In our social media saturated age, what does going viral even mean anymore? Is there a secret sauce for internet virality? And should we want to go viral? These questions may sound trivial but there are thousands of communication professionals, content creators, and regular ol’ people around the world who are looking to crack the code and game the algorithms that will lead them to internet fame and virality. But is this quest a path to success or the first step in a perilous downward spiral?
To find out, our host Kyla Sims sits down with Tech and Culture reporter Christianna Silva from Mashable. Together, they unpack why our world is obsessed with constantly trying to pursue internet virality. Patrick Yurick, Head Comic at MakingComics.com also joins the show to tell the tale of his own internet virality and what he learned. From unpacking the neuroscience to recounting stories of going viral for the wrong reasons, this episode will make you question whether going viral is really what it’s cracked up to be.
Senior Reporter at Mashable
Christianna Silva is a Brooklyn-based tech and culture journalist at Mashable. You can find more of their work at NPR, MTV News, Phoenix Magazine, Teen Vogue, VICE News, and more. They're from a small town in Southern Arizona and spend their free time painting and playing bass guitar.
Director of Experience Design
Patrick's passions in life are learning, art, and community; all of which have lead to the creation of multiple ventures such as PYD.Studio, Podcation, MakingComics.com, and MIT | Gradcommx. As Director of Experience Design at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education Patrick has focused on how we can scale exceptional learning experiences with a focus on equal access to marginalized communities. Patrick currently resides in San Diego, California.
Kyla Sims: I want to start off by painting a vivid picture, Something that comms folks and organizations are always striving for. There is a gold rush taking place in front of our eyes on our screens every day. Communicators, content creators, and even regular old people are consistently traversing the tricky terrain of the internet in search of striking gold, these digital prospectors flocked the many social media mountains firing off tweets, posts, messages, and newsletters, hoping their hard work will eventually pay off. Or in other words, they're all hoping to go viral.
For professionals whose work revolves around creating eye- catching scintillating content, aiming to hit internet virality can feel like a real Klondike level boom or bust. Yet even today, there are still well intentioned leaders that are asking comms professionals to make things go viral. For anyone working in communications, that request does seem a bit ridiculous, and it may very well be more likely that you strike actual gold in your backyard than intentionally make something go viral. So the question we're asking this episode, is our metaphorical mind starting to run dry? Does virality even matter anymore? And in our pursuit of going viral, what toll are we willing to pay? This question is very close to my heart because once upon a time I paid the price.
You're listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Kyla Sims. Today we're talking about going viral, and believe it or not, I'm one of those people who's gone viral. So I have a personal interest in this phenomenon. In 2016, I was having the worst year of my life. I'd moved across the country away from all my friends and family and was struggling to pay my rent as a freelance writer. My mental health was plummeting and eventually I was diagnosed with a handful of mental illnesses. It was not pretty. So while I was looking for work as a freelancer, I decided to share my struggles with mental health on my blog. And in November of 2016, it went viral. Almost overnight, over 1.5 million people had read one of my blog posts and left hundreds of comments. My inbox was full. I had complete strangers emailing me pages and pages about their mental health struggles. And weirdly enough, I even had a few job offers before I even knew what was happening. I was asked to appear on a few local news stations as a mental health advocate. Like this clip with me on Global News.
Host: Mental illness is coping. And joining me right now is writer and mental health advocate, Kyla Rose Sims. Welcome to the show, Kyla. So great to have you this morning.
Kyla Sims: Thank you so much for having me.
Host: So you suffer from mental health issues. Late last year went viral, over a million views. First of all, why do you call it...
Kyla Sims: It felt terrible, but also wonderful. I felt exposed, but special. I wanted to ride the wave as long as possible. All while my mental health continued to plummet with the attention and the never ending stream of emails from strangers. It came to a breaking point. I had to shut it all down. I turned off, the comments stopped sharing and went dark. My mental illness had become not only a huge part of my identity and relationships, but also a part of my livelihood. In the end, going viral helped my career immensely, but it also changed me and the course of my life for better or worse. Now, it's very unlikely that you are attempting to make something go viral for your organization that is exposing you in the same way that I was. But I still think it's worth critically looking at what internet virality really is and what it means, how it happens, and what it does to us and our communities, and ask whether having something go viral is something we should really want at all.
