The Broken Promise of Virality

Creatrix Tiara
Nov 3, 2014 · 4 min read

My post about Ello is my most significantly viral work yet, but it’s not the first time I’ve gained some level of Internet fame. My Muslim Beauxbatons headcanon was a Tumblr hit, and a remark I made in a Slutwalk speech gained enough notoriety to warrant a news article. Where Is MH370 gained a lot of followers quickly and we still get contacted for commentary on the missing flight (though most of it is people wanting validation for their conspiracy theories). When I was more actively involved in burlesque, I was often recognised for being super-upfront about the racism in the scene — both in good ways and bad.

I used to have somewhat drawn-out arguments with my matey about the idea that if you put your creative work out there for free, and sell merch or go on tour, you can easily make tons of money. His main source of this point of view was Techdirt, and the arguing often got so bad that I eventually banned him from bringing up Techdirt lest it gets us fighting again (we don’t often fight as it is).

It’s not that I have any quarrel over the underlying idea of sharing creative work — I do think there is a ton of benefit in it. But I know first-hand that virality, fame, and sustainability do not always go hand-in-hand.

People often talk about wanting to go viral because it means you get attention, which can lead to jobs or money. A lot of news outlets would rather pay you in “exposure” than actual money. When my Ello post got quoted in places like Engadget, Huffington Post, and Metafilter, and when I got interview requests from Fast Company and The New Yorker, I was also in the middle of hunting for paid work while in a short-term unpaid internship and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get hired for paid work.

Nothing’s really come off it.

Nobody’s headhunting me for work related to tech or writing or privacy issues. The closest I have come to getting offered to write more is when I thanked Contently for linking me and they invited me to contribute (I just might if I can think of something to write about). My WhereIsMH370 work probably has been the most useful in terms of being leveraged for opportunities (in that I get to use that as evidence of multiple journalistic and editorial skills), but it hasn’t consistently resulted in successful hires or acceptances.

I sometimes even get frustrated at the retweets and signal boosts for posts on things like personal fundraisers, because they never consistently translate to actual donations or material support. People are happy to share, but contributing is harder to achieve.

(This is not to throw shade at the people who are sharing — I understand that for some people sharing’s the only thing they can afford to do. That’s fine. I just wished that more people also thought of contributing to what they are sharing or see shared.)

I have been asked to be interviewed for other people’s articles and theses about everything from Tumblr to POC in fandom, which is great! I enjoy having my brain picked and I end up meeting some really interesting people out of it. And to be clear, I am very thankful and happy for the opportunities that I have been granted in my life — many of which are directly or indirectly the product of my active creative involvement online. If it weren’t for the Internet I would be nowhere near this productive.

But again, the promises of virality have not materialized.

I know there’s a fair bit of stigma against having money as an end-goal — 80% of my social circles are anti-capitalists (y’all would hate my dad) and there’s this idea that you’re meant to only do Art or Social Justice or whatever for The Love Of It. Couple that with a (somewhat misogynist, in my view) stigma against attention-seekers and it gets difficult to complain about how your fame or infamy isn’t getting you rewards. And how dare you express frustration at the links and retweets and so on not resulting in anything? Who do you think you are, Kim Kardashian?

But my experience exposes the idea of “build it and they will come” to be based on really shaky foundations. People are willing to share if it comes at no cost to them, but the creator and the created work are too often separated. (A lot of the articles linking to my Ello post didn’t credit me, or credit me as anything from “a member of the queer community” to “a drag queen” to “a Facebook refugee” — I did initially say I didn’t care about credit, but that was without anticipating the virality.) If you create anything, especially consistently, you are expected to keep creating regardless of whether you get anything back from it. And if you are seen as successful or popular, people assume that you’re doing well materially or financially, and don’t feel the need to financially compensate you.

I’ve seen this with non-profits too — quite a few who are household names in the community and are thus assumed to have plenty of money. Except they are running on a shoestring and are struggling for funding and in some cases have lost their biggest funding sources. But hardly anyone in their userbase donates because hey! You don’t need it, right?


Exposure doesn’t pay the rent. Retweets don’t buy food. Money doesn’t always materialise out of signal boosts. Just because you go viral doesn’t mean you are instantly set for life — and just because something is a household name doesn’t mean they’re able to afford their household costs.

Like my work? Thank you! Here’s ways that you can support my work and keep me going.

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    Creatrix Tiara

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