The emptiness of going viral

In our capitalist society, what's the value of recognition for free?

Anyone who’s gone viral (for a good reason, anyway) understands how peculiar it is. The sudden rush of attention. Recognition of your brilliance. The ever-growing number of shares. And though you may never admit it in mixed company, you feel a little bit proud. But you certainly can’t brag about it to your friends, lest you sound like an asshole. And much more often than not, it’s ultimately meaningless in our capital-driven society that only sees something with a price tag as a legitimate endeavor. If there’s little money in actual journalism, there’s even less in making thousands of people laugh for just a moment.

Late Tuesday evening after my terrifying drive in a seven-hour downpour, the Justice Department released a document with new details on its investigation into former President Trump. Included among the many pages was one lone photograph showing a menagerie of top secret classified documents that were found in a search of his Florida resort.

Maybe it was the hours of white-knuckled driving or my inability to properly process any more Trump news, but I found inspiration in the photo, from the gaudy country club carpet to the brightly-colored folders. I then found a series of outfits worn by singer and actor Selena Gomez that resembled patterns in the photo of the documents and—voila!—a deranged Twitter thread called “selena gomez as trump’s stolen top secret documents” was born.

The positive response was pretty immediate, and a slow burn overnight gave way to a bona fide hit once the morning crowd logged on. Responses like “this made me laugh way too hard” and “where is your genius grant” rolled in, with multiple quote tweets declaring “this is art”, and actor Amber Tamblyn adding “I just screamed.” One guy said it made him spill his coffee. (Send me the dry cleaning invoice, Frank.)

As I went about my day, I’d check out my mentions every so often to see the funny replies, and watch the retweets pass 1,000, and later, 2,000. I had the sense that I created something that brought people a sliver of joy in a fucked up world. And that always feels good.

But when you’re a professional writer, the experience of having a piece of throwaway content skyrocket in popularity can be frustrating in comparison to the effort it takes to write something “real.” You can pour your heart into an idea and even recognize it as some of your finest work, but you know it will never get as many eyeballs as a random thought you had on the toilet.

I recently spent six months reporting and writing a piece that was well-received, but ultimately lined the online litter box the next day. Whereas Selena’s outfit thread got a coveted write-up in the NY Post.

In today’s journalism environment, it’s not enough to do great reporting and writing: you need a brand! You need a defined audience! You need people to not just know your work, but know you! But when it comes time to update your resume and apply for jobs, there’s no section for viral posts. You can’t screenshot your top three most popular tweets and you can’t get a letter of recommendation from your most faithful reply guy. You can’t put down a famous person who re-shared your content as a reference. All this free content we create in our idle time ultimately is of the most ephemeral consequence.

As I ended another cluttered day on Twitter, the tail of the traffic tapering off, I was yet again reminded that posting is like cotton candy: it’s good in the moment, but when you try to grasp it, it turns to dust. For every person with viral content who gets to do some paid sponsored posts or gets hired by a stale brand trying to create an identity, there’s the rest of us straining for relevance, for recognition, for success, stretching towards this oasis of importance, particularly in absence of meaningful ways to write for pay. And so the empty calories of social media clicks tide us over until the lucky days when we get to sink our teeth into something real.

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