Well, that was an interesting weekend. I have a few posts I need to write off the back of having a blog post go epic viral, both about the topic itself and what it means for me. I’ve been doing a lot of processing-in-public on Twitter (a fucking lifeline given Fiona is in London for a forthnight and it’s just been me and the rabbits). Suffice to say I’ve got plenty to say.
But the main thing that’s struck me over the weekend is how I have a fantastic case study at my fingertips for what it’s like to have a piece of content go unexpectedly viral and a shedload of lessons learned from how I dealt with it. So that’s what this post is going to try and deal with. I don’t necessarily have the answers yet, or even a proper understanding, so I think the best approach at this stage is to account for everything chronologically, starting just before midnight on Friday.
So yes, this is going to be a long post.
I’ve been in a bit of a funk for the last week. Work-wise, outside of Photo School, it’s all very transitional with nothing concrete on the horizon and I’ve been having trouble getting some focus on the scary-to-me job of identifying and productising my skills. So, faced with a block I did what I know normally works – I wrote something daft about baby rivers in Stirchley for Paradise Circus. This is the mental equivalent of going for a jog and getting some air in your lungs, kicking the dust off and limbering and well you get the idea. And having done that I settled down to an evening on the sofa reading stuff and skimming through the Twitter, as you do.
Around this time the Twitterstorm was brewing and I saw a couple of mentions in my stream. Usually with these things I just skim past them, whirlwinds of outrage not being something I enjoy, regardless of the topic. But there was something about this that chimed with my limbered up mind and I clicked through, did some comparative searches on Amazon and looked at the tweets. As usual, the outraged were misunderstanding a fundamental point (which is to be expected in these scenarios) but the issue here was really interesting. They had no idea of the process leading up to the thing they were upset about. At all. They were projecting evil intent onto what seemed to me to be an automated process gone horrible wrong, what I later learned is known as a pathetic fallacy. (Though you can imagine how well that would have gone down – “It’s okay, your upset over these shirts comes from a pathetic fallacy. Do calm down.”) Not only that but the whole process itself that lead to the shirts being sold showed a fundamental lack of understanding by Amazon sellers and Amazon themselves of what the tools of their trade can lead to. More importantly, no-one was being stupid. These were intelligent people who cared about important things making a massive category error out of ignorance, not irrationality.
In other words, this was a great example of the importance of Digital Literacy. Digital Literacy is something I teach and consult on in various forms, usually calling it “understanding the Internet and stuff”, and I used to write blog posts explaining the strange phenomena of emerging digital platforms quite a lot, back before the dark cloud of “Social Media” floated in around 2009 and it all became very annoying indeed. Revisiting the old game wouldn’t hurt and could even be fun, I figured. I might even get a bit of work out of it.
So I wrote this 1,100 word post lying on the sofa using the wheezy old Macbook into the early hours. At 1:35am, two hours after I first noticed it, I hit publish.
It should go without saying that I wasn’t writing for a mass audience. The last time I did that was the Power And The City thing I did about Birmingham for Paradise Circus over Christmas. That took me five days to write and was proof read by others. It got 1,500 hits and I was very pleased with that. While I’m very happy with the Amazon piece and was certainly on my game that night, it really was knocked off on a whim. I expected my usual audience to read it on Saturday and for it to quickly fade away. It was not designed in any way for a tens of thousands of brains.
That is not an excuse for its failings. That is not modesty on my part. That is simply a fact.
So, how did it go viral? It’s impossible to say for sure but I have some clues and assumptions I’m fairly happy to stand by, or at least throw out there.
The title was literal and summarised the whole post. Or, as my digital subeditor partner Fiona would say, is SEO’ed. My blog posts titles are usually like the one on this post – meaningless to pretty much anyone but me. This one was closer to the schlock you see on Huff-Po and the content farm sites. The URL slug was even more SEO friendly. WordPress stripped the maths out of “Dictionary + algorithm + PoD t-shirt printer + lucrative meme = rape t-shirts on Amazon” turning it into very long nonsense so I re-wrote it as “keep-calm-rape-tshirt-amazon” which says exactly what the post was about. These two things are important because they create a direct semantic link between the article and the discussion. If someone sees this in their Twitter stream, shortened to “keep-calm-rape”, they will know immediately what it’s about.
I was first to market. I haven’t traced it back completely but I think I came across the Twitterstorm around the time it was starting to pick up, or at least within a couple of hours. By the time I published, at 2am on a Friday night, there weren’t many other articles up there, certainly none explaining the algorithm aspect. Through sheer chance I provided the Internet with the first useful resource at the right time. But that doesn’t mean the Internet had to use that resource.
