12 October 2015

What it feels like to go viral.

Photo: plane wing in the clouds. Text: what it feels like to go viral (it's the story that keeps on giving)

It has taken me so long to write this post. Almost two years of processing my feelings and drafting my words. Because the impacts of going viral are both temporary and long lasting.

I want as many people as possible to see my posts. But I would never want to go viral again. Because going viral was not something I was prepared for. And it’s taken a long time to write about, because it affected me more than I imagined.

Going viral is perhaps a goal for bloggers. Most months I see posts in blogging Facebook groups asking how to go viral. I see bloggers actively chasing virality - aiming to be published on viral sites. And I cringe.

Bloggers talk about their Pinterest or blog posts going viral, and I wonder what they define as viral? How many hits? How much of their confidence was shattered? They ask for advice - and others say you can't control virality, it just happens. I offer advice in an attempt to dissuade their wish. You've got to have thick skin to go viral.

I went viral in December 2013. One part of it I had no control over because someone had posted a photo of me on Reddit. And then when I took on the bullies, and wrote about it, my story went public and lots of news outlets wrote about it. I've written and spoken about it a lot, so I won't rehash what happened today. You can go back and read and listen about it via those links.

Done? Read on!

The dark side:

It seems every week there is a new viral sensation online - and most times, the subject is not intending to catapult to fame. As I've experienced, going viral seems to be both a positively surprising and difficult time - a rollercoaster of instant fame and accolades as well as sheer vitriol from keyboard warriors.

The New York Times reported on the sinister side of viral fame, detailing the way 16 year old Alex Lee's life changed in November 2014 when he became #AlexFromTarget. A teenage girl took uploaded of Alex to Tumblr - a photo that was sneakily taken the previous week, with the caption "Yoooooo" and soon his photo went viral - the hashtag was born. While teenage girls threw themselves at him (Alex told the NYT: "I’ve been in the house the entire time," he said. "I’m kind of scared to go in public."), he also received death threats and was called obscene names - his parents feared for his safety.

Alex gained over 500,000 Twitter followers in one day (more than the population of his home town Frisco) - and almost a year on, a mundane tweet stating he's hungry was shared 695 times.

Alex Lee tweet: I'm hungry
Going viral can also happen when someone rattles a community - like a blogger taking on the Thermomix lovers. My blogging colleague Melissa Hugzilla describes the experience of going viral "exhausting and exhilarating and surreal and stressful". She wrote about the Thermomix - asking if it was viral, a cult or a pyramid scheme? - and dissected the experience here and here.

The blog post went viral and was then republished by Mamamia. The views and shares escalated quickly - and she endured callous comments from strangers, especially Thermie fans. In her posts about going viral, she said - a number of times - she found it hard to believe whether it was all even real, consumed by checking stats and screen-shotting them for prosperity. I love how she hasn't taken herself too seriously - in describing the impact of emotional exhaustion, she writes: "And then, the final crash. I curl up in the foetal position on the lounge and fall asleep at 7pm. I am so thoroughly over myself.The post isn’t even that good...I also discovered that I really do prefer obscurity. I don’t know how Kim Kardashian does it."

Here's what it felt like to go viral:

Going viral felt out of control.

While it was exciting to see the blog stats climb (80,000 hits in two days) - and like Melissa, I was constantly checking and screen-shotting them, it wasn’t exciting to wake up to awful comments. Some of the commenters told me that I should be dead. People said whatever they liked because they're not my supporters.

I couldn't control who saw my blog or commented on it or reproduced my story and photos. I couldn't unsee the hate speech and death threats - only passing on the job of comment moderator to Adam - and it wasn't so easy for him to read them either.

New (or voyeuristic) readers had no context about my life and previous writing because they mostly only saw one thing I’d written.

While I do my best to keep aspects of my life private from my blog and social media, those who know me are excited to see me on a website they read and say "she works with me" or "she comes into my shop all the time", and so they reveal more of me than I intend to. This happened a lot after Reddit. My workplace and home suburb was revealed.

Lots of people sent me friend requests and messages in Facebook - some sent me offers for 'cures'.

People who saw how distressed I was told me to switch off the computer. They aren’t digital natives and don’t use the internet as much as me, and they just didn’t understand how it wasn’t easy not to switch off.

The misuse of my photo on Reddit didn’t happen just once. It happened twice more, in murkier depths of Reddit, between Christmas and New Year. In hindsight, it was probably worse than the first time – because the comments became threatening. I was scared for my safety. When you are threatened in the street, you know to call the police. But who do you call when you’re threatened online?

