16th Minute is our series where we check in with ordinary people who momentarily went viral.
I was hired by Wendy’s as a social media specialist in October 2012 at the age of 23, when Being Online was a little different. Snapchat existed, but you could only send still images on it. Instagram had no online profiles, no ads, and no algorithms. Barack Obama was the president and his tweets were...regular. Sane, even. I tweeted my Foursquare check-ins. Remember Foursquare?
For about two and a half years, I spent a major chunk of my business day—and more than a few of my nights, weekends, and holidays—replying to diehard fast-food fans on Facebook and Twitter. We in “the industry” call this “community management.”
Here’s the thing about community management: It’s fun sometimes, but more often than not it’ll make you want to throw a chair through your computer screen. Because you know who actually wants to engage with a brand on Twitter dot com? Angry people. Trolls. And every other marketer in the world, so they can tell you why you suck and they’d be better at your job. Vegans send you pictures of slaughtered animals. You get “deez nuts” jokes about 40 times a day. When someone gets the wrong cheeseburger, they’ll send you a string of profane insults in all caps.
I loved it at first because I’ve always loved the internet, even the ugly parts. But there’s only so much you can take before it wears on you. Luckily, right around the time I finally started to burn out, I got promoted and handed off community management to a talented colleague. I still stepped in to reply to comments once in a while when they were busy or out of the office, though.
January 2, 2017 was a Monday, technically a holiday, and I was working from my home in Columbus, Ohio. Sort of. I was mostly just watching TV in my pajamas, truth be told. It was my first day community managing in almost a year, and I was just keeping an eye on things because it was a holiday and somebody had to. Then from the heavens came an extremely dumb tweet, from a guy who took issue with the line “fresh, never frozen,” a claim Wendy’s makes in their advertising about their beef. “So you deliver it raw on a hot truck?” he asked.
I yelled for my husband to come into the room: “Look, look how dumb this tweet is.” We laughed; I wrote back something snarky about refrigerators.
The whole thing took five minutes and minimal brainpower on my part. I turned my attention back to the old episode of Law & Order that I hadn’t even bothered to pause. And that’s how a stupid tweet I wrote from my couch in my pajamas sent my world into a tailspin.
To be clear, I’m not famous. I don’t have enough of a social media following to hawk laxative teas on Instagram and I’m not even the first Google search result for my own name. But I’m mentioned specifically on the Know Your Meme entry for Wendy’s. A screenshot of my LinkedIn profile made the rounds on Facebook and Imgur earlier this year, which is baffling to me as a person who used to labor over pictures of cheeseburgers in the hopes they’d get a fraction of the attention of a single screenshot of my LinkedIn profile.
A girl Facebook messaged me to ask if she could meet me and maybe take a selfie while she was in my city; I neither accepted nor declined, just didn’t respond. The idea that a stranger wants to take a selfie with me is hard to process and makes me panicky. Even the positive attention has been a bit overwhelming.
I don’t know who first took notice of January 2’s conversation, but I know it really started to blow up when a writer at Upworthy with a ton of followers took a screenshot and published it to their personal Twitter account. From there, things moved pretty quickly.
Wendy’s received more tweets in 24 hours than it had in the previous month. My two colleagues and I managed the account together, sometimes simultaneously and, after hours, in shifts. We tried to lean into the momentum, all of us interchangeably trying to give the people what they wanted: more snark, more snappy comebacks. It was hard to keep up. Mistakes were made.
People retweeted and shared and aggregated the conversation. Anderson Cooper re-enacted it on air. Two different popular YouTube personalities made videos of people reading and reacting to Wendy’s tweets. One of them later contacted me personally on Twitter to tell me internet harassment doesn’t exist.
After the very first tweet went viral I figured the tweets might be the coolest thing I’d ever do, so I gave two interviews about it to the two outlets that asked me: The Daily Dot and Mashable. Those interviews were aggregated and recycled into other pieces of interchangeable clickbait, but with fuzzier details and less context.
