On going viral

One year ago today, I went on one of my Twitter rants about higher education in America. Along the way, it morphed into a rant about the disproportionate burdens we put on young people, as crystallized in the following tweet:


I’m not sure how it happened, but this tweet “went viral.” Within a day or two, it had over 10,000 retweets — unimaginably more than any tweet I’ve done, before or since. After a couple weeks, I was hearing from my students that a screen capture of the tweet had been posted on Tumblr and Imgur, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Since then, people have developed more elegant images with the quote. There are also slight variants from people who preferred not to use the retweet function, as well as many plagiarized versions.

Clearly nothing I ever write will have such widespread impact as this tweet. Not even close. And that feels very strange to me, because in my mind, it’s not a particularly good tweet. Certainly good for a brief chuckle, but if I were to compile a “greatest hits” list, it wouldn’t make my personal top ten by far. Of course, part of that might stem from the experience of virality itself. Within a couple days, I went from being excited to being profoundly sick of having this tweet thrown back at me every few seconds. When it comes up in conversation, I find that I can’t actually make myself recite the tweet out loud, opting instead to get out my phone and show them (an easy task since it’s almost always been retweeted or favorited within the last day or so).

I’m also not sure if I’ve received any benefit from this. Blog traffic has been flat this year, my book sales appear to be unaffected, and there hasn’t been a flood of applicants to Shimer College begging to study with the bathroom tweet guy. I did get a huge boost in Twitter followers, doubling my count within a few weeks — but after that initial burst, I returned to the same “slow and steady” growth curve I had experienced before. I’m not sure if any subsequent tweet I’ve written has even broken 100 retweets.

It’s all very inscrutable.

3 thoughts on “On going viral

  1. I’m not sure I’m the one to hit on it, but it feels like there’s a larger point about Twitter – and maybe social media as a whole – in this. I dunno, something like while it’s a great way to share information, its value doesn’t lie in generating revenue for its users? Like I said, I doubt I’m the one who can best put it to words, but it does feel like there’s something there.

  2. Maybe the benefits will come in the form of endorsements/mentions? “From the bathroom tweet guy now comes another insightful work – now about Satan!” Or “Adam Kotsko, widely known for his bathroom tweet, is a professor at Shimer College where he blah blah blah”

  3. It certainly did strike a nerve. This screencap alone has more than 175,000 likes on Facebook, and more than 12,000 reshares.

    On the broader point, I’ve definitely seen some social-media marketing literature that touches on how virality can be a dangerous mirage. E.g., if you’re running the FB page for a local plumbing company, it does you very little good to post generically “viral” content, because 99.9% of the people you reach aren’t going to be even potential customers. Even plumbing-specific viral content is mostly going to be wasted. … though by that same token, viral things like this (if you could figure out how to produce more than one of it) could certainly help to establish your brand as a Person of Importance on higher-education issues.

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