When I commented on the threads, demanding for my photo to be taken down, I was just mocked even further. One moderator told me that Reddit doesn’t own the place the picture was posted to, and so I’d have to contact Imgur. I privately messaged the moderators – and I realised one thing.

Trolling is fueled by a pack mentality. The same moderators who were condoning this stuff on the public forum were apologetic to me in private messages. They felt some sort of compassion I guess, and the photos, comments and then threads were removed. When I tried to raise attention to this, it went unnoticed. People were on holidays, the time I took on Reddit was a week before (and that’s a long time on the internet).

I still get a huge amount of traffic from that post on Reddit, and from some of the stories written about it. Stories about my Reddit experience pop up occasionally - mid 2015 there was a spurt of international coverage, 18 months after the event. Today, the initial post I wrote about Reddit has over 99,000 views - the most viewed of my blog.

It's the story that keeps on giving.

Bullying is a pack mentality, but so is kindness. The amount of support shown soon overtook the amount of negative comments. People killed those trolls comments with kindness. Minds were opened, the Redditors told me so. The media attention and most of the comments was overwhelmingly positive. I've got long term readers since Reddit. And I have been stronger and bolder than ever, writing much more focused content. Because I now know my positive influence.

I want my work to reach as many as possible - I want to influence the way people think about appearance diversity and disability. I want to continue writing and hopefully release a book. Being an online writer And having a social media profile can help me achieve these goals.

But I want my work and writing to reach the right people. Going viral is not the right way to make this happen. Longevity is not 15 minutes of Internet fame.

Internet fame doesn’t last long. For about a week I was that red woman who took on Reddit trolls. And for the rest of the year I was that woman that they’d maybe seen somewhere before…

My advice:

Ask yourself why you want to go viral? Fame? A measure of success? Can you handle the implications? Can you continue to maintain your profile?

Know that most people who visit your blog (or YouTube or social media platform) at the height of you going viral (when you're at your most contagious?) don't know you. They don't know what you're about and are only judging you from the 500 words you'd written then. They probably won't stick around - but if the nice people do stick around, that's great!

Remember whatever you write online is in the public domain. Your stories and photos are fair game for journalists. You might feature in media outlets you don't read or like. Try to negotiate fees to tell your story on your own terms if this happens.

Going viral does get you noticed. It wasn't all bad for me - I've achieved a lot since. But the attention will fade, and you'll have to continue to work hard to get noticed further.

Seek help:

If going viral happens to you, make sure you've got someone to talk to - someone who understands the online world. Make sure you're not alone through the experience.

Lifeline: 13114

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800


Have you gone viral? Have you got any advice? Did you orchestrate it or did it happen accidentally?

(There is an edited version of this post on Daily Life.)


  1. Your experience and Mel's had so many negative connotations that I had no interest in one of my own. Yet recently a piece I posted went a little viral- over 50k views, 12k shares on facebook and it felt really weird. The worst part was having no idea where it was being shared- i have no idea if people liked it and identified with it or if they were mocking it- or me!

    1. That's huge Amy! It is a bit disconcerting not knowing where or why something is being shared. Each time I have a spike, I worry it's Reddit.

  2. I get what you're saying. I haven't gone viral, but my blogs have received a lot of attention, and my sons birthday party made fox news last month. (I blog about his autism journey) reading some of the comments were painful, and some of the attention wasn't the best. Meaning people who walked out of our lives because of the diagnosis were suddenly reappearing, claiming to always have been so supportive. It's a strange thing. And it was hard to keep up with. But on the plus side it's done a lot of good for my personal mission too..

    1. What a strange experience Lindsay. Isn't it odd how those people suddenly reappear? I had people from school who never spoke to me get in touch. I'm glad there was a positive

  3. Carly, I really enjoy reading your blog. As my blog keeps getting more and more attention, I appreciate the helpful advice you share.

  4. My friend, she goes viral lots! And she's always dealing with hackers and such.

  5. Carly!!!!! I'm honored to meet you :) I saw your story when it hit and thought "If I ever find myself in the same place, I want to be that corageous and give that much grace."


  6. "I want my work and writing to reach the right people. Going viral is not the right way to make this happen."

    Hiya Carly, thanks for this. As someone who is labouring to build an audience, going viral sounded like the proverbial manna from heaven. It's great to have your reflections on your experience x

  7. Great post! Thanks for sharing this side of the coin. I saw you at ProBlogger and desperately wanted to have a chat, but let nerves get the better of me. Thank you for being a beacon of light, support, encouragement and good humour on this platform that can so easily be used for spreading negativity. <3

  8. Agree with so much of this. Another effect I had is that I got so much more traffic that it knocked my server down and I had to upgrade. So it actually became more expensive. I thankfully received mostly positive feedback and comments, but you're right - it does feel like you don't have control over your own message and post. I went to bed several nights with a lot of anxiety.