It was well seeded on Twitter. I must point out here that all I did was publish the post and tweet the link with text that meant it might turn up in a search. I had done nothing else to publicise this all weekend – just sat back and watched it. But someone else did. A lady from Seattle called Arthaey Angosii, who didn’t know me, found it in a search and tweeted the link fifty-nine times to individual people in an effort to educate them. I would never have done this because it’s a bit spammy and, from what I’ve seen, never really works (emotional responses and rational explanations are like oil and water on the Internet, Andy Mabbett’s monomaniacal anti-balloon release campaign giving plenty of examples). But it was 2am and I was off to bed, so I didn’t try to stop Arthaey. She seemed to be taking any heat herself and what was the worst thing that could happen? Some people outside my network read my stuff and learned something? I could live with that.
Celebrity endorsement. I’m fairly convinced that Twitterstorms are fuelled by celebrities. They don’t cause them, but they do inject a massive dose of nitrous oxide. I can’t pin it down exactly, but it seems the post was passed around the networks of minor media celebs like Caitlin Moran and India Knight on Saturday morning. I have no idea what their influence was but it didn’t hurt in bringing the first milestone – 10,000 hits at noon on Saturday.
That’s about all I can be certain of. It was early, it was unique, it was useful, it was clearly labeled and it was of interest to people with influence. Oh, and the seeding/spamming. Don’t forget that.
Okay! So it’s noon on Saturday and my blog post has gone totally viral. What happens next?
Well, the first thing I did was put some damage limitation in place on two fronts. I closed the comments and I switched on a WordPress plugin.
In the last year I haven’t been switching comments on by default on my posts. I noticed a disconnect between what I wanted to say and what those reading it wanted to say and it was annoying, particularly on those posts which were more personal to me. If someone wanted to make a point they could blog it themselves, or use Twitter, or send me an email. I didn’t see why I should be obliged to provide a forum for discussion on my personal website if I didn’t want to. But this post wasn’t about me and I suspected people might have questions, so I ticked the Allow Comments box. By Saturday noon there were 35 comments, mainly from people I didn’t know, and it was turning into an adjunct to the wider shitstorm, something I really didn’t want to host. Managing something like this requires a hell of a lot of time and effort and someone had just managed to deduce from my post that I was the person responsible for the t-shirts, so I closed the comments. It would have been nice to have hosted a discussion of the digital literacy issues but that wasn’t going to happen under this particular post.
I also switched on a plugin called WP Super Cache, something I never thought I’d have to do. Rather like the t-shirts, pages on this blog don’t exist until someone asks for them. WordPress gets a request from the server for a certain page and it creates it on the fly, taking the content, title, comments, sidebars and other ephemera from the database. For normal use this is perfectly fine but it doesn’t scale well. Creating hundreds of page a second can overload WordPress, the equivalent of a spinning beachball on your Mac, and is usually the cause of the blogs you find on the front page of Reddit crashing. WP Super Cache solves this problem by storing a “static” copy of the page and serving that, bypassing the WordPress page creation and saving a hell of a lot of processing power. There are downsides to this system (if you change a page element such as the sidebar it isn’t updated until the post itself changes) but for rapid deployment of thousands of copies of the same page it’s invaluable. The last thing I needed was for my hosting to crash.
And then, the phone rang.
The first call was from Channel 4 News. They wanted to interview me on television, or something. One of the things I really hate above all else in the modern media landscape is television news. The superficiality, the breathless sing-song reporting, the fundamental inability to do any kind of useful analysis… television news is the worst thing because it gives this illusion of being a good thing. And it has that really annoying broadcast media superiority complex. Not to mention the journalistic obsession with “story” and “conflict” would mean I’d be crowbarred into a narrative against my will. Suffice to say I’d rather stick my head in a pig. So I said no. They got Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group to do it in the end, but that wasn’t to be the end of my interactions with Channel 4.
Shortly after the phone rang again. This time it was Sky News and I cut them off pretty sharpish. No need to justify my kooky opinions about television news – the Murdoch factor made it a no-brainer. Half an hour later a chap from 5 Live (turned out to be Tim Levell calls and, as talk radio is only slightly better than TV news, I turn him down too, though he does make an interesting point: roughly “you say you want people to understand this, and we can help” so why not use that? I guess because it’s not on my terms, not in my control. I’m already losing control of my words as they’re spinning across the Internet and I don’t see the personal benefit of amplifying that. Especially as I’m very likely to come over as an arrogant, grumpy fucker on live radio. My writing might scale but my personality doesn’t.
That was it for the broadcasters, although I did later get a call from a lady at ITV News. This wasn’t about broadcast – she merely wanted to check about linking from ITV.com and how I’d like to be credited. She was lovely, polite and understanding – a real tonic. The story went live on their homepage and turned out to be all about me! Web expert: ‘Offensive T-shirts unlikely to exist’ it said! I got 9 hits from that story. Nine. That’s like 0.01% of my total traffic. Quite astonishing.
