Going Viral. There are few phrases in the world of social media — and in today’s culture, for that matter — with more immediate meaning. We know the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos that filled our feeds. We know Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and Gangnam Style. We know the Harlem Shake. And we know more sad cat, cute puppy and funny baby videos than we care to count.
It’s completely natural, in this age of information and sharing, to aspire to create viral content. And unless you’re breaking out a new superstar or the latest adorable child/animal, it’s only reasonable to admit that going viral is a pie-in-the-sky aspiration, at best. But in an age when celebrity status is currency, it’s also completely natural to think, Wouldn’t it be amazing if this went viral?, when releasing a message, video, photo or story that we know really is special. I can only imagine the conversations that took place at the ALS Association when they talked about this silly idea — this special idea — and contemplated how far the ice-bucket-dumping-cash-donating phenomenon would travel. I doubt anyone in the room that day predicted it would raise $115 million in two months, more than 3,500% of the money raised the year before. Viral, anyone?
Back in early February, I had a bit of a lucky spell. A Facebook post on my district page went viral. I also had two personal posts (here and here), shared just a few minutes apart with some reflections on the state of public education in my home state of Kansas. And in a way I’ve never personally experienced, these also caught fire with friends, with friends of friends and — I would come to learn — with complete strangers.
In that mad and crazy week, I learned some lessons I never expected, and a couple of them still bother me a little, sometimes.
You will never, ever — EVER — be able to measure how far your content reached, or how many people saw it. (I almost wonder if the impossibility of measurement is somehow part of the definition of going viral.)
For someone who works in public relations — and who delights in the Facebook Insight data on a near-daily basis — the sheer inability to measure has been hard to admit. I kept thinking there just had to be a way to compile metrics on how far our post really reached, but I eventually conceded defeat. We were able to easily measure our reach from the original post, including shares and shares of shares. But there were too many original posts about our content on Facebook, often with zero connection to our first post. No matter the approach, I learned no amount of searching, measuring and piecing together would give me the complete picture. I’d just have be willing to settle on this highly scientific evaluation: An Unbelievably Large Number Of People That Destroyed Anything Else We’ve Ever Posted.
The second lesson learned — and one that is still slightly uncomfortable to share — is the personal toll that viral content can take.
Anything that goes viral will attract haters. And let’s face it: If these people can find things to criticize on a video of a baby giraffe, they’ll surely find something to dislike about a strongly worded statement about school funding and state government.
But even the positive attention, which accounted for the vast majority of feedback on all three posts, took a toll on my mental health. The constant monitoring, the searching and counting, and just the repeated surprise and flat-out shock that these messages were on fire … these chronic hits of adrenaline made it very hard to tune out at the end of the day. At times the viral content was exhilarating, and the way it resonated with others was certainly affirming. But the roller coaster in a theme park is designed to only lasts a few minutes. As my social media roller coaster lasted hours, and then days, I wore down.
To be perfectly honest, this second lesson learned feels silly to admit. Why didn’t I just shut off my phone or stop checking stats? Why didn’t I reconfigure my personal posts to stop the strangers from seeing them? Why did I let Facebook friend requests from the adorable moms-I-have-never-met creep me out? What exactly was so hard? And why exactly did it affect me so personally?
I don’t know.
But more than once, I’ve thought of Jason Russell, the activist filmmaker and mastermind behind the Kony 2012 campaign. His video and cause went viral — 50 million views in three days! Unsurprisingly, this man was instantly in demand for high-profile interviews and phone calls, around the clock. But the intense attention generated by going viral — even though it was exactly what he aimed for — also brought Russell to a harrowing halt when he was hospitalized after a dramatic and very public psychotic break. Putting himself and his work out there for mass consumption took a psychological and physical toll that nobody would have imagined.
Mercifully my experience has only a teeny tiny shred in common with Jason Russell’s. But in the midst of my three posts — one professional and two personal — I glimpsed the way that going viral can scrutinize, overwhelm and ultimately break a content creator. Maybe it’s Introvert Kristin bleeding through here, but a real and lingering internal pressure lurks when content goes viral. I just couldn’t shake the sense that everyone wanted a piece of what I made, they wanted a piece of me, and they wanted it now. At the height of the sharing, I felt hollowed out, I felt overexposed and mostly, I just felt spent. I had no more to give.
But time passed, and much like a swarm of bees people moved on to the next round of content — content that someone else had created and shared. Whew. And now with the benefit of hindsight, these challenges seem more understandable, less bewildering.
Ultimately, I’m a communicator, and the messages I offer reflect my passion, my ideas and my creation. I can’t separate all my content from myself.
When it counts the most, it’s personal.
I imagine I’ll always create content that I hope will catch fire — after all, that’s the whole point of social media. But now, when I prepare to share that special idea with the world, I go in with open eyes. I prepare to feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. I prepare to care for my mental health. And I know that it will pass.
But of all the lessons I’ve learned, perhaps the simplest applies best: Be careful what you wish for … it just might come true.