Christianna Silva: I can give you a quick baseline. Let's see if that pops through on this.
Kyla Sims: To help us understand this world of internet virality, I invited Christianna Silva, tech and culture reporter at Mashable to help walk us through it. Christianna, thank you so much for joining me today.
Christianna Silva: I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kyla Sims: So tell me how virality has come up in your work at Mashable.
Christianna Silva: It comes up all the time. So I cover tech and culture. I cover the intersection there. So that's covering the creators and the users mostly on Instagram and Facebook. But obviously I've done a lot of work on TikTok and YouTube recently as well. Virality can happen to anyone at any time and it has the potential to change your life or to maybe just feel like it might change your life. So I end up doing a lot of reporting on virality.
Kyla Sims: One of Christianna's fascinations is unpacking the complexity of going viral in our digital age. Earlier this year, Christianna went on a fact finding mission while doing research for their article Why You Shouldn't Try To Go Viral In 2022. So before getting into your article, I want to ask, in your opinion, is going viral still a thing?
Christianna Silva: I think it is. And so I think going viral is definitely still a thing, but I think that there are two different perspectives that I look at this from. One is from someone who just watches and takes in content. If a YouTube video gets 5 million views, chances are you've seen it and most of the people on the subway car have seen it and that person has gone viral. And from the other perspective, which is the perspective of the creator going viral definitely exists too because if you post a YouTube video that gets 5 million views, your life is going to be different.
But I think with all of the different social media platforms that were logged onto and all of the different ways that we interact with the internet, virality is not just one straight thing that you've gone viral or you haven't. And for someone who's posting and typically gets one or two likes on their tweets, maybe 20 likes on their Instagram posts, if that goes up to 500, that goes up to 1,000, that really feels like you're going viral, but that isn't technically virality. So yeah, I mean going viral definitely still exists, but maybe not in the same way for everyone.
Kyla Sims: What prompted you to look into internet virality? What inspired you to write this article?
Christianna Silva: Personally, I've been really interested in how I feel emotionally, physically when I post something on my own. So to my private social media apps and the kind of feedback I get from people. So sometimes I'll post something and I think it's brilliant and no one will interact with it. And I'm like, " Why does that make me feel so terrible?" Those psychological and emotional responses are really interesting, which prompted me to talk to some researchers and some therapists and some folks who work to market to get viral content out about why I feel that way and why people whose whole job is surrounded around that validation, what that does to their brains.
I spoke to neurologists for my piece to figure out if what I felt in my brain when a post did well or didn't do well was the same as when someone who is actually a content creator and posts their content and it does well or doesn't do well, even though our ideas of doing well are completely different, does the same thing to our brain, and it does. That dopamine boost I get is the same dopamine boost that someone who's getting 5 million interactions on their post gets when I get like 200. And that's really scary to me. That gives you this huge dopamine boost and then you go chasing this dopamine boost and it also leads you to believe that you have a lot more influence or that you have the potential to have a lot of influence in a space and for people yearning to have that influence or even just yearning to belong to a community, to feel important and feel valued, those are things that we all sort of chase after. And you feel all of that. That hits you like a ton of bricks and it's pretty rare that you're going to get that same hit of dopamine again because you have to beat that. You have to go above and beyond what you already did.
Kyla Sims: Yeah, going viral just doesn't hit it used to.
Christianna Silva: Exactly. What I did discover is as we talked about this a little bit earlier, the perspective of someone who's a consistent content creator whose whole job is to produce viral content, you hit that high when you first go viral or when you get your highest number of likes and interactions and engagement on a post. And now you have to hit that each time because that's not only because that's what you expect of yourself, but that's what your sponsors expect of you. And you can't control social media like that. It changes constantly. And what made your first post go viral might not make your second post go viral. So I spoke to someone who helps run those campaigns, who works with creators to ensure that their content does continue to go viral and the work that they have to churn out. You have to hop on every new trend, but that's sometimes not good enough. So you have to create your own trends. This is a lot of work and it can be really, really disheartening.
