10 Things I Learned, Watching a Tweet go Viral

Chris Noessel
9 min readApr 20, 2020

Because humans, let me start by saying unequivocally I do not advocate killing anyone. Again. Because humans, let me repeat that with emoji clap emphasis. I 👏 do 👏 not 👏 advocate 👏 killing 👏 anyone.

I’m not a likely guy to go viral. My topics are niche topics. My blog is a niche blog. My books are niche books. My talks are niche talks. I’m not often given to polemics, even though I know the marketing value it promises. The biggest thing I’d tweeted before had maybe 10,000 impressions. But wow, I do love a good bit of satire.

So when I saw a screencap of a trio of tweets come across my social media on Friday evening that were brilliant bits of satire, I was awestruck. It was funny, it was timely, and it touched on a lot of issues flailing around in the zeitgeist at the moment. It misunderstood how GDP works, but that wasn’t the point of it. And it clearly tipped its hand that it was satire. So I thought it was OK.

Then, after I saw it several more times, I went to find the source of it to verify it before I shared it myself. But I found that the author had locked their account. I wasn’t sure what the reason was — maybe it was unrelated to the satire. But to be cautious, I took the screenshot and I blurred out the poster’s Twitter name and twitter handle. Then I tweeted it.

https://twitter.com/chrisnoessel/status/1251392814333587457

As “luck” would have it, it took off immediately.

After the first dozen or so retweets and replies, I started to realize that maybe people didn’t get it was satire, so I added a few tweets to the original to be very clear that it was satire and what it was about.

https://twitter.com/chrisnoessel/status/1251526054700658689

Then I went to sleep. I slept poorly because it’s the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and I don’t know anyone who is sleeping soundly. The next morning, when I looked at my phone, the Twitter icon said I had 20 notifications. I opened it and saw a screen, explaining a tweet had gotten quite popular and would I like help to manage it. I thought, what’s 20 tweets? So I dismissed it without screen capping it. I regret that decision because I’m now very curious about what help it could have offered. Though the notifications dot said 20, in the app itself, I was astonished to see the thing liked around fifty thousand times and retweeted maybe half that much, and was still going strong. As of my typing this, on Sunday, it has 183K likes and 63.4K retweets. 9,768,279 impressions and 2,509,885 engagements. Twitter asks me if I want to promote it. I do not.

Over the weekend, I’ve been watching the response from the Tweeting public with a mix of awe, fear, despair, and anxiety. As of Sunday, I’d gotten my first dox, and subsequent apology, and now I want to share the things I have learned over the course of it even though the arc of the thing is not yet come back to ground. There may be other things I learn as the Tweet continues its spread to the darker parts of the internet, but the work week starts tomorrow (I’m one of the lucky ones who can do my job remotely) and I probably won’t have time to write anything. Who knows. Maybe I’ll be job hunting.

1. Twitter credit is a weird thing

When I saw the original poster had locked their account, I blurred the contact info to respect them. I still didn’t want to take credit for their thought, though, and left the picture. In retrospect, I would have blurred that too. I mean, it was already making the rounds without any privacy by the time I saw it, so the cat was already out the bag, but still. Really intent doxxers would use whatever information they had. If you know the original poster, please ask them. If they want I would take it down.

2. Poe’s law: Still rock solid after 15 years

If you’re not familiar with Poe’s Law, it’s something that probably goes back to UseNet in the early 1980s, but is credited to Nathan Poe who in 2005 wrote…

POE’S LAW: Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.

Nowadays I think it’s generalized beyond Christian fundamentalism to anyone’s ability to recognize parody or satire. I’m not vested enough to do a count, but a significant number of people responding to the tweet seemed to think the original poster and I actually was actually proposing state-sponsored murder. I was not. Narrator: He was not.

In case you didn’t read the tweets above, the original post was in the spirit of Jonathan Swift. His famous work of satire was referenced, by name, in the original post. As Swift was, in his work, insincerely “advocating” selling babies to the wealthy so the wealthy could eat them, the OP was insincerely “advocating” killing billionaires to use their money as a resource for fighting COVID-19. Neither author was sincere. The point of the latter was to illustrate the brutality of similar (but sincere) arguments that have been made, asserting that the death of 3% of the population is somehow an acceptable cost to reopen the economy in the US. It’s explicitly the last of the original three tweets. We shouldn’t “price out” people’s lives.

3. People don’t read, even on a medium built around reading

The eight additional tweets make explicit not only that it was satire, but also lay out my suspicions about why the tweet was going viral. But a very many of the responders felt the need to restate those things to me, as if I had missed them. The problem isn’t entirely on the Twittership, because I’m not sure how The Algorithm exposed this tweet to people, and whether it showed all the tweets upfront, or hid them under a “show this thread” link. I think it’s probably some combination of both. But it was frustrating since Tweets are character limited and users cannot edit tweets once they’re out in the wild. Appending these was all I could do.

4. People WANT to have this conversation

Satire is a fierce catalyst. (Maybe a precipitant?) Anyway, the point is not the insincere argument, but to point something out to the reader, or at least to spark conversation around the topic. And boy did this ever. I know this is not statistically significant, but when I ask myself why did this go viral (and *checks notes* my 9,232 other tweets did not) it’s because these topics — about wealth inequality, and weighing human lives against “the economy” are important to people right here and right now.