As the information got regurgitated, my colleagues became smaller and smaller footnotes until it was just me: The Wendy’s Social Media Girl. I tried to give them as much credit as often as I could, but I still felt guilty that they were excluded from the narrative just because I’d set everything in motion. The story wasn’t just about Wendy’s anymore. I’d been thrust into the spotlight without really understanding what exactly I was in it for. As the kid who posted five photos of my face to his Instagram told me excitedly, “You’re part of the meme now!”
And I guess that’s the thing: Nobody decides to become a meme. The internet decides that for you.
As my number of Twitter followers increased to the tens of thousands, so did the trash. My personal Twitter account is not like Wendy’s, in that I am a real human being and not a corporation—but people started treating me like an extension of the Wendy’s brand. Strangers sent me foul insults, hoping I’d “roast” them back. I got Nazi memes in my DMs, along with selfies and pictures of headless abs (and dicks). If I blocked the senders, they tried to communicate with me through the Wendy’s accounts instead. Someone found an address for me; it was accurate information, though outdated, and it scared me so much that I vomited.
Of course, there was the endless chatter about my physical appearance. On the IGN message boards, a discussion: “would you have sex with amy brown. the girl behind wendys twitter account.” [sic] along with a link to my Instagram. “Yuck. No,” said a man with a Spongebob Squarepants avatar. And it wasn’t just horny gamers and the alt-right giving me trouble: I also managed to get thoroughly dragged by leftist Twitter, who told me to basically get fucked forever, corporate scum.
But here’s a thought: If you care about workers’ rights, you should care about the working conditions of people who have to read your shitposts. I get that you want to dismantle capitalism, but the person you’re mad at isn’t an entry-level community manager who probably ended up in advertising because their first career option wasn’t viable. Do you think this feels noble? Until now, I’ve only discussed this in private because, as another tweeter told me, “the solidarity is always only in the DMs.”
I recently found a book my late grandmother gave me as a gift, signed by the author: “To Amy, with my sincere best wishes as you go forward in writing things that will make the world a better place.” I don’t think “cheeseburger tweets” qualifies.
Once people started to discover that I had a hand in the Great Wendy’s Twitter Roast of 2017, they started to ask me lots of questions. Strangers, friends of friends, they all wanted to know: Where did you learn to do that? Was it a college course? Can you loan me a book or something? But I just know how to do this stuff because I am Extremely Online, and always have been. Sometimes I wonder if that makes me a sellout. Is putting advertisements in this medium I love just a logical career path for an aging local Myspace celebrity who went into a dying field, or am I the literal worst? I guess it could be both.
I left Wendy’s in March with absolutely no game plan. Lots of people outgrow their childhood dreams; I realized years ago that I probably wouldn’t like being famous. Fame didn’t bring me universal adoration. What people really like—when they like me at all, because some people hate me on principle—is the idea of the Wendy’s Social Media Girl. I wish it didn’t bother me, but I haven’t figured out how to stop caring yet. It’s bizarre to live in a society where you can achieve fame for merely existing in public.
And while I like that people recognize the work I’ve produced, I miss my privacy. Last week, a stranger tweeted me to tell me it was the first day all week I hadn’t changed my Twitter bio and my stomach turned. It’s one thing to know that, theoretically, anyone is checking your public profiles as often as they want. It’s another to have a constant reminder that your every move is being watched.
I’m still Extremely Online because I’m an introvert and I work from home now, so some days the internet is the only human interaction I have other than my husband. Some days I wonder what it’s doing to my brain. When I politely told one guy recently that asking a total stranger why they left their job is a little invasive, he told me there’s no expectation of privacy on the internet anymore. So some days it feels like the internet owns a piece of me now—a piece that I’d like to have back.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.
An earlier version of this piece was published in Columbus Monthly’s August 2017 issue.