The other thing I noticed is for people who don't go viral a lot who've never gone viral, who go viral once, one thing that you can think is, "My life has completely changed. I don't have to do anything anymore. I can quit my job. I'm famous." And that's not the case. One viral post does not equal a viral content career and that one dopamine hit feels really good and you might not be able to match that again. So it can really mess with your brain and that can be really, really detrimental. But it can be detrimental to both groups. That first group you're expecting to hit 500,000 every single time when you hit 100, 000, that feels just as bad as when that second group hits 23. This is sort of a problem and I think you can see why this could get bad because a lot of people comment on and share things that they hate, makes the creator of that tweet say, "Okay, when I say more objectively wild things on the internet, I get more attention. My content goes viral, I become more famous and I can yield an entire career off of that." This leads to things like political extremism, it leads to the spread of misinformation, it leads to the spread of conspiracy theories and it can be really damaging.
Kyla Sims: It's easy to see how one taste of virality can lead to an unhealthy obsession, which leads us to the unfortunate reality of how gaining online notoriety can really backfire.
So my age and ignorance might start to show here a little bit, but I want to ask you about Pepe the Frog and the unfortunate story that surrounds it. For context. I legit don't know anything about this because I remember that there was a thing about Pepe the Frog and I remember kind of seeing some of it and I was like, " You know what? I don't want to know it, don't want to know." It just seemed bad. So can you take us through what happened?
Christianna Silva: Yes. And first of all, I envy you. I envy your brand. That happens to me too. I see something online and I'm like, "I'm going to skip this one. I'm going to let someone else …" I did that with NFTs and unfortunately I ended up having to learn about them because I was like, "Not for me" Pepe the Frog is this little cartoon. Matt Furie is sort of a comic book artist. So he draws a lot of these cool, cute cartoons and as far as I remember, Pepe just liked hanging out with his friends. Pepe had a couple of pals and they would just, vibe was really the whole thing and he would never create a hateful cartoon frog.
So I think people online started picking it up and started drawing them in different scenarios and different situations. And the creator was like, " Cool, Art is art. Art is public. Do what you wish with it. I'm not going to take this over completely." It's just a fun thing that I do. And it got taken over by the alt right on Four Chan and stuff like that. And that's when people started noticing who Pepe the Frog was. So they started noticing him as a tool, a meme used by the alt right way more specifically and often than they did just as a cool frog who hangs out with his buddies.
Kyla Sims: That's so wild. Do you know why they chose this? It was easy to draw or?
Christianna Silva: I don't. And I think that's clear with a lot of content that goes viral is that there's not really a good reason for it. Even if we go back to something that is a very easy thing to say that went viral, that all of us can sort wrap our heads around like Gangam style. No one was like, what an incredible musical gift to us.
Kyla Sims: What, hey, wait a minute.
Christianna Silva: It didn't create something. The dance was fun, It was super catchy. Lots of songs have fun dances that are super catchy. There's no specific reason why it went off like that. It just did.
Kyla Sims: So what do you think Pepe's story teaches us about virality?
Christianna Silva: That we don't have any control over it. And marketers, people who work in viral videos who are hired to create viral content are going to disagree with me, but we don't have a lot of control over it. You can hop on every single trend and do tell every single funny story that's ever happened to you or make up something that is just absolutely wild and no one will watch it. Or you can do it on accident and millions will watch it. You can create a little frog that you think is just this harmless little guy and it can be completely taken over. Lots of people have drawn frogs that have not been taken over by the alt right. And once it gets out of your hands, the internet is a place where we can't control it after that. It's a dangerous place because of that.
Kyla Sims: The story of Pepe the Frog is an example of virality, turning something innocent into something way outside of your control. But there is another side of going viral that is just as dark when you become the one spiraling out of control.
You talk about how you can never really get that high of going viral again as you do the first time. And how the effort we put into recreating that feeling or chasing that dragon so to speak, can lead us down a pretty dark path. How does that path lead to a rise and spread of misinformation?
