the bus when you come across something really neat in a book. You know, when you lean too close to them with your finger stabbing at the page begging “Read this!”

That’s just me then? Cool.

Normally when I make a post like that nothing much happens. A few likes here and there, but basically no real interaction. That’s what I was expecting when I posted a page from an Isaac Asimov essay about the “ugly girl with glasses becoming popular” movie trope. You can read the page below.

I posted the tweet and went back to reading. Twenty minutes later the tweet had over a dozen retweets. Interestingly they were all from people that didn’t – and I believe still don’t – follow me. This can only mean that they were searching for one or more of the words I used in the tweet. I suspect because of this they had followers that were primed for this type of content (feminism, sexism, bad movie tropes, etc). From then on, this thing took on a life of its own and I was just along for the ride. Here are the different stages that I could identify in the life cycle of a viral tweet, or more accurately, in the life of the person who posted the tweet.

I want to explain this unique experience to you, but be warned that there is some significant catharsis ahead.

Is… is this tweet going viral?

As retweets and favorites escalated over the course of minutes and hours, the first thing I asked myself was whether this was really “going viral.” Turns out the definition of “social media” viral is somewhat subjective. A celebrity with tens of thousands of followers will regularly get thousands of likes on a meaningless tweet. Proportionately, someone with dozens or a few hundred followers can expect 0-20 likes on a tweet. Viral is generally when there are thousands of likes and retweets when the original poster has no more than a few hundred followers. Within a few hours this tweet had reached over a thousand likes and retweets, so I became confident I had a viral tweet on my hands.

I’m going to get so many new followers!

Yes. Yes you do. Though not as many as you might expect. Next time you see a viral tweet, check out the original poster’s page. Often times that exposure has not helped them secure many followers. Viral posts are weird in that the interesting thing is the content of the post itself, not necessarily the person that posted it. I have no illusions from my own experience; I found something that was in part interesting because it was over fifty years old and written by someone famous. The only part of “me” that entered into this was my eccentric interest in Isaac Asimov essays.

So yes, I got a lot of new followers. Not all of them stayed, but I did meet a lot of nice people from the experience that I talk to regularly. That really is the (only) good part about having a tweet go viral. Because mine was about Isaac Asimov – someone I have a lot of love and respect for – I got to talk with a lot of random people about how incredible Asimov was. That was nothing short of awesome.

Notifications

I admit, when someone likes a tweet that I post it gives me some satisfaction. That’s the point of that little heart button, right?

But when two thousand people a day are liking the same tweet, and roughly that many are retweeting it… Well, it doesn’t take long before you turn off the notifications on your phone. I did try to read every response that people sent me, and some were legitimately insightful.

Haters and Explainers

Because I am a guy, I’m generally not subjected to mansplaining. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get people explaining why the page I posted was interesting. As if I had just randomly posted a page from a book. As if thousands of people had shared it out of some random compulsion. Here are some of the more ridiculous responses I got.

“He’s completely wrong, though. Hollywood continues to use this trope.” – thanks, bro.

“funny thing is they still make idiotic movies like this” – literally, that is the funny thing.

“The only error: Hollywood still does ‘dare’ use it. All the time.” – Does not seeing the future qualify as an error?

Many of these comments were repeated in sentiment numerous times from numerous different accounts. But at least these people were enjoying the tweet. I can’t tell you how many people responded saying that “Asimov was no saint” and that he was well known for groping women at science fiction conventions. Fact is, 99% of the time when Asimov describes a woman in his fiction he does so like the stereotypical male writer describing a woman. In his novel “The End of Eternity” – which is about as close as Asimov ever got to writing a love story – the only female character is from a point in the future where the cultural norm is for women to wear transparent shirts and no bras. He has the love interest walking around functionally topless the entire story! Do I believe he groped or kissed woman at conventions? Based on his fiction and non-fiction writings, yes. I totally believe he would do that. Does that make this particular essay any less insightful? No.

Is any of this stuff that I need to be told? Evidently, yes.

Buzzfeed

A day into this viral tweet business I jokingly thought to myself, “If this keeps up Buzzfeed will contact me in about a week.”

It happened less than twelve hours later.

A “reporter” from Buzzfeed contacted me on Twitter and wanted my cooperation for a piece about my viral tweet. I decided to participate because the article was clearly getting written with or without me. Besides, I got to put “interviewed by Buzzfeed” on my list of weird things that have happened to me. (Also on this list are “petting a black bear cub” and “meeting a Nobel Prize winning chemist.” Petting the bear cub is cooler than everything else on the list.)

My original tweet went up on October 30, and on November 2 Buzzfeed posted an article titled “This Film Theory From The 1950s About The “Ugly Girl In Glasses” Is So On Point.” I was not consulted on the title of the article, but was able to add to my list that I was once connected with the term “on point” by a major website. The article is also full of the poor grammar that we’ve all come to expect from Buzzfeed. Coincidentally, does this make me a freelance contributor to Buzzfeed?

Of course, once there’s a Buzzfeed article then the surge begins anew. Plus I got mentioned in foreign language articles.

WILL THIS EVER FUCKING END?!

Weeks passed and I was still receiving at least ten notifications a day about this tweet. For a while it was nearly impossible to have any other conversations on Twitter because even my response notifications were flooded. I’m on Twitter for two purposes: 1) to get news and opinions on said news, and 2) in order to communicate with friends, most of whom I first met on Twitter. I was thrilled to be exposing people to Asimov’s greatness, but by late November I just wanted this thing to die off.

The After Party

This tweet will probably never die. Deep down I’m happy about that, not because it gives me any sense of personal accomplishment, but because there’s a part of me that loves teaching and sharing interesting things with the world (hence my series of science articles on this very site, which were largely inspired by Asimov’s science essays). I love that new people are discovering another part of Asimov’s mind though this little tweet. These days I’ll get a few notifications a week about this tweet; nothing intrusive. Basically nobody responds to it anymore. Knowing that it will probably never completely die off means that I’ve not reached the end of this experience, but rather that I’ve entered the after party phase.

Twitter can be a magical place, but it can also be a complete turd pile. Having a tweet go viral gives you ample exposure to both realities.

 

About Andrew Porwitzky

Dr Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist, comic book junkie, and freelance writer who is on Twitter way too much.

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