Let's get some definitional housekeeping out of the way: There is no pageviews threshold for what a piece of #content needs in order to, as they say, “go viral.” It's a moving target that shifts from person-to-person, organization-to-organization, on a monthly, even daily, basis. If you normally have 2,000 daily readers, then you get 20,000, that's viral. If you're the New York Times and you get 20,000, something has gone horribly wrong. Pageviews matter, but relativity matters more.
The speed at which the audience is accumulated is also important: The phrase “going viral” is obviously linked to the rapid spread of a disease. Someone posts a link to the right forum that galvanizes a group of fellow posters to do the same, and so the spread begins. It's uncontrollable, unpredictable, uncontainable, untrackable. It's a goddamned outbreak.
It's also an incredible rush for any content creator—I'm not using it as a pejorative here, so much as a short-cut for “all posts, videos, articles, GIFs, Vines, Tweets, what have you”—when social media and pageview counts are skyrocketing. What does the rush feel like? And what are some of its ramifications?
“If you're doing this long enough you can ballpark something you know will get read,” says A.J. Daulerio. He's had plenty of experience with stories taking off, as the former editor-in-chief of both Gawker and Deadspin, and in his latest venture at Ratter. [Full disclosure: I've written for various Daulerio-run enterprises.] But there's a point when the narrative of how that story's being disseminated shifts completely. “It gets picked up by the slipstream of the Internet, and, more importantly, by outside of the Internet.”
“Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big.”
In the realm of publications, there are two basic ways stories can hit this sweet spot. The first is through an exclusive, where the site trots out unique content that gets “picked up” by other publications. During Daulerio's time at Deadspin, a 2009 story about the outspokenly sober Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon qualified in this category. “Obviously, it's not Watergate,” Daulerio says. “But you're doing something that no one else has seen before.”
Another huge story for Daulerio's Deadspin was a scoop about longtime-Packers, then-Jets quarterback Brett Favre sending scandalous photographs to a female sports reporter. The post ended up doing huge numbers (the tracker currently shows nearly six million views), forcing its way into the mainstream press, and putting Deadspin on the map for a new audience. “Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big,” Daulerio says. “I don't even know if there's a word for that. It's beyond viral.”
But, it's not always the hard reporting that worms into the slipstream. In fact: “What was fascinating during that month, was that it wasn't the Favre story that had the most traffic,” Daulerio says. “There was this dumb, tossed-off thing that [Deadspin writer] Barry [Petchesky] had, from some golf tournament, where some dude behind Tiger Woods had a turban on. Everybody was talking about the Favre thing, that we had this monster month. The reality is that actually it was that dumbass post.”
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This is the other standard scenario for content that goes viral: something completely unexpected and random. This isn't always a good thing. “For the ones that you didn't do on purpose, it's frustrating,” Daulerio says. “It's kind of demoralizing. You realize, OK, great, I basically somehow hit the slot machine and won against the robot that is the Internet.”
This kind of unforeseen virality also has more concrete ramifications if you're in the business: During Daulerio's Gawker tenure, if something hit huge, it skewed the numbers in a way that made subsequent normal traffic look terrible in comparison. If you're tracking audience numbers from pieces you've worked hard creating, that's legit. If you're tracking Ice Bucket Challenge re-posts that, for whatever reason, are being shared at disgusting rates on Facebook, that's a fool's errand. To counter numbers that had been skewed by viral's thumb-on-the-scale, Daulerio instituted “Tank Months,” encouraging writers to work on whatever stories they wanted to.
As a senior editor—and resident Minions expert—at BuzzFeed, Katie Notopoulos' job is, essentially, to go viral. As such, the rush of hitting big isn't as pronounced. “The emotional experience is akin to that feeling you get when you know you did a good job at work,” Notopoulos writes in an email. “It's like landing 'the big account' or whatever. You go home and kiss your wife and say, 'Guess what? I just landed the Jenkins account!'”
“I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS.”
It wasn't always this way for Notopoulos, though. Pre-BuzzFeed, she wrote an anonymous humor blog that went viral. “That was really a different feeling,” she writes. “I had never made something that people who didn't actually know me liked or paid attention to before. It was just immensely gratifying in a way I hadn't ever felt before. The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”
There's crossover of a more nefarious nature too. Last year, the University of Albany released a study concluding that excessive usage of social media can lead to the same impulse control disorders associated with substance addiction. Researchers pointed toward problematic design, particularly the various notifications that “alert” users when someone responds to a post. If the notifications that come in our everyday lives are like small hits of caffeine throughout the day, having something go viral is like mainlining heroin.
“I mean yes I have found the experience of something 'taking off' disgusting and horrifying and anxiety-provoking, also a little thrilling,” Choire Sicha, of the Awl and, formerly, Gawker, writes in an email. [Full disclosure: I've written for Sicha too.] “I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS,” Sicha writes. “Nothing has really matched that thrill though so it's been a long dozen years.”
The chase to go viral, then, has a lot to do with trying to chase after that first glorious fix.
On May 22, 2013, a comedy short entitled “Dadholes” was uploaded onto YouTube. After a few months online, it had received about 4,000 views. Not bad, considering this was a completely independent production with no promotion behind it. But not viral.