Christianna Silva: So misinformation spreads online like wildfire, usually because the misinformation that's spreading is so easy to believe. It just confirms all of those preconceived notions you have in your brain. This is how misinformation and disinformation spreads, it's how it's always spread. Misinformation isn't new because of the internet. Misinformation was going around during the Black Plague. This is not new, but the amount that it spreads and how far it spreads and how many communities are impacted is new. During the Black Plague, you could only speak to your friends and family. You didn't have this ability to send out a message to millions of people online. And so what it does is if a politician, for instance, tweets out something that is a little wild and they get a ton of engagements, they start getting name recognition, Name recognition is really important in the ballot. Whether or not it's positive name recognition, people knowing your name is important in the ballot box, they're going to start saying more wild things because they are realizing that this riled is up their base. Whether or not it's true, it doesn't have to be because people aren't going to fact check, they're just scrolling through real quick.
And as that spreads, we've seen this on TikTok, there has been some really interesting new research on this, but it's on all social media platforms where once one viewer reads something or see something that's transphobic that can lead them down a hole, that will go then towards antisemitism or towards racism or other forms of homophobia. And we see this on all social media platforms where as a viewer you reach one video, it leads you down a darker and darker hole because of recommended algorithms. That's just what these feeds do. And so as a content creator, you see that and if you're willing to sign off all of your morals and ethics, you might start creating. Or if you're also a user and you fall down that hole yourself, right? This isn't always the fault of truly terrible people, you're going to start creating content that other people will want to interact with.
And we interact with stuff we either vehemently believe in or truly loathe. You interact with things if you truly believe in them and you want to get that word out, you're feeling like other people don't know this really invaluable content or you are interacting with it because you are hoping other people don't believe in this. Either way, the content's going more viral and more viral. In this situation, if it's a politician, they're getting more and more name recognition, they're getting more people trying to get them elected or trying to fight against getting them elected. Either way it's press. And so because of that, when you post something and it goes viral, there's a chance that that can lead you down a hole of posting darker and darker things to continue to go viral.
Kyla Sims: From my conversation with Christianna so far, it sounds like going viral isn't all it's cracked up to be. Even though it can feel like striking gold when it happens, you might not want to quit your job just because you see a million views next to your latest Instagram cat video. But what do you do when going viral isn't something you want for yourself but is a job handed down to you? How do you keep yourself from going down this treacherous path? What do you do when you're asked in earnest to make something go viral?
You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest calms, problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen from. You can also check out the show on our website by going to infernalcommunication.com. Also pretty please leave us a review and let us know what you think.
I want to pause our conversation around what virality does to our brain and how craving the rush associated with it can perpetuate misinformation. I think it's about time we grab someone who's gone through the wringer themselves, achieved virality and has come out the other side.
Patrick Yurick: Can you hear me? Is that good? I think I'm ...
Kyla Sims: So I sat down with Patrick Yurick. And what do you do Patrick?
Patrick Yurick: Currently I'm acting as director of experience design for the Hightech High Graduate School of Education in San Diego, California. I have founded Podcation, makingcomics.com. I worked on a big project on communications with MIT for two and a half years, which was really cool. And also I have a sort of famous arm tattoo.
Kyla Sims: A couple years back that clever designer and illustrator mind took him on his own viral journey. So can you take us through what happened?
Patrick Yurick: Okay, so ever since I was 18 I wanted to get a tattoo and I could not decide on how to get a tattoo or what to get a tattoo. I just was designed paralysis. Every year I learn more about art the less I could decide on what I was going to get. So I got browsing the internet one day in probably 2011. I found a Groupon for a 45 minute tattoo session and it had an expiration date and I was like, " Well I can work with constraints," And then I waited until the last week I could and brainstormed a bunch of different ideas with friends and family and arrived at getting a comic strip.
So I have four panels, there's two word balloons, one in the first panel, one in the fourth panel, and then the third panels, what they call a beat panel so it doesn't have a box around it, which allows you to have artistic elements come out. Most people are like, "Are you going to get more done? Is that it?" I'm like, "Yeah." At the time I'd start a website called makingcomics. com and I would do interviews with artists from around the world. And so I started assembling this network of artists and one artist's name is Noah Scalin and he does a Skull Day project and he runs a blog called Make Something 365.
