What 2021 taught me about going viral
And why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
I got a lot of exposure three times in 2021. One was intentional, one I wish never happened, and one was due to hard work and hardship. As a professional marketer for work, once a journalist locally and internationally, and general lover of storytelling, I’ve studied the craft of how to get attention and how to keep people engaged. But when you’ve finally succeeded with the exposure, what then?
What virality isn’t guaranteed to do:
Catapult your career or life— nobody came knocking on my door about what skills I had or what I could do in a broader sense.
Sell anything sustainably — I used my viral post to gain followers on a Facebook page I intend to use to spread positive messages. They didn’t want that, they just wanted the same content I churned out: for free.
Achieve anything — absolutely no change resulted in the exposure.
Make you feel like you’ve achieved something in your life — not a single person associates me with anything my image or name is attached to
Insights into But I Got The Van meme:
I saw the first half of this circling the Internet and told myself that if it didn’t get finished in 2020, I’d be the one to do it, and I did. And over 3 million people have seen it. It periodically gets bumped up, and today, Jan 8th 2022, it’s currently going the rounds again — 12K people have seen it in the last week.
I made a choice not to change the original images and ensure I honored the anonymous person that made that first one (I figured they’d come forward at some point, they never did — I also imagined the actors would eventually do something with it, same). That caused me a lot of grief. There were some problematic things in the first post that were also totally correct for the character’s voice. I got DMd by all of three people — one person called me unsavory (not as kindly) and two told me to take down images they found distasteful and put up explainers. Which, you know, kills the humor and doesn’t honor that character or the intent of the original author.
EVERY single slide was controversial — even ones I thought would be benign and throw away — ones with literally no words. I’m 100% sure that is part of the virality and why people stuck with it, despite it taking a while to get through and read.
I wanted to guide the conversation initially, but what I found was that for every hater or individual who was misinformed: someone else was there to do that work for me.
That is the beauty of the Internet.
One year later, I can’t even look at the comments when someone posts — there’s too many.
My posts right after this one got thousands of views after, but it dwindled to the occasional share.
And for this, I have the formula:
- Make it relevant and relatable (Ant Man and Luis)
- Make it controversial
- Have people wondering how it will end
- Don’t disappoint them when it does
But how did it go viral?
I seeded it on some groups that I knew would like and share it. You see, we all probably have a Facebook group or two that enjoys making fun of other people to show how smart they are. Those are the groups that would see that post and share it. My friends didn’t engage with it at all. It had to be the groups.
Your friends don’t take action on stuff you post, that was another big lesson. The reason people engage with you is because it says something about them.
Your friends don’t typically see you, the person, as a vehicle for self-expression. That’s why memes are so powerful — they’re impersonal, we don’t care who made them — they speak to something we identify with (or hate).
I got literally nothing out of it except a bit of angst before I let the work tell its own story and the people commenting do the rest. No offers, no praise, no word from anyone involved. Nobody even used my coupon code for the company I used to help get it made! Out of MILLIONS of viewers!
Insights from Tragic Virality
I can’t even post an image related to this one. If I were, I don’t know what I would use. Probably a black square. This one hit me personally and I’m still pretty messed up from it, but there are lessons to be learned from my experience, so here they are:
- The whole story is NEVER covered by the media. It shouldn’t be. The media covers things as much as they can, but the reality is that there’s so much more going on usually:
whatever your judgement is — you’re probably wrong and, as Isaid above, it probably has a lot more to do with your self-expression than the truth.
- Community leaders saw I was involved in something tragic and went out of their way to call or email to make sure I was good. I was not in the mood to receive it, but it was a beautiful thing to have people empathize and remind me that I was a good person with a good network and not alone.
- My instinct, when called upon by the public and the media, was to talk. And to talk about the incredibly subtle and mixed feelings all of it caused — a mix of guilt and wanting to lend sympathy to the aggressor. I had great advisors that reminded me that the broader public doesn’t care. They want the gossip and nothing more. The story shouldn’t be about me, and I shouldn’t feed it by going on record.
- Some people hate me for not doing what my instincts told me to do. Those same people did not call me or extend any positive regard. They put me on the defense. It was evidence that my advisors were right.
You cannot explain your truth to those who want their truth to be the only one.
- Journalists are awesome. Respectful, professional, and honest. I just want that out there.
Insights about making the national nightly news
This one all started with me just being outraged at how United Airlines was treating its customers. Specifically, I’m not ignorant to the processes and limitations, and I’m reasonable. The amount of drama we went through, and the cost we incurred . . . and the totally unsatisfactory outcome made me share my story pretty widely wherever I could.
It was only because I told anyone that would listen that a friend tagged me in a tweet looking for stories like mine. Once the PIRG article came out — national news agencies contacted me and interviewed me.
My husband and family put up with me as we made b-roll and he took care our kids for the interviews. We giggled about it all, wondering what would come of it. It was kind of thrilling, but also funny, which is why we also totally took a dare and put the bird in the b roll.
But then Bob Dole died (seemed like a bigger story or something? sarcasm, people, it was a bigger story) and it didn’t air for a long time. The momentum was lost.
When it did air, a couple people who didn’t know about it, texted me.
United never got in touch.
My 2 minutes of fame was over and done.
We’d spent so much time and inconvenienced ourselves to do this, imagining we were part of a big change. And then nothing.
So the final take away? Virality is as virality does.
It was an interesting experience to go through (painful in all three cases to varying degrees), and I learned that fame truly is a full time job.
In all three cases, if I wanted to make it a life focus, I could have capitalized on the exposure — but to what end? Every influencer I know is depressed from chasing eyes and engagement.
I know now that, like everything else, one should truly guard their energy and time with what makes your heart sing. That’s how you affect change, and that’s how you affect lives. Everything else is a waste.