My Tweet Went Viral — Here’s What I Learned

On Thursday evening, I came across a tweet from a tech publication in my timeline. The headline was that recently fired Google engineer James Damore claimed that being conservative at Google was comparable to “being gay in the 50s”. This immediately brought to mind Alan Turing, one of history’s most well-known contributors to the world of computing, who was chemically castrated by the British government in the 50s (when given the choice between that and a prison sentence). I was disappointed but not surprised that Damore would make this comment, but given that he considers women biologically inferior for working in programming. Given that Ada Lovelace invented programming, and it was considered a woman’s profession for many decades following, it’s pretty clear this guy has no awareness of computing history — even less when it comes to biology. I quote-tweeted the article sharing a 140-character summary of the consequences Turing faced for being gay in the 50’s.

I thought some people mind find this brief history lesson and response interesting, but not more than a few of the less than 1,000 people who followed me. I saw a few friends retweeted and liked it. After a couple hours, it was shared more, and reached people who didn’t follow me. I put my phone on silent for the night and went to bed without expecting anything else from it. By the morning, I had received 374 notifications from Twitter, and the tweet itself had been retweeted over 6,000 times.

I’m no internet celebrity, and have no aspirations to be. I am, however, a digital marketer — so I would like to share my experience as a case study.

By The Numbers

I’m writing this Monday afternoon — three and a half days after publishing. At this time, the tweet has the following metrics:

  • 7,524,411 impressions (not unique)
  • 131,154 total engagements
  • 75,697 likes
  • 35,942 retweets
  • 17,821 detail expands
  • 3,609 profile clicks
  • 742 replies
  • 331 link clicks
  • 13 follows (directly from this tweet — my actual follower count has grown by about 150, but I don’t expect those followers to remain for long)

The tweet gained the most momentum Friday during the day. By starting Thursday night and growing slowly (relatively — 6,000 or so retweets) overnight, it was well-timed to be widely shared on Friday during the day. From 6:30 AM to about 11 PM at night, it went from 6,000 to almost 30,000 retweets. The next day saw it rise to almost 32,000, and and slowed to just under 33,000 by the end of the day Sunday. As of Monday, it’s in the long tail of growth, and I’ve no idea how long it will continue to grow.

Managing Notifications

When I woke to the 374 notifications on Friday morning, it triggered a message from Twitter saying something along the lines of “One of your tweets is getting a lot of attention — would you like to change your notification settings?” Following this, I was directed to the notification settings’ advanced filters, where the app specifically directed me to disable notifications from users who don’t follow me. This immediately reduced the flood of notifications to a more manageable level. At this point, I only saw when my immediate network interacted with the tweet (or interacted with me otherwise). The only exceptions where when someone followed me before liking or retweeting, and a few notifications that people I follow (but don’t follow me) where interacting with the tweet. This was a few notifications an hour, instead of a steady flow.

Even though I wasn’t sent push notifications or had them appear in the app, the Twitter app was nearly unusable Friday and Saturday as my account and device (a OnePlus 5) were still processing the volume of interactions with the tweet and my account. It was a bit frustrating, but not a major issue — just lots of freezes and crashes.

Managing Abuse

My first concern, after seeing this tweet become viral, was dealing with the imminent trolls and homophobic responses. That was the most stressful thought about the whole experience. Luckily, there wasn’t much abuse to deal with.

Firstly, the tweet didn’t attract the negative attention I was worried it might. I think it was because the tweet was worded as a historical fact and not as an opinion. At worst, the tweet attracted a handful of pedants who claimed that the chemical castration wasn’t “forced” because he could have chosen to go to prison. In my opinion, this is the sort of common made only by the most base sort of man — and these comments were exclusively made by white, presumably straight men.

Secondly, the tweet become self-policing. When one of these pedants would offer their idiotic criticism, someone else would put them in their place.

As such, I didn’t have to manage any of the responses to the tweet. I do my best to avoid arguments with strangers on the internet, and had resolved early on to not debate critics of my tweet. Luckily, my response was not required.

