Going Viral

Aug 16, 2022 | 4 minutes read
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In 2019, I wrote this piece, called “I Support Strong Women Of Color Unless They Are Politically To My Left. It went viral, and ended up as the 19th most-read piece on McSweeney’s that year.

This was my only real experience going viral. I had written sketches and other Internet videos that have gotten over a million views each, but I don’t really consider that viral, at least not in the traditional understanding of it. I’m writing this because I’d like to have a record of not only what “going viral” means in the current age, but my thoughts on the impact going viral has on an artist’s creative output.


“Going viral” has come to mean “generate a ton of views,” and that’s led every brand to try to go viral and claim their stupid TikTok is viral, despite 99% of the country never seeing it. Every day, there are easily thousands of new pieces of content (I despise how that word has come to replace “art”, but that’s a separate thought) that generate millions of views/impressions/clicks/whatever metric you want. Even if we take those metrics at face value (and we probably shouldn’t), those pieces of content don’t infect and mutate the larger cultural conversation, the way something truly viral like “The Dress” (remember that?) does. Clicks and views are cheap, but talk isn’t.

My piece wasn’t at “The Dress” level, but it did become something of a shorthand among leftists, and gets shared again every time another centrist punches left at a woman of color, so I’m going to consider it viral.

How did it go viral? Initially, I attribute it to Briahna Joy Gray, who was then press secretary for the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign and had approximately 350 thousand Twitter followers. How she found it, I have no idea. Maybe she reads McSweeney’s, or maybe someone sent it to her. Regardless, it was her tweet that launched the piece - and this is the important part - to a large audience that was predisposed to enjoy content like this.

My viral hypothesis is that the size of someone’s audience is less important than the niche they occupy. Left-wing satire that targeted centrists was exactly the kind of thing that would resonate with leftists who cared about Bernie Sanders’s press secretary had to say.

I also believe the title of the piece helped tremendously. Only a small fraction actually clicked through and read the piece, but the headline did an adequate job of conveying the anger they had toward the Democratic party’s hypocritical attitudes toward race, and retweeting it was a way of co-opting as a means of self-expression. Plus, you didn’t have to read the piece to share it - you just had to agree with the sentiment expressed in the title.

So, to recap on what makes something go viral:

  1. Presence on an already-popular platform.
  2. Endorsement by a big account, that, in addition to a large following, has a large sphere of influence within a relevant online community
  3. Speaks to a previously unexpressed feeling/emotion in an novel or interesting way.
  4. Doesn’t require significant (or really, any) effort on behalf of the consumer to share.

As for the impact going viral had - it was minimal. People reached out saying kind words, I did a few podcasts, and I think it gave me enough sway with the editorial staff of McSweeney’s that I was given more-or-less free reign to write what I wanted and have it published. I did have a few people say really cruel things, and a few people who severely misinterpreted the nature of the satire, but that’s par for the course of being an artist. Overall, going viral did give me more confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to write more, so I have to say it was a net positive experience.

Sadly, I think virality, and chasing virality, as diminished the quality of art as a whole. Virality and quality are two seperate categories that don’t really intersect, and aiming for one usually prevents you from achieving the other. I was lucky to go viral, but even luckier that I never attempted to go viral, and was just trying to write funny satire that reflected how I felt at the time.

So here’s to going viral - the cause - and solution to - all of life’s problems!