My Medium Post Went Viral. Here’s What Happened Next

Photo by Florian Klauer

On July 8, 2015 I woke up, made a coffee, and checked my email. At the top of my inbox was an email from The Chicago Tribune. While I watched, two more emails popped up, one from Business Insider and one from the CNN. They were all asking for exclusive interviews, image assets, and requesting permission to reprint an article I had published on Medium the day before, which detailed how I covertly changed a small but omnipresent Facebook icon and then shipped it to the world. In that moment I was certain that one of two things was imminent: either Facebook was going to fire me or I was about to receive a friend request from Kim Kardashian.


ICYMI

As a new employee, I found several things in the Facebook platform that suggested product decisions had made by male-dominated teams. First, I discovered an incomplete female silhouette in our icon set. Less glaring, but still annoying, was the ordering and relative size of the male and female silhouette in the friends icon (the male was in front and much larger).

I also noticed early on that it didn’t matter which gender I chose for my test accounts, every default profile photo was a silhouette of a man. Similarly, on older devices, or on slow internet connections, the placeholder image while profile photos were being downloaded was always male as were most other representations of a single human around the app. Adding a friend? Must be a male friend. Viewing your friends list? Must be all men.

The changes we made ended the era of the default man. Profile photos now map to the gender selected in your profile. Icons of single people are now gender-neutral, including placeholder images.

In my career, I’ve noticed that products tend to reflect the builders’ majority, and this is especially true at a company as democratic as Facebook. Being a female designer, I felt okay about suggesting that the woman was in front by exposing both of her shoulders, in the same way that I’m sure the male designer before me felt fine about placing her behind a leading male icon.


Traffic Spikes

In the hours after pressing “Publish,” I had watched the story spread on social media as friends and then celebrities re-shared my article on Facebook and Twitter. I started to suspect that I’d hit a nerve when a friend sent me two screenshots: one of Chelsea Clinton, and another of Amy Poehler, both talking about my story. That’s when the interview requests from nearly every news outlet in the Western world started rolling in.

Not surprisingly, Facebook played a big role in how this story spread. More than half of all traffic referrals in the week after publishing came from Facebook as high-profile people and Pages posted links to the article and their followers re-shared the re-shares. The second day, traffic peaked at around 120,000 views. A long tail of referrals came from Medium, Twitter, and traditional news outlets. A year later, I still see around 2,000 referrals each month.

Medium stats the week after publishing.

As the story continued gaining momentum in the media, I became increasingly nervous that all this attention could go horribly wrong. Many of the tweets and responses to celebrity posts were negative. I felt like I should tell someone above my pay grade that bad press might be on the way. Casually, I stopped by our Chief Product Officer’s desk and said something along the lines of, “Hey, remember that icon project we talked about last year? … Well, I wrote a thing and some people seem to like it…” and quickly scampered off.

As inquiries from the press rolled in, I asked our PR team to decline all live video and radio interviews. I was terrified at the idea of speaking on the company’s behalf about a change that no one on the executive team had explicitly approved. On the advice of our PR team, I did accept the Huffington Post’s invitation to become a blogger on their platform, and I gave a follow up interview to Refinery29; but mostly I hid under the covers waiting for things to calm down.


Mixed Reactions

At the end of the article, I included my email address and invited people to reach out with feedback or ideas for other icon upgrades. It’s a common practice at Facebook to seek feedback early and often but this time the response was a magnitude larger and not always easy to read.

Many people wrote to tell me how much they appreciated the change and shared their own stories. A proud father of two girls wrote to tell me that on the same day he read my article he had watched the confederate flag disappear from the South Carolina Statehouse. He thought symbols everywhere seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Some people asked if I could have done more for underrepresented communities. A lot of people were annoyed and angry, suggesting that I had wasted my time on a triviality. One particularly strongly-worded message came from a man who insisted that I had violated the German constitution.

My colleagues at Facebook were a welcome counterbalance — they were universally supportive.


The Good News

At the end of the second day, and much to my relief, Facebook’s PR team sent an email summary of the press coverage and described it as overwhelmingly positive. One of my favorite headlines was from Elle, Facebook Decides Men and Women Are Created Equal.

I was heartened that the mainstream media seemed to be okay with a female designer making an icon that matched her world views. Even more, I was glad that people seemed eager to engage in conversation around the topics of diversity inside tech companies, biased symbolism, and gender equality. I think these timely themes, plus the fact that I was able to provide an insider perspective at a high profile company were what garnered me so much attention.

Recounting my experiences at a big company felt risky at the time, as did announcing a change that the world hadn’t seemed to notice. In a lot of ways I felt lucky. I can easily imagine how this could have played out poorly and instead of writing a follow up piece to a success story I’d could be trying to forget a major career blunder.

Then again, all writing is risky and the best stories are inherently vulnerable. I’m glad I work at a company that values transparency and encourages risk taking because it means I can honor inspiration where it happens and tell the stories that feel the most real.


This post kicks off a series of first-person pieces by individuals who are pushing the boundaries of brand storytelling. Find more resources for brands here.


Caitlin Winner is a Design Manager at Facebook, part time painter and aspiring farmer. Before Facebook, she lived in Germany and co-founded a startup.