Explorations in Storytelling

On Writing

Writing about writing

Going viral

So an odd thing happened to me in a space of 36 hours: A story I wrote and posted on cowbird.com (now posted here) in 2011 went viral, thanks to a recommendation from upworthy.com. Wow.  

It began as a dribble. A message from a friend who said she got a message from a friend who'd gotten a message from a friend to read my story Lili  about a small moment in my life with my youngest daughter.

That night, I got a tweet from Adam Mordecai, god bless his soul, who said that that his site, upworthy.com was going to feature my story. Brace myself, he said.

Wow again. The dribble became a flood. Views zoomed. Just like that. Then 75, 85, no check that, 105, 200 tweets and retweets and favorites and 50,000 views in 12 hours, no make that 60,000, and then 150,000 new views and that was, is, SO cool. Really. It is. You write something. You get some response. Nice response, I might add, and then 18 months later, a tsunami. A writer's dream. ( And on the same day that my pal, Stephen Kiernan, formally sold movie rights to his new book, The Curiosity. So what's the THIRD great thing to happen? Can't wait.)

But, like any recovering journalist, I have some observations, questions, perspectives:

  • The site, upworthy.com, is a powerful force in driving traffic.
  • Most of the Twitter-shares were simply the Upworthy headline and links generated by the simple press of the share button beside the story on upworthy.com. 
  • I responded to many and got some delightful replies back. 
  • And I await some statistics, but I fear that not that many people followed the link to cowbird.com and then explored and found some of the wonderful stories there.

So the activity, to me, follows an observation: we adults read something, pass it on, follow other people's links and pass them along, too. We have specific people, sites and feeds that we follow. And that's about all we have time for.

When the Web began (back in the early 1990s; I remember because in 1995 I led the creation of what was then the THIRTEENTH newspaper site on the entire Internet -- imagine!) the catch phrase was to "surf" the Web, as in explore, find something new and unexpected. When was the last time you heard that phrase? It was the joyous, adventurous time when it was smaller and more manageable and not dominated by monetization and largeness. It was anarchy; and exploratory. Now? I, we, want help in knowing what to read. We don't have time to surf, to sift, to explore. And, too, our behaviors are changed. Tell me.  Now. What should i read? Which is why upworthy.com works.

Does it lead to a deeper connection? Do these "viral" moments lead to more viewers, sustained viewership that leads to more people exploring my own work or the work of the amazing storytellers on cowbird.com? Or, even, to the work that really  consumes me, youngwritersproject.org?

Probably not. We are, now, overwhelmed with notifications and promotions and links and favorites and so it is not in our behaviors patterns to add more, or to explore or to find new. We look at what is in our world -- our friends, interests, value-systems. 

Which is the irony of my and many of my former colleagues' lives as recovering journalists. We are not, necessarily, bumping into the unexpected. We are not surfing. And we are not buying newspapers where we turn the page and find a totally riveting but unexpected story about something we knew nothing about.

And that's where a site like Upworthy comes in. This is the new newspaper. And their curators are, in fact, serving the same purpose as newspaper editors serve(d). And the site's ecclectic collection, though narrow in some respects (just like a newspaper) by necessity because their own definition, criteria and purpose needs to be clear so that it can succeed.

A side note is that we are also noticing at Young Writers Project that kids, formerly explorers, now want, expect, demand these same kinds of curatorial or aggregating services/features/sites as adults. I don't have time to comb through all that, tell me what is the best, what should I read?  And kids are acting like adults in other ways: They want things to work. Now. Always. And when they don't, they're frustrated. They explore less. They have less of a sense of how Web sites work. They're more fearful of what might happen if they press the wrong button.

I remain a Neanderthal. A digital citizen raised in the Early Jurassic Period. I still prefer reading the physical version of the New York Times to its incarnation on my iPad. (I actually sneak out to buy the NYT sometimes at the local filling station.) I love surfing the Web. I'm pissed that stumbleupon.com doesn't give you random stuff but tailors it to your interests and patterns. And my entire family tries to flummox Netflix by simultaneously watching slasher movies and the latest never-ending BBC series.  And it is why I remain a recovering journalist -- I'm always trying to figure out why or what something means.

Because in my heart I really should just sit back and relish this rare and enormous audience. Real people appreciating a small thing I wrote. So I'll admit it. I love that so many people are reading my little story about my daughter when she was 2. As one reader told me, Feel the love, man. Feel the love. I do. I swear. 61,370 times and counting. Make that 70,300 ... 102,517 ... 169,404. Cool.

But at one newspaper where I once worked, each day's stories went to 300,000 readers. On Sunday's, 400,000. Every day. Every week. My how the world's communication system has splintered. 

Geoffrey GevaltComment