5. There is a lot of terrible argument out there

Not all the discussion was good. There were a lot of strawman arguments, lots of ad hominem and slippery slope argument (so many of these), even dumb-as-rocks THING BAD kinds of assertions. I know I live in a bubble of educated white-collar professionals, but again, I’ve never gone so viral online, and so haven’t had to face these terrible arguments directly. I am dismayed at what passes for reasoning.

6. There is a lot of anger at wealth inequality; some of it violent.

Not all those who jumped on the thread and mistook the satire for sincerity were right-wingers. Some were lefties, saying things like “it’s not immoral to kill billionaires” even some “Let’s do it!” grab-the-pitchfork statements. There were more of these than I was comfortable seeing. I’ll be clear about my stance: I do think it’s unethical for a society to enable so much wealth accumulation, especially at the cost of so many in poverty. Especially in a system where the rich and their cronies are actively attacking the social safety net. I’d be happy to return to the tax structures of the 1950s and 1960s when we had a booming middle class and a lot less wealth inequality. We have always lived in a blended system of capitalism and socialism, erring on the former, and I think that’s probably the right mix. But we are so far into ultracapitalism, where people can die for the unforgivable sin of getting sick or being a woman or having brown skin, while others are deciding on which island they want to purchase next. We need to shift to a more humane structure to society. What we have isn’t it. All that said — and I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege — I can’t imagine advocating premeditated murder (or even asset seizure, yet.) But the anger about it is palpable, and those with their trunks and tusks (or to a lesser extent, their snouts) in the sand ought to take note. It’s almost like people were OK with the inequality as long as we could live our lives, but now we’re being told the deal comes with the possibility of a premature, miserable, suffocating death, and people aren’t as keen.

7. Bootlickers gonna boot lick

That said, lots of those who jumped on the thread were far-right defenders of the ultracapitalists. You know, those deluded “temporarily embarrassed billionaires” who don’t seem to get…

  • How very much a billion dollars is
  • That they are more likely to be struck by lightning four times in their lives, than to become a billionaire (rough odds here, obviously)
  • How the rich rig the system to benefit themselves right down to creating a separate legal, tax, and healthcare system than the rest of us get
  • How many of their beloved talking heads and politicians are in the pockets of the ultra-rich

They hold billionaires up as plucky self-made-people rather than the inheritors of wealth, benefiting from networks of wealth. They don’t acknowledge the anecdotes about billionaires thinking of the rest of us as semi-disposable cogs in their lifestyle support system, willing to ditch us or enslave us when “The Event” hits. They came out in force (even some of the bot accounts joined in) to argue that taxing billionaires like we would have in the 50s and 60s was just one step shy of Handmaid’s Tale gulags. (Wow, how I wish they’d read The Handmaid’s Tale.) (No, sorry, how I wish they understood The Handmaid’s Tale.)

8. Doxxing is alive and well

Some folks presumed that when I called the original post “brilliant” I was praising the (satirical, remember) plan rather than the satire itself. And one of them thought to tweet to my employer that I was advocating killing our executives, hoping to get me fired, I guess. I pointed out to this person that the tweet was satire and quickly got what seemed like a heartfelt apology. They even tagged my employer in their apology. Now, I don’t think this person was unhinged. But I do think it was quite careless, and who knows if I’ll have several…talks…awaiting me at work on Monday. (I did remove the mention of my employer in my Twitter bio to avoid this for the near term while this is still going around.)

Or worse, if the doxxing inspired one of the actual-unhinged people running around trying to figure out what to do with their semi-automatic weapons while the schools were closed, I or my family might have come into some real danger. All for the misunderstanding of satire. Knowing that the unhinged are out there looking for lives to ruin, doxxing is pretty fucking evil, people. Take great care with that decision.

9. No one prepares you for virality

After I dismissed the Twitter app’s offer to help me manage the viral tweet, I cannot find a way to go back and accept it. And I wish I could. All of my Google searches after the fact are trying to tell me how to increase engagement. Uh, no. Maybe such info is out there, but the vast majority of the content presumes this is what you want, rather than, say, offering advice on how to deal with all the crap that happens afterward. I know the uncontrollable part of any system is the people, but I wish I had been more prepared, or, lacking that, had easily-findable tools associated with the original tweet to help manage things. (Case in point: As I’ve typed this I’ve had to dismiss a few dozen toast notifications that people are still liking and retweeting the damned thing, despite having turned on Do Not Disturb.) First-world twitter problems, I know. But problems.

10. Exponential growth is sudden and shocking

In his work The Black Swan, author Nassim Talib notes that people are generally OK about thinking about linear systems, but terrible in understanding probability and exponential systems. Going viral is one of those systems. It’s sudden, and shocking in its scope. Friends tell me that tweet was shared with them in weird ways on different platforms. (Kind of sad it’s for someone else’s idea, but see the intro.) It’s a weird reason to be in people’s feeds.

With the small amount of negative stuff involved, why didn’t I just delete the tweet? The discussions that have ensued around the tweet are for the most part valuable and necessary ones to have, as we work our way through the arguments about what we do, societally, about the global crisis that is COVID-19, and the protests to just reopen the country. We can’t just say, sorry, folks, you gotta die. We have to talk carefully and thoroughly about how we do this in a humane way without throwing poor and vulnerable people into the wood chipper of capitalism.

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Chris Noessel

Chris is a 20+ year UX veteran, author, and public speaker. He delights in finding truffles in oubliettes. Tip me in coffee at ko-fi.com/chris_noessel.