And so in any case, I got the tattoo and I started drawing picture a day and posting it and I created a Tumblr, which was popular at the time also. Noah saw it and he's like, "Hey, can we do a piece on it for our blog? Make Something 365?" And he did. And he's kind of a renowned artist from the Richmond area and has a little bit of viral strength. Design Taxi reposted his blog. And then somebody at CNET saw that and was like, "We want to do a feature piece on this guy."
CNET covered it. And then I got contacted by an agency in the UK who put the photos and the story out on a global news wire. So for 30 days, I was interviewed in Sweden, NPR in South Africa, India, it was everywhere. I mean I think this was a global news wire thing. And it was funny because the people, local, Fox saw it and they're like, " How did we not know about this guy?" Because everybody in the world was talking about this guy from San Diego with a tattoo. And so Fox came to my house and did a news piece on it and it was a very weird experience. I can't describe how weird it was because it wasn't something ... Like I have a web comic that I spent three years working on and that's gotten no attention. It was interesting to get a ton of attention for something that I bought a Groupon for
Kyla Sims: It was his 15 minutes of fame. So did it really change him in the ways we heard from Christianna?
Patrick Yurick: Since I graduated high school, I'd spent at that point a decade trying to get traction for art. Some sort of, this is my idea and people now are paying attention to it. And I think that every young artist is trying to do that. So when you finally do get some attention from the public about the things you're working on, it's mind blowing, it's mind boggling and you get caught up in it. You really get, I was anxious, I wanted to capitalize on it the right way. I wanted to, this is my 15 minutes and I need to stretch this out to something else. And so I think up until that point I was just throwing spaghetti at the wall constantly. And what really kind of halted me in my tracks was when the professional comic book community, the community I'd spent the last 15 years trying to get recognition or be a part of that and I idolized these guys growing up and people were divided.
They thought it was very gimmicky and I got some really negative comments from users on Reddit and the viral nature of the story. It kind of had an air of the freak of the week kind of a situation. And because the press was picking it up and it wasn't like the comic press and that was hard because I'm getting all this recognition for my art and it's not my best art. In reality, I think I learned very deeply that trying to get attention for your art, it's important, but it's not everything. I think that trying to create good art and do something that you feel proud of no matter how much attention it gets, became something really important to me because of the experience. To sum it up, I found it easier to take myself out of the equation after this experience and use what I learned to help other people and that felt better for me.
Kyla Sims: Patrick has now gone on to consult with all sorts of other clients and partners on how they can connect with their audiences informed by his own journey of virality.
Patrick Yurick: It's all about positioning. It's all about being ready to catch the wave. You can't control how big the wave is going to come in if we're going to extend the metaphor. But I talk about you've got to have a press section of your website and you got to be writing up press releases about the work that you're producing. You need to create with artists that are creating original work. If you want to capitalize as a business on marketing, you have to approach it from how do we create content that people actually want? We can track our audiences now and we've gotten really smart at that, but understanding a little bit more about positioning a project so that maybe you're going to get attention virally from the news wires like I did. Maybe you're going to get attention virally from a Reddit post. You can't control them, but you can set yourself up to potentially catch that wave if it comes in. I had no idea when I was doing hangouts on air that I was going to go viral a year later because I interviewed a guy who draws skulls.
Attention and approval for your work isn't as big a deal as you liking what you're doing. And I know that sounds really pithy and it really did teach me to care about my work so that when I put it out into the world, I could accept whatever way people were going to interact with it. And I don't know if I could have gone through that. So I guess there's no, I couldn't get to this realization without having gone through all that. So part of me is like, well just do what you're doing, you'll figure it out. If something gets really big and you don't like it, you're going to learn from that.
Kyla Sims: With all that to chew on, I wanted to take it back to Christianna Silva and get their thoughts on what's a better way to think about going viral.
I think it's fair to say that there isn't a magic number that we can pluck from the ether to judge whether something actually went viral. So how do we make going viral more meaningful and what should we be aiming for, if not vanity metrics on Twitter?