Meanwhile my Twitter name has been associated with the article and I’m starting to get “feedback” from people who can’t see my point through their righteous anger. They’re a tiny minority, of course, and I try to make a point of not engaging, because it’s futile. Sometimes I slipped though, which wound up with me being called an “apologist for rape”.
Which is really not very nice at all. There’s a school of thought that the best way to deal with this sort of thing is to engage with it in a calm, rational way. I’m fairly certain it isn’t, because the two approaches do not mesh. At all. These people aren’t necessarily stupid and their complaints are generally valid, but when the red mist is down there’s no talking to them, because if you do the red mist will fall on you too and then it all goes horribly wrong. So don’t bother.
Saturday was mostly spent with Twitter feedback, both positive and negative. And there was a lot of positive. The post was being spread mostly because people found it useful, and that was a great thing. Hardly anyone was linking it to negatively, beyond the understandable “surely not?” reaction. Only one person called me a “sub human piss man” but loads of people said thank you. So, on balance it was a good experience.
By 6pm things were, if not calming then stabilising. The shock was dissipating and I was trying to crack on with other work. And then Channel 4 put an article on their website with a sentence that accidentally implied peteashton.com was the company responsible. The words “automatically generated by a programme” were linked to my post.
It’s clear they intended to use me as an explanatory reference, as one might link to Wikipedia, but the phrasing scared the shit out of me. I was already being called a rape apologist by people who couldn’t read properly. The chances of someone like that seeing that and following the link… So got their number and called the Channel 4 newsdesk, somewhat breathless with adrenaline, and a lovely man sorted it all out. News desks are surprisingly quiet places. You think they’re going to be all people with cigars shouting “stat!” but it’s all hushed tones and calm voices. Remarkable when you consider the hyperbolic hysteria they so often produce. Anyway, all fixed with my link moved to the bottom, out of the way and back in its context bubble.
The next day CNN got hold of the post and excerpted it at length but after checking for accidental libel I pretty much dismissed it. By then I’d realised that being quoted on a major news site doesn’t have any real immediate effect. Sure, a few people might make a note of who this person is (and I did get an email from a very notable person indeed), but the vast majority, the horde, aren’t going to click through. Three mainstream news sites linked to me sending the following traffic: CNN: 427, Channel 4: 171, ITV: 9.
(I’ll do more analysis of the numbers in a separate post as there’s a lot in there and drawing any real conclusions is risky. It needs proper processing.)
By now it was the evening, I was tired and wired and needed to decompress. A stupid movie was in order, the more overblown the better. 2012 was the first one I found and I’d forgotten John Cusack was in it.
The movie finished and I considered rolling off to bed. The worst of it must be over by now, surely? No. Now it was time for the Americans.
First, someone posted it to Hacker News, a stripped down message board for programmers which gets a lot of traffic. Within an hour 7,500 people came my way. Then it hit Reddit throwing another 1,000 people my way. Thankfully for my server there was already a main thread for the topic so I didn’t get flooded, but even so, making Reddit was a milestone. And then at 2am Cory Doctorow put it on BoingBoing, though it didn’t send much traffic due to the special way BoingBoing excerpts the meat of the source so you don’t need to click through. Not that that bothered me, but it was interesting to see a phenomena I’d seen complaints about first hand. Either than or BB really doesn’t have the influence it used to back in the days when a link from there could kill a website in minutes. Times change.
By 3am 65,000 people had looked at the page and I was ready to sleep.
My memory is that Sunday was as hectic as Saturday but looking through my Twitter nothing that noteworthy happened. It was more waves of aftershock and trying to get my head around the whole thing, along with tweaking stuff that, now it was under the bright lights of publicity, was looking ragged. My “about” page, for example, hadn’t been updated since 2010, so I redirected it to peteashton.com. There’s nothing like a few thousand new guests to make you spring clean a bit.
And that’s probably enough for this post. I now need to write some reflection and analysis, both of the issue of automation itself and of how I dealt with the sudden exposure. In both cases I’m hoping my writings will be useful to others so, to that end and that end only, I’m leaving the comments open.
If you have any questions or issues you’d like me to explore, please leave them below. But don’t post your own theories or points of view. It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s that this isn’t the place. If you do post something that isn’t helping me frame my future posts I’ll probably delete it, because you evidently haven’t read the post, and “not reading the post” is what led people to think I was excusing violence on women.
And if you think that makes me an arrogant tosser, well, I can live with that.
Thank you, again, to everyone who posted the link across the Internets and to everyone who read it properly. I really, honestly, genuinely appreciate your time and attention. Having a blog post go viral like this is really weird and at times uncomfortable, but ultimately it’s an honour. Most of the 80,000 will never darken my webserver again, but for those few who do stick around, I hope I occasionally live up to your expectations, and that you forgive me when I don’t.