This Is How It Feels to Go Viral on Twitter

As the likes from a tweet passed 100K, I received love and hate — but mostly felt raw terror

Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty

IImagine you’re at a party, chatting with people. Most you met there, while a few you met before you arrived. You make a comment. People nod enthusiastically, maybe laugh. Some reply. Then the walls surrounding the party crack and tumble away, revealing thousands, even millions of people. You look down and realize you’re wearing a mic. They all heard what you said.

Buckle up. You’ve gone viral.

I’I’ve had two tweets go — and this is the only way I can describe it — horribly viral. The first was in November 2017, after the Sutherland Springs shooting. I was extremely upset by the news, furious that politicians with the power to implement gun control laws just “sent thoughts and prayers,” using the language of empathy to look noble while doing nothing. So I tweeted to my roughly 2,500 followers:

It would be liked 114,000 times and retweeted 46,000 times as of early April.

The second time was in March 2019, in response to the news that New Zealand was moving to ban semi-automatic weapons one day after the Christchurch shooting. All I did was retweet the news, with the joke:

It being so similar to the first tweet, maybe I should have suspected this one would go viral too — which it did, with even more likes than the first. What I wouldn’t have suspected is how similar the experiences were.

So, if you go viral, I think I can give you an idea of what to expect.

Numbers. Terrifying numbers.

Up until this point, a good tweet of mine would get maybe 10 likes, perhaps a retweet or two. When my tweet on guns notched up 70 likes, I said, “Gosh!” When it reached the high hundreds, I said to myself, “Surely it’ll stop soon.” When it made the thousands, I shivered inside with a feeling I recognized from the times I did theater and stand-up comedy: stage fright. As it broke 100,000, I put my phone away.

Of course it’s a form of validation — there’s a reason the like button is shaped like a heart and not a rotten tomato. But the first time the like button on your tweet is pressed by six figures of thumbs, I bet you’ll shiver too.

It leaves your control

What counts as having “control” over a tweet? Well, you have the power to delete it, and you can monitor the numbers on it. But by the time a tweet has gone truly viral, it’s too late. I hope you picked a decent profile pic, because you are now a meme.

You will see your face plastered all over Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook, courtesy of your excited friends who report the tweet’s whereabouts to you like a team of private investigators you haven’t hired. They’ll send you feverish messages: “You’re the top post on Reddit!” “January Jones just shared your tweet!” “Ruby Rose just shared your tweet!” They’ll probably assume this will delight you, and maybe it will at first. But there’s also fear and dread — or whatever emotions you associate with an enormous amount of attention over which you have precisely zero control.

Blasts from the past

You’re going to hear from people you know. They’ll get in touch for three reasons:

  1. To tell you they’ve seen your tweet getting shared. “They don’t even know I know you!” Most of the time, it leads to a lovely chance to catch up with someone you may not have seen in years — though sometimes it leads to snide comments, which is a great way of working out who on your friends list is The Worst.
  2. To go all vigilante for you. They become outraged on your behalf, claiming someone has plagiarized you. Most of the time, it’s just someone else commenting on or joking about the same situation; we’re all stuck in this cultural bubble together, so it’s natural for similar takes to emerge. Occasionally they might be right, but honestly, who cares? Nobody remembers what anyone tweeted last week.
  3. To demand to know “how you go viral.” As if it isn’t just luck. As if it has anything to do with you.

I tweeted into my echo chamber, and the walls fell down.

Feedback

Strangers get in touch for three reasons:

  1. Love. I want to make a lot of this, because it’s really easy to focus on the death threats, which we’ll get to soon enough. You get a lot of love and attention when you go viral. People declare that you’re a genius, that you’ve won the internet, that you should be the next president. They direct message on any and all mediums to thank you, to tell you they loved your tweet. Don’t lose sight of that, because…
  2. Hate. My god, the hate. You’ll be called stupid, moronic, idiotic. If you’re a woman, you’ll be called various synonyms for prostitute. And if the point of your tweet is something as apparently divisive as “I wish children weren’t getting murdered at school,” you can expect a death threat or two. That sounds scarier than it is. One man told me that if I came for his gun, “I’ll splatter YOUR thoughts and prayers all over my lawn you dumb cunt.” First of all, rude! Second of all, I’m busy and don’t have time to be gathering up all the guns myself. Third, let’s be honest: It would be your mom’s lawn. I can’t say why, but in my experience, Day Three is the worst for the outright “kill yourself you useless slut” type of abuse. (Thanks for that, @bronxboy1993! I sincerely hope things improve for you.)
  3. To respectfully ask what your tweet meant. Jokes and sarcasm don’t always translate outside the bubble of the people who know and follow you, so a surprising number of people get in touch to check whether they’ve understood. If they’re respectful, I’d say it’s safe to engage. I’ve had many pleasant conversations with people checking to see if I’m “disparaging” prayer. If they’re condescending, ignore them. Trust me. One person ranted that her misunderstanding of my tweet was my fault and went on to inform me that she’s kind of a big deal.

People think you went viral on purpose

The strangest element of going viral is people reacting like your tweet was some kind of Jehovah’s Witness–style knock on their door. It’s as if they feel they were minding their own business while you barged into their life with your opinion, when one look at your “requests” inbox shows that the truth is the other way around. If people could go viral on purpose, everyone would be doing it.

When your words are being seen by millions, people imagine you as someone with power and influence, rather than just some woman in her kitchen, trying to reach a bowl as the kettle boils. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not complaining. This is the small print of social media. If you don’t want the chance of going viral, don’t tweet. But still, the questions you get about the experience are bizarre. In an interview for a book, I was asked, “Why didn’t you word your tweet in a way that would please everyone?” I decided not to say, “Um… how would one do that?” and instead explained that I didn’t go viral on purpose. I tweeted into my echo chamber, as I always do — and then one day, the walls fell down.

How to deal with going viral

The most mature course of action, and also the hardest, is to step away from social media. The noise of all those voices is deafening, but so is the silence when you switch it off. Read a book, watch an episode of something hilarious, eat cake, temporarily ditch your avatar friends and talk to a face made of flesh. Appreciate the quiet of not having random people from all over the world strolling into your day with unsolicited feedback.

I worked out much too late that Twitter’s advanced filters are your friend. Part of the stress of going viral is the noise of your mentions going wild. Your tweet already has six figures of likes — do you really need to see the next 20 people who like it? I’d already muted notifications from anyone with a default profile photo and anyone who hadn’t confirmed their phone number or email address (people who want to remain anonymous, basically), but muting notifications from anyone who didn’t follow me quieted things right down. It also meant I’d have to deliberately click on a tweet and scroll down through the replies if I wanted to be told how stupid I am.

One more thing: Your words reached people across the world. You can feel good about it for a little while. Then go back to your life. And be nice to whoever’s next.

And get ready for Day Five, when…

Everyone forgets about you

Probably the most important thing to remember when going viral is not to get addicted to the attention or let it validate you, because after a few days it’s withdrawn, pretty much all at once. By day five, you probably have a lot more followers, and maybe you see a bit more engagement on your tweets than before. But for now, the mic has been turned off, and things go, really startlingly, back to normal.

Because nobody remembers what anyone tweeted last week.

Writer, journalist, author. First book THIS PARTY’S DEAD coming in Feb 2021 from Unbound. Preorder: unbound.com/books/deathtivals

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