Christianna Silva: When we think about meaningful content, we need to get rid of virality from our vocabulary. We need to think about why we're posting what we're posting and what we want to get out of it. So when I post my articles that I've written on Twitter, what I'm trying to get out of it is education and a conversation. I want to know what questions other people have when they're done reading my piece, what I need to do to follow up, what I might have missed. I want to know what other people might not have known when I first did that. I want to know if I actually met the goal of my piece, which was to talk about some new, interesting, fascinating thing to me and see if other people are interested in it.
If my entire goal was to go viral, I would always have a terrible time online. And I think that's true for everyone. I think a lot of times these incredible content creators who go viral all the time, are meeting their very meaningful goals, which is to entertain people, to make people happy, to educate people, to create communities online. Those are all valuable and meaningful reasons to post and to interact and to engage online. Going viral I just don't think is a good goal to have.
Kyla Sims: And you're probably right.
Christianna Silva: It certainly isn't one for me.
Kyla Sims: What's interesting though, so they're this other class of creator that is doing it for their nine to five, and so they're often passed down this sort of direction by sort probably a C- suite leader who's never been on Twitter and they're telling them to go viral. So I'm really curious what your advice would be for communicators who've been asked to make something go viral, what should they do?
Christianna Silva: I would say two things. One is to look at the content that you follow that does go viral and to ask yourself why. Chances are it's because you learned something new or you learned it in a really interesting and fun way. So try to replicate that, not copy it, but try and replicate that feeling that you get from it and why you personally as a user like that video. And the second thing, I think if someone's asking you to go viral, I would immediately respond and be like, that's an absurd ask. Maybe say it in a friendlier C- suite way, but explain to them sort of how going viral works and how going viral is not a reasonable or meaningful goal to have.
But instead try and think about the goals, the numeric valuable goals that are reasonable to reach. And those can be things like interactions with other people. They can be comments on your videos, they can be bringing in new consumers, new customers, bringing in more people on your newsletters, getting more donations. There are tons of different valuable ways to track how your content is working online that isn't just go viral. That meaningful connection with your community that's sustainable that you can build upon, that you can make better, that you can can actually produce meaningful result within a business. But going viral might not. At all.
Kyla Sims: Well, thank you so much for chatting with us. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today and I am so appreciative that you made time to talk to us.
Christianna Silva: Yeah, absolutely. This was so much fun.
Kyla Sims: My conversation with Christianna really validated a lot of the confusing feelings I'd had about my own internet virality and its impact on my life. When I shut down my blog, people didn't understand why. Why would I want to shut down something that was so successful, But for me it wasn't a success. It became the very thing that Christianna warned us about. Today we learned that there's a lot of assumptions packed into the request to make something go viral. First, there's the assumption that likes, follows, shares, or whatever you're using to measure virality is an actual indicator of quality or reach. Second, there's an assumption that it's actually possible to manufacture this mysterious virality. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there's the assumption that going viral is actually a good thing. So instead of trying to post or create something just because you know it will get a big reaction and drive up some sexy numbers that you can report to leadership, ask yourself if you're genuinely giving your audience what they need when they need it, because that is when you're most likely to strike gold.
Today our guests were Mashable reporter Christianna Silva and Patrick Yurick, Director of Experience Design at the Hightech High Graduate School of Education, as well as founder of Podcation and makingcomics. com. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Today we talked about getting caught up in the realm of virality and some of the outrageous places people go to hit big on the internet. Join us next time when we talk about the controversial language that gets our communication twisted in a bundle. We'll be diving into the taboo world of cursing and crossed fingers. I know this is a loaded question, but why do we swear?
Professor Timothy Jay: The short answer to the question, why don't we curse is to express emotion and convey our emotional feelings to other people. Once we start to verbalize our anger, follow genetically, it evolves as the brain evolves and so it becomes more abstract and it becomes more political. So you wouldn't hear a five year old calling someone a chauvinist pig or a Nazi. They would use terms like-
Kyla Sims: Poo poo head.
Professor Timothy Jay: Doo doo head. Very common. You're a doo doo head.
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit follow on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows. And if you like today's episode, leave us a review. We would love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.