Three Things I Learned From Going Viral on Twitter

Like most people in generation Z, I spend a fair amount of time on social media platforms. Whether it’s leisurely scrolling through my Instagram feed or posting a selfie on Snapchat, I’m always on my phone.

Although I enjoy using each of these platforms, I have a unique relationship with Twitter. The first time I went viral on Twitter was in December of my freshman year of college, and it happened virtually overnight. 

It was just like any other night during finals week, chock-full of studying and stress. As I so often do, I sent out a funny tweet, one that I thought would get perhaps a couple of likes or retweets from my close friends.

I only had around 100 Twitter followers at the time, after all. So, I sent out my tweet, "Whenever you feel dumb during finals week just remember if there are people out there who believe vaccines cause autism, then you can believe in yourself for once, dammit." 

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Bear in mind that this was around the time that a massive outbreak of measles infected unvaccinated college students across the nation. I sent out my tweet and headed to bed. Nothing could have prepared me for what was in store for me the following morning.

When I woke up, I got ready for my first final of the day, threw on my backpack and headed out the door. On my way to class, my best friend texted me,"have you checked Twitter this morning?"  

I opened Twitter, expecting to see a funny meme she had sent me the night before. To my surprise, my notifications on the app were exploding. 

I stopped dead in my tracks and quickly tapped on my tweet from the night before. A famous comedic influencer, Ryan Yeetz (@ryantweetz on Twitter) whom I've admired for years had retweeted my tweet and replied to it. He had 250,000 followers at the time. Anti-vaxxers galore had started fights with those in support of vaccines in my comments, and my tweet had accumulated 49,600 retweets and 190,000 likes. 

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I stared at my phone, utterly dumbfounded.

It had happened to me, I had gone viral on Twitter. 

Ryan Yeetz

In the days that followed, my tweet continued to gain traction. I received messages from nursing students saying my tweet had given them a laugh they needed to get through their exams. But the attention that I received wasn't all positive. Anti-vaxxers jumped on the opportunity to defend their beliefs, to the point of sending me death threats. 

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Here are three lessons to take away from my experience: 

Lesson No. 1: Be aware of your potential audience. According to Richard Stevens, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, Twitter is the most common platform for everyday users and private citizens to go viral. 

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"When you look at social movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, these types of social movements all gained traction on Twitter. Twitter is really a unique type of platform in this way. Its ability to create a conversation and its algorithm allow for it to have such a wide reach to many audiences. So I think the most important thing here is to understand the potential reach any of your social media posts could have," he said.

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Lesson No. 2: Be mindful of your privacy settings. Amy Voida, a professor of information science at CU, stresses the importance of online privacy to her students. 

"In your case, the reason that tweet had the potential to go viral in the first place is that you had a public profile. Any time someone's social media profile isn't set to private, all of their information is visible to the public eye. And you really just want to be careful, since you never want your posts to get into the wrong hands," Voida said. 

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Lesson No. 3: Social media can be your friend when used correctly. Andy Sturt, a doctoral student in journalism studies at CU, is a travel and sports blogger with a large following across several social media platforms. On Instagram, he updates his 77,900 followers on his travels, including backpacking through Asia for part of his doctoral research.

"I love social media, and I think it can be any freelance journalist's best friend," he said. "I had my own viral moment when a snippet from my blog was posted on a well-known travel magazine's Instagram page, and then I just grew from there," he said.

I gained close to 700 followers in the span of a month before changing my Twitter to private because all of the attention was stressing me out.

According to the book, "The Twitter Citizen: Problematizing Traditional Media Dominance in an Online Political Discussion," the unique layout of Twitter "can reorient individuals from passive consumers to critical observers and participants in a conversation." 

That rang true in my own experience, as I watched with surprise as tens of thousands of Twitter users entered into a heated political debate over a silly 29-character tweet. These individuals probably wouldn't do such a thing if it weren't for the distinctive interface that Twitter boasts. 

That is the power of digital discourse: Just about anyone can participate. 

In the age of Twitter presidents and meme culture, virality can strike nearly anyone. (Take it from yours truly!) 

Donald Trump

But when your 15 minutes of fame comes to an end, you're often left with substantial lingering effects. It doesn't end when the likes and shares come to an abrupt stop. Everyone leaves behind digital footprints, so be mindful of your own.