My First Piece To Go Viral

My first viral piece was a 3,000 word story about an Amsterdam prostitute. Today, virality is the goal of every article, every advertisement, every video created. When the piece was published in 2011, however, virality was still a relatively new concept. A gonzo story on a personal blog still had the chance to explode.

There are millions of smutty stories published on the Internet, so why did this one do well? It was viewed 40,000 times in two days and did even better for Vice when they published a shorter version of it a year later. (40,000 is far from elite virality, but it was big for me). Sex was definitely part of the appeal, but by no means enough. It was also a travel story about a curious taboo: what straight male hasn’t at least considered indulging in Red Light District? But more than anything, what made so many people click is that it pissed people off.

My title, “Pretty Woman” (which Vice changed to “I Tried to Love a Prostitute) elicited a different sort of take. It was an idea that readers recognized; a concept that had brushed their consciousnesses before; the idea that maybe prostitutes aren’t that bad. What if they are people, just like you and me? What if their johns are too? With just a whiff of the title and subtitle readers could tell this is where the piece was going, and it either angered or intrigued them. So they clicked.

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of course it’s silly to use this quote from Self-Reliance in a blog post about content strategy, but it does have a particular resonance in the Internet age. Most people think of art as something that adds to us; that entertains, informs, or inspires by showing us something we’ve never seen before. Upon closer examination, however, I find that the art that thrills me most is often strangely familiar, as if I’ve known it all along but have somehow forgotten it. The twenty-first century word for “art” is “content,” and the distribution is digital. When I share content today, I’m sharing information, but I’m also sharing my identity: those ideas that I recognize in myself.

We share things not because we are interested in them, but because we want people to know that we are interested in them. We click things not because we want to consume them, but because we want to judge them. In the case of the prostitute piece, some people wanted, needed, to know exactly how wrong I was. Others wanted to believe I was right. Many of them were simply seeking entertainment or enlightenment, but what made it viral was that it offered a third thing: affirmation.

The difference between likes, shares, and clicks provides great evidence for the “content as clothing” concept. In my four years creating content and handling social for several brands, as well as promoting my own articles and my book, I’ve posted thousands of pieces on Facebook and Twitter. I have learned that there is a vast difference between likes and shares on the one hand, and actual clicks on the other.

Here’s an example. A few months ago I published an article about an actor from the 1920s on a brand client’s blog. The title was simple, more or less “Remembering the Legacy of” the actor in question. The Facebook thumbnail was a striking black and white photo of the actor in costume.

The piece received about five or six times the amount of likes and shares than the average content share for that brand, hundreds of likes and perhaps fifty or sixty shares. In terms of clicks, however, it did almost average. What explains this discrepancy? I believe that it was a “showpiece” article—a cheap bit of jewelry. The audience for this particular brand was composed of mostly of actors and people in the entertainment industry. When an interesting photo of an early film actor (beloved, but rarely discussed) appeared in their newsfeeds, they were pleasantly surprised so they clicked “like.” Some of them, wanting to indicate their affinity for a more obscure industry figure, went a step further and clicked “share.” And they did so without actually bothering to click on and read the article.

The prostitute piece was the polar opposite, something highly clickable, but not likeable or shareable. I posted the piece on my personal accounts, and it received virtually no likes or shares (who, besides me, would share a pro-prostitution piece on Facebook!?). However, via the title alone, it garnered many clicks and upvotes (and downvotes) on reddit, where voting is anonymous. Many of the upvoters upvoted, I would speculate, because they fancied themselves contrarians or rebels of some kind, and this projected that identity. The downvoters downvoted because they were righteously disgusted. Either way, they both clicked.

Why did the downvoters click? Think about when you’re walking down the street, and you see somebody wearing something particularly ugly, or particularly brazen, or particularly trying-too-hard. It creates a shudder, a sudden, emotional reaction. Your face twists like you just tasted a lemon. You reject the wearers’ identity, and by doing so, you define your own. If the street were the Internet, you would hate click that outfit, and maybe comment about just how terrible it is.

One of my most successful pieces ever was about a striking outfit. “Permaid” received over 10,000 Facebook “impressions” (which means clicks, likes, or shares), and I can only imagine hundreds of thousands of clicks. It spawned replica articles in Refinery 29, IssueAcclaim, and a handful of other fashion magazines. The imagery was too intriguing to ignore—a digital must-wear for anyone who considered themselves fashionable.

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The best headlines and thumbnails are often the ones that already live inside of us. They have hidden due to caution, fear, or simply the inability to articulate them, but when we see them in our newsfeeds we recognize them and adorn ourselves with them.

The content we share is less about the content and more about ourselves.

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