I’ve been writing this blog fairly consistently for the last six months or so, with several long breaks, and my readership has been building steadily to the point that the blog has been receiving several hundred views a week, which seems respectable given the relatively esoteric quality of my philosophical ruminations. My father-in-law and I have been renovating my family’s new house for the last few months, so I’ve barely posted anything. But now that we’re moved in, I’ve gone back to working on my second book, while preparing to publish my first book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll.
One evening last week, I was thinking about how old I’ll be when my first book is released, and wondering how my progress compares to the first books of my favorite philosophers. Over the course of an hour or two, I did some casual research and compiled some data purely for my own edification. It wasn’t until the next day that it occurred to me that other people might be interested in reading what I had discovered, and that it might be a low-key way to ease back into my blog, so I wrote a short description of my thought process and cut and pasted the data I had collected for twelve thinkers. As with most of my posts, I assumed I’d get a hundred or a hundred and fifty views the first day, and less every day thereafter until it leveled out to a steady trickle. And that was great. The knowledge that dozens of people were reading my work every week was thrilling, and frankly it still is.
But then something completely unexpected happened. I posted the piece to my Facebook and Twitter as I usually do, and then got on with working on my book. When I checked back on Facebook a few hours later, the usual four or five friends had liked the post, and one friend I don’t think I’ve ever met in person had shared it with his friends, who seemed to be responding well. Then I checked the stats on my blog and what I found was startling: the post had accrued more views by noon than my most successful single day to date, which was about two hundred views. Over the course of the day, I checked back periodically and found that quite a few people had retweeted the post on Twitter, and that the relative cascade of views showed no sign of abating. By the time I went to bed that night, my casual little post had received about six hundred views, three times as many as my previous record. I was extremely gratified, and I went to sleep knowing that the post would almost certainly settle back down to a more modest readership the next day.
However, when I woke up and checked my stats the next morning, I found that the post had already received almost as many views as the day before. Over the course of the day, I watched with astonishment as the number of views climbed above twelve-hundred, and the number of unique viewers broke a thousand. Needless to say, I was thrilled that a thousand people had read, in one day, something I’d written and published on a whim. And I started to wonder who these people were who were reading my post. The stats said that the majority of readers had come from Facebook, but there weren’t an unusual number of shares and likes among my immediate friends, so people that I didn’t know had somehow come across the post and liked it enough to share it with their friends independently. Other than a few comments on Facebook, Twitter, and the blog, I had no idea what most of those people thought of my work. Did they read the first sentence and then close the window in boredom? Or did they forward it to their friends and tell their families about it around the dinner table? I guessed it was probably some of both.
The next day, the post began to level off, receiving a couple hundred views, which was on par with my previous record. And I was amused to discover that a number of people had found the post through a French forum with the description, “Cette liste est bidon cf : Bergson, où est passé l’Essai ?” which roughly translates as something like “This list is bogus cf. Bergson, where is the Essay?” (I had to pull my French dictionary out for that one, so please feel free to correct my translation). Far from being upset, I was delighted that a person whose language I couldn’t even read without a dictionary cared about something I’d written enough to post it to a forum and critique it. I assumed that the individual was referring to Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, the French philosopher’s doctoral dissertation published at the tender age of thirty, which could be argued to be a “major work,” though perhaps not on the level of Creative Evolution. I duly changed the list and made note of the alteration.
It’s a strange and mysterious thing to have a piece of writing you’ve created be consumed by that many people. It may not be a lot of readers as far as the publishing industry is concerned, and it won’t get you that mansion on the hill, but imagine having that many people in the audience as you read a paper at a conference. The New York Times or The Daily Show haven’t called me for an interview yet, but I felt like I had briefly made a qualitative leap into a higher order of magnitude in the cultural game, and I liked the feeling. I considered that I might have put a bit more thought into the post if I had known that it would be my most popular piece by a long shot, at least so far. But then maybe that would have detracted from the spontaneity of the writing. Ultimately, there’s no way to know why that particular post went viral in its modest way when other posts that I had worked on much longer and had put a great deal more thought and care into hadn’t. Of course, everyone worries about their age and compares their accomplishments to those of their heroes, which probably explains the post’s appeal. Also, I’ve read that people are more likely to click on a post that asks a question promising a specific answer. But the primary point I’ve taken away from this experience is that one probably can’t plan for something to go viral. It either does or it doesn’t, and it often seems to be the case, as with hit songs, that the piece that one tosses off in a few minutes has greater appeal to more people than the piece closest to one’s heart. But this is no reason to despair. On the contrary, I’m glad so many people seem to have enjoyed what was for me a minor diversion, and perhaps that enjoyment is resulting in some of those people reading and enjoying some of my other posts, and hopefully even looking forward to reading my books. The thought of having appreciative readers is one of the primary reasons for writing, after all.