    1. I remember that Courtney Westlake - it was a huge amount of traffic for you. Feels strange. Going viral in 2015 is certainly different to going viral in late 2013. Thanks for sharing your story :)

  9. Thanks for putting this into words Carly. When my trader joe's post went nuts last year it was fun for a few days and then not... it was just so overwhelming. And while people were mostly so kind, I got really depressed for a little while about the hateful comments, threats against my children, and horrific racial slurs flung our way. I didn't know what to do with all that. The attention was unexpected and really stressful. Thankfully it passed and brought about really wonderful opportunities. But I agree - it's not what you think it will be, and you must have a strong support system + thick skin.

    I disabled comments on my blog entirely because I had a few other posts this year go viral (not quite at crazy as the trader joe's one though) and I just couldn't handle the hate. Even if it was the minority...

  10. I love this piece. I've been blogging for over 18 months now and I've only got a small reader base with very few who comment (those that do, do so manly on FB not my site). There's a small part of me that wants the validation of going viral, but there's a bigger part of me that is so fearful of the trolls. I don't think my skin would be thick enough! I'm ready to launch an online course and I have the same fears - wanting it to be successful and help as many people as possible, but scared of the possible negative comments from strangers. Double edged sword I guess.

  11. Interesting. Thanks. And timely. I just put this up on my blog .. I went viral on Facebook. Well viral for us .. page has c 2k fans and we reached c.230k reach. Sadly though not for my business but for a client I admin. But y'know .. I still blogged about what I learned from it.. The difference was though that what I put up wasn't controversial, didn't (as you say) rattle a community's self beliefs (actually it probably reinforced them) and I didn't get any negatives. I do remember Darren Prowse talking about when one of his posts made its way onto Reddit and how they just had to ride it out - lots of vile comments which disappeared after a couple of weeks as the Reddit trolls moved on. He was very pragmatic about it .. but it's much easier to be when it's not a personal blog. www.marketing4writers.net/home/going-viral-on-facebook-eeeek-it-really-happened

  12. My post that went viral garnered so many negative comments I delegated the job of dealing w them to my husband. It was just too hurtful.

    1. Yep that's what I did too. I'm sorry that happened to you Heather.

  13. I had a viral post a while back (over a million hits in a month) and can completely relate to this post. I ended up turning off comments on my blog and stopped blogging for a while. It was an intensely stressful experience. It brought me some great opportunities, but you're right, it's not what it's cracked up to be.

  14. Great article Carly. I don't have any desire to go viral, I'd just like to be successful and have a decent readership. It's scary how little control we have over these things sometimes.

  15. Thanks for sharing your story... I have no desire for my blog to go viral, I"m quite happy with my little audience - stress free and only positive comments so far. Hopefully that won't change..!

  16. Well written! I haven't gone viral like that, not blown up huge. More like softer, steady waves with certain posts that continue to be hits (- like the 10 Dumb Things Hearing Say to the Deaf Featuring Captain Picard). I think your advice is solid though; good questions to ask oneself about it all

  17. The story I wrote about my daughter's near-drowning went viral and I'm still dealing with the consequences of that. A lot of good come from it and a good majority of the comments were supportive but there were also comments asking for my children to be taken away among other things so I definitely was not prepared for how emotionally exhausting the entire experience was. I feel your pain to some degree on this one. Reading your post brought back so many of those emotions.

    1. Thank you so much. What an awful thing to happen - I'm glad your daughter is ok. Sorry the post was so emotionally exhausting though.

  18. I remember that so clearly, great post Carly. You have achieved so much and helped so many people since that incident.

  19. Brilliant post Carly! So powerful and true. Every blogger needs to read this. Xx

  20. Having witnessed both you and Melissa's ordeals with viral posts, I have no desire to go there myself. I really like how you've tried to help others with this post Carly - I'm sorry you had to experience this on multiple occasions but you are so generous to share what you've learned, regardless x

  21. you write so well. I am like you said, one of those who secretly want to be viral (not secret now then) even with all the bad stuff. I really want it more for my Instagram feed, but the blog too. Is it awful I feel like this? Is it my need to be validated? Recognised? I do not know why... but going viral seems to be like some passing into maturity, a rite of passage for "serious" or worthy social media users(as well as the inane). Maybe this i9s my skewed perception. Whatever, you have given me much food for thought.... which is always a good thing. XXX


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