What happens when your tweet goes viral

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Before I had my first truly viral tweet a couple weeks ago, I thought I’d had one before. But like looking back on your first love a decade later, I would eventually learn just how naive I'd been. Nothing could brace me for the birth of this baby, and all of the notifications that would follow:

It's my job to write on the internet but that didn’t really prepare me for what it’s like when over 100,000 people interact with a thought you rattled off in five seconds. Over the past two weeks, I've watched my tweet travel from friend to egg to troll to enemy and back again, through every kind of Twitter community imaginable. And I've seen a side of humanity I didn’t really know existed, one that’s simultaneously gleeful, angry, horny, and sad.


Twitter is uniquely designed to elevate the tweets of regular “civilians” (non-celebrities) to epic, famous person proportions. New York Magazine calls this going “microviral,” but when it happens to you it feels anything but tiny. The experience is kind of like winning the lottery, except shittier, because no money is involved. Similarly, both experiences ultimately seem to make people miserable, leaving them feeling ultimately unfulfilled.

My brush with Twitter virality came soon after the announcement of the iPhone 7 and its controversial lack of a headphone jack. Even the next day, people were still extremely pissed and extremely excited to yell about it on social media. Around 8:30 a.m. as I was getting ready to head to work, I saw it in my feed: an image of the new iPhone that demonstrated all of the adapters it would take to plug traditional headphones into it while charging. The photo distilled perfectly the public reaction over the previous 24 hours: WTF.


Though I didn’t intentionally think about this at the time, the internet loves when you conceptually pair your harrowing romantic life with an unrelated news event. I had recently gone through a bad breakup and I was in that stage of romantic grief where every single thing reminds you of that person. So, when I saw this photo, it didn’t make me think of Steve Jobs' legacy or capitalism. Nope! It simply made me reflect on how dumb it is when two things that don’t fit well together contort themselves to co-exist.

Without thinking about it, I shot off the soon-to-be viral tweet. And in the following weeks, I came to realize that virality is more than just an online phenomenon; for the person it’s happening to, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. At the same crazy-making rate that your tweet tumbles through the Twitterverse, you cycle through a complex set of feelings

EXCITED/AMUSED: Within two hours, I had a couple hundred likes and retweets. I found it visually compelling to watch the notifications stream of Tweetdeck scroll uncontrollably as people faved like mad men. And I was excited when I somehow noticed through the fog that one of my favorite B-list reality stars, Ariana Madix of Vanderpump Rules, had liked it.

A LITTLE BIT ANNOYED: Slowly, over the course of the day, this number would steadily rise to the tens of thousands, something I’d never experienced before. My notifications rapidly became so overwhelming I couldn’t really navigate Twitter for work. I had to close my open DM’s because bots just couldn’t help themselves from sliding in to say “hi” or more accurately, misspell “hi.” Even though I tried to keep Twitter closed, I kept checking in to see what was up.


PRETTY HORRIFIED: I’m not sure what or who pushed the tweet over the viral edge but soon my mentions were filled with a never ending stream of laugh-cry emojis and offerings to meet hot babes. My stupid tweet was now before people who seemed intensely invested in using it to seriously contend with the problem of the new iPhone. Eventually, a dick pic arrived from an egg and because it was all going too fast to rely on the block feature, I stopped looking to avoid seeing something truly egregious. I wondered what it was like to be a celebrity, where this happens every single time you tweet.

SLIGHTLY PISSED: By the afternoon of that first day, everyone from strangers to well-known aggregation accounts like Dory were ripping off my tweet, prompting me to receive “congrats” messages from friends. I like to think that getting mad over something as small as a tweet is pointless. The internet is the wild west of copyright law, and that enables meme stealers like the Fat Jewish to do what they do. But when your tweet comes from a place of creativity and not some cynical attempt at virality, the plagiarism does suck.


FULL OF HATE: At this point, almost two weeks later, I still get notifications for this fucker. I have grown to violently loathe the tweet I never particularly cared for, if only because it won’t go away. I pinned it, as I'm pretty sure that’s what you’re supposed to do with your viral tweet. But if I knew beforehand that this little piece of content was going to haunt me forever, I would have put more time into it.


The experience came full circle when my friend in LA told me she overheard two people talking about the tweet IRL. That was the only moment during the whole experience where I thought to myself: “Hmmm, maybe this went viral.” 


I realized that before this I actually had no idea how we define “going viral.” At what point had my tweet crossed over the line from merely popular? I asked people who live, breathe and work on the internet how they decide when something's officially entered the viral hall of fame. The answers varied widely and had the distinct smell of bullshit: 500-1,000 for a non-celeb. When you’ve got three 0’s or more in the number. At least 1K. At least 10K. 100. A person who writes about the environment says 12.

Actually, it’s not really about numbers, one viral tweeter tells me, it’s about time: 500 interactions on day one, 2,000 on day two, 15,000 by the end of week one. Someone I work with offers up this definition, which I think requires smoking some pot to understand: “Virality implies exponential distribution across generations.”


After my experience, I'd define it as…whatever you want. In the oversaturated (social) media hellscape that is 2016, "going viral" has never been easier, or more common. We are far from the days when you’d upload a video of your cat dancing to "Baby Got Back" on YouTube and just pray that a TV show would pick it up. Now there are multiple platforms to navigate and game, and everyone has their own interpretation of what winning means.

To be honest, I really only acknowledged this tweet's virality when other people started to, revealing that it's all about context. The phenomenon of virality—despite the critical role it plays in all of our daily media diets—can’t really be standardized. What is considered viral changes from person to person, audience to audience, platform to platform. So maybe it’s better if in searching for a definition we rely on our emotions, and just embrace the slightly sickening feeling of "going viral."


Deputy editor of Real Future.