Nearly 400,000 views later, reflections on a viral post

My blog caught a virus this month.

It started last week with an unsuspecting blog post that took me just two hours to write: “Mexico Offers to Pay for Trump’s Impeachment Instead of Wall.”

Cute, right? An obvious satire, my Times Union post was intended to poke fun at insanity in the White House, maybe ruffle a few feathers. I published it at 9 a.m. last Wednesday, May 17, hoping to snag a few hundred readers into a chuckle, some leaving a comment or two.

Nearly 400,000 views and 90 comments later, I’m still trying to figure out what the heck happened, and why.

The short answer is my post went viral and became the No. 1 story on timesunion.com. The long of it is that all my assumptions about numbers and how the Internet works went out the window.

I never considered myself a “view whore.” Though writing can be a struggle, I ultimately post for pleasure, because it helps me figure things out, express myself in new ways, and get a reaction (hopefully positive) from readers. I don’t set out to create “click bait” with sugary tidbits.

Before last week, my most popular post in my four years of blogging for the Times Uniona profile of a middle-aged mom who moonlights as a heavy rock musician — drew 1,200 views in a single day. All told, my 200 or so posts for the Times Union have amassed about 90,000 views since I started in September 2013.

But my experience this past week made me numb to those benchmarks.

Nearly immediately after posting my Trump satire last Wednesday, I knew something was up. Within twenty minutes, the post had drawn 300 views – roughly what I see for a popular post in an entire day. By 11 a.m., views surpassed 2,000. By day’s end: 8,000 views.

My real shock came in the wee hours of Thursday. Starting awake around 2 a.m., my mind racing, I checked the views. Since midnight, the post had 21,000 clicks! Bursting with curiosity, I Googled my story. Links came up to “news aggregation” sites like topix.com, which collect news from various sources and repackage it.

Ranking high in those headlines: Mexico Offers to Pay for Trump’s Impeachment.

In that moment, I knew people all over were clicking on a headline that, at first glance, looked like news.

But it wasn’t. It was a satire. I’d mentioned that fact at the bottom of my post, in a biographical thumbnail.

Anxious to make darn sure people got the message, then and there I inserted a sentence at the top of the story, directly under my byline: “This is a work of satire.” I pressed update, hoped for the best, and managed to fall back to sleep.

My post was just warming up. From midnight Wednesday, until midnight Thursday, the post amassed more than 147,000 views – way more than I’d accumulated in nearly four years of posting with the Times Union.

On Thursday, the blog ranked No. 1 among TU stories, a position it would hold for several days. Later that day, Joyce Bassett, the Times Union’s executive editor (and a fellow dog walker), tweeted: “Top story on http://timesunion.com  right now from my Kinns Road dog-friendly park neighbor.”

My wife grew worried where the blog post was turning up. Might some unsavory characters track us down, or hack us? I didn’t have the answer to this. But Mike Huber, former Times Union journalist and interactive editor, reassured me. “There’s too much noise on social media and Trump supporters would be hard-pressed to just focus on yours,” he said in a message.

The comments, meanwhile, poured in. I trashed about twenty that were offensive and off topic. A bunch of people took the post seriously. I received the usual accusations of being part of the pro-Hillary media conspiracy, a sore loser over Trump’s election victory.

“You are so liberal and pathetic writing not only this article, but the headline….Give me a break…The Timesuseless is nothing more than a 1 sided liberal paper written to ruin this country.”

Others jumped in, saying my piece was clearly satire. “Hilarious!” wrote one. And several people wondered why the Times Union hadn’t issued a retraction of my blog post.

A screenshot of Chuck Miller’s satirical blog post, which the Times Union retracted

Satire is a delicate topic in the TU community these days. Two months ago, a satirical post by veteran blogger Chuck Miller – saying University of Albany chose Kellyanne Conway as its commencement speaker — was retracted by TU editor Rex Smith, who accused Miller of false reporting. Never mind that the post appeared on April 1.

“Even on April Fools’ Day,” Smith wrote in the paper’s retraction, “there’s no room for fake news under the Times Union banner.” (I strongly disagreed with Smith’s retraction and his equating Miller’s satire with “fake news.”)

Naturally, many commenters on my blog asked why Chuck’s post was retracted and not mine. I haven’t asked Rex Smith, but I assume at least part of the reason is that I clearly marked my satire as such. In addition, Miller’s post hit a lot closer to home to the TU – poking fun at the University of Albany.

“Isn’t it hypocritical for the TU to champion this satire, but shutter Chuck Miller’s TU blog for doing the same?”

Things have finally calmed down. The post drew “a mere” 2,000 views yesterday, and less than two hundred so far today. I suppose Mexico’s president has finished sharing my post with all his friends.

Ironically, the vast majority of readers who sent my post viral won’t see this analysis. I predict today’s post will attract just a few hundred readers. Unless I try a click-bait headline like, “FBI Investigates Mexico For Manipulating U.S. Politics.”

Hmm. Come to think of it, not a bad idea.

When not analyzing his own satirical posts, David Kalish is a novelist and essayist. He is the author of  an award-winning comedic novel,  The Opposite of Everything, a fictional twist on his adventures with marriage and cancer. His essay, “A Path to Fatherhood, With Morning Sickness,” appeared in The New York Times, as a Modern Love column. 

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