“The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”
Then, after the video was online for about eight months, director Adam Forstadt received a text from its writer and star Chris Wylde. “He said, 'I dunno what’s happening, but Dadholes jumped from 4k to 17k views,” Forstadt writes in an email. “I immediately opened my computer and it had already jumped to 25K in that fraction of a minute. I hit the refresh tab about 20 seconds later and we were at 35K. And so began the wildest night of my social media life.”
Every 20 minutes, the hit count jumped around 25,000. When Forstadt packed it in for the night, the video had received more than 300,000 views and was listed on the Reddit homepage. On Forstadt's Facebook page, people were already writing to congratulate him for making it big. “It was surreal,” Forstadt writes. “When I woke up the next morning we were at 500K views and on almost every major social media site.” It currently has 1.2 million views.
Unless you're used to that kind of response—or really, really busy—there's not much else one can do than monitor the ongoing wave of attention. Going viral is like the praise pellets of Twitter at-replies, Facebook notifications, tiny Instagram hearts, and all the other social media triggers blended together with a hearty helping of crushed caffeine pills. “I was on my computer scouring the Internet for articles about it, fan comments, watching the views multiply,” Forstadt writes. “This was the safest crack cocaine money can’t buy!”
When the wave ebbed—all moments of Internet virality do—Forstadt and company felt justified in producing further videos. “My reaction was pretty simple,” Forstadt writes. “People like it, so let’s make more.” They've made four more “Dadholes” videos, which continue to receive decent view counts. “To be frank, I was super proud that we went viral on scripted content and not some random cat video or terrible accident caught on tape.”
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In January, writer Mark Lukach experienced a similar phenomenon with a piece published here in Pacific Standard. “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” is the story of Lukach and his wife, Guilia, who has been diagnosed with acute psychosis.
By the time it was published, Lukach had traversed the territory previously in a 2011 Modern Love column for the New York Times. “When [the Pacific Standard piece] was published it was like, OK, it's out there,” Lukach says. “I'll post it on Facebook, a couple friends will be like, wow, nice story.” But on the first day it was published, he logged onto Twitter and had 50 at-replies. He logged in an hour later, and there were 60 more. When he checked his inbox, there were more than 300 emails about the story. The story had been picked up by Digg, the New York Times, and just about every kind of aggregator or publisher on the Web.
“I'm not going to lie, it was a huge shot of adrenaline,” Lukach says. “It was very validating as a writer, that people are reading this, and people care, and they're talking the time to reach out to me. This is something I put a lot of effort into. My wife and I both had to suffer through the process.” He was also overwhelmed by how many responses were positive. “I only had a couple people who were critical, everyone else was really supportive. That was really cool, for the Internet kind of shocking, to not find some angle to be mean.”
“It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”
Lukach still, on average, receives two emails a day about the piece. And this is what informs Lukach's advice about how to handle something that unexpectedly becomes a big hit. “I would say clear your schedule,” Lukach says. “It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”
The result of “going viral” has been ideal for Lukach. The piece got him in contact with an agent, who got him in contact with a publisher, and he now has a book deal for a memoir. It's what any writer dreams about when working on a story they're passionate about.
But the experience is not always positive.
“Content going viral is overwhelming, intimidating, exciting, and downright scary,” Roxane Gay, an author and essayist whose credits are too numerous and varied to accurately give them proper due here, writes in an email. “Work going viral is certainly an ego boost but it also opens the door to a whole lot of crazy. People tend to write me without having read the entire piece in question or only the headline. They try to 'convert' me to this way of thinking or another. Rarely are they legitimately engaging with anything I have actually written. There's a reason we call it going viral. It's not really a compliment.”
A year ago, after some time off from writing, Elyse Anders re-started her blog. On July 7, she posted—as she later called it—“a quick rant in a moment of frustration” titled “Men: A List of Shit I am Tired of Because of You."
The piece received a few thousand hits Sunday night. But when she logged in Monday morning, the post had received 20,000 views. And it was climbing.
“As the numbers started increasing, my anxiety became super high,” Anders says. “In my history of writing feminist pieces, I know what's coming.”
“It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”
What came was an onslaught of horrific harassment. “They storm your comments, they harass you on social media, I had one guy with a sort-of veiled death threat the other night,” Anders says. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff you can imagine. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff maybe you can't. “I have one site of gun enthusiasts who are posting my picture and telling me how ugly I am.” As she succinctly put it on Twitter:
“We have this idea that most people go through the Internet not experiencing [abuse], or get a mean tweet and you can just block it,” Anders says. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can't make it go away that easily. It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”
Anders has been through this before, so she's cultivated tools to handle the sudden wave of horror that comes when pieces hit big. She takes time off, purposefully not checking her email in the morning. Sometimes, she'll have volunteers scan her comments to see if there are threats that seem legitimate enough to look into. But Anders, at this point in her career, has built up enough scar tissue to see these attacks for what they are: A kind of defanged terrorism intended to get her to stop writing. “They're designed to scare you into complete and utter silence,” Anders says. “That's the idea.”
This, then, is the dark side of “going viral,” one that's more often than not reserved for women. As Anders further put it: “Men and women experience the Internet in very different ways.”
Going viral can be exhilarating, it can be exciting, it can lead to opportunities you've been working your whole life toward. But not always, and certainly not for all people. Sometimes “going viral” is as serious and horrific as the process it borrows its name from. Sometimes condolences are more in order than congratulations.
The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.