Why Did The Tweet Go Viral?

I don’t think there is a formula in this case. I think there were a few factors that contributed, although I don’t have quantifiable data to confirm.

First, my initial followers were kind enough to retweet. If that hadn’t happened, nothing else would have followed. With a relatively small number of followers, it’s very difficult for any tweet (no matter the content) to go viral. So the initial momentum from a handful of friends got the ball rolling.

Secondly, I think the political climate and zeitgeist was instrumental. Following the violence in Charlottesville, ongoing travesty that is the Trump administration, and backlash to right-wing politics, this tweet was certainly a response to news events that were gathering a lot of attention on Twitter. Historical facts are one of the few things that arguably apolitical, but in this context, it was a strong contrast to the fallacious argument being made by James Damore (and by extension, many other right-wing claims). My politics, and the politics of much of my network, are far left. As such, this tweet resonated initially and then consistently.

Thirdly, I was probably the first (but certainly not only) to contrast Damore’s comment with this historical fact. I’m no genius for offering my comment, but I was in the right place and time for it to take off. I did see many other responses to his comments, some bringing up the same history and others refuting it on its face.

Fourthly, I think the fact that the tweet was centered on a fact and not an opinion helped. The initial tweet with Damore’s comment was politically motivated and controversial, insofar as that it would be rebuked by anyone familiar with LGBTQ+ history. My quote-tweet was not something up for debate — if it had been, I assume it would not have been as widely shared. Or, if it had been based on my opinion, I would have seen more abuse and response.

Fifthly, the timing was probably ideal. Gaining initial momentum leading into a Friday morning was much better than if it had been Sunday morning. My experience with Twitter, at least from the larger brand accounts I’ve managed over the years, is that there’s more activity during the week than on the weekend. If this had started picking up on Tuesday morning, it’s possible the initial growth would have been higher before losing momentum on the weekend.

Key Takeaways

Again, I really can’t provide a formula to make a tweet viral. My best guesses, summarized from above are:

  1. Your followers need to be responsive to the tweet and help it start its initial momentum.
  2. The content of the tweet has to be very relevant to a wider audience.
  3. If someone else had made the same take before me, my tweet would not have spread as it did.
  4. The way the content was structured in making it safe for others to share, or at least successful in avoiding abuse.
  5. When I tweeted it helped.

So many on Twitter rush to share their hot takes, and I assume with the hope that their tweet gets a lot of attention. While it didn’t take a lot of thought to compose the tweet, if it had been a knee-jerk reaction, it would not have been as successful (or free of abuse). I don’t think throwing out as many hot takes as you can will get a lot of traction

How Did It Feel?

Honestly, it was largely stressful. Watching the numbers grow was exciting, but it felt a lot like a very long rollercoaster ride. It helped when I saw that there wasn’t a lot of abuse or negative responses. At least, at that point, I felt like I would not be hurt on the ride.

By far the best part was seeing people I admire on Twitter interact with my tweet. It felt nice to know that, after getting so much from the journalists, artists, and other notable people I follow that I was able to reciprocate at least one small thing. I’m sure none of these people will remember me, but it was a heartwarming feeling all the same. I received a lot of positive comments from strangers on Twitter. I also received a lot of warm comments from friends who had seen the tweet, particularly my friends in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s good to know that I shared a thing that resonated positively with so many.

I don’t know if James Damore saw my tweet. If he did, I would bet that he hasn’t reconsidered his position. But it was nice to share a direct and strong critique of his comments, and I hope it hastens the end of his celebrity. I may have made this initial message, but it was amplified by tens of thousands. My favourite comment, from @JovanMcGee, was simple and early: “the tea is scalding tonight”.

All the same, I frankly hope to not repeat the experience. I work with brands to help them grow on Twitter, and it feels strange and uncomfortable to be personally in the spotlight instead. I’m grateful to have learned what I have, and without any negative consequences that many others experience in 15 minutes of fame online.

Alex is a digital marketer, community volunteer, and cat enthusiast living in Ottawa, Canada.