10 Mostly Useless Tips For Going Viral On Social Media
(Never say my newsletter titles don't warn you what you're in for.)
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about science, curiosity and wonder.
In a couple of days I’ll be returning to the science of memory, for a paid-subscribers-only look at the easiest and most surprisingly powerful way to remember things - and after that, we’ll all be off to the coldest island on our planet, to explore the latest research on its ancient past.
But today, something a bit different. It’s more or less the final part of a behind-the-scenes trilogy that started here and continued here - and it’s about how I went massively ‘viral’ on Twitter in 2022.
If you have zero interest in how this newsletter gets made and just want the Weird Science Stuff That Makes You Go Wow, how about filling your head with these impossible colours, or taking an imaginary trip along this very real 40,000-mile-long mountain chain at the bottom of the sea?
Okay! To the tiny, tiny number of you that are now left - let us begin.
1. So - What Happened?
HAHAHA. Damned if I know…oh, you mean specifically. Right.
Exactly 2 years ago, I was living in a one-bedroom cabin at the edge of the sea in western Scotland.
I felt (and I was!) very, very lucky to be there. I came to Scotland just before the first pandemic lockdowns, and once they lifted I found I wanted to stay - but at the rate I was burning through my savings with insufficient income to replace them, I couldn’t see how to afford what most people would regard as “normal accommodation”.
So, after flirting briefly with the idea of living in my backpacking tent on the beach and using coffee shops for getting work done (a bit like this guy), I moved into somebody’s oversized garden shed.
It belonged to my former landlords-turned-friends, it had everything you could possibly need (if your needs were somewhere between ‘fashionably minimalist’ and ‘monthly goals of a character in The Walking Dead’) - and in winter, it got unpleasantly, miserably cold. One time, during a particularly savage cold snap that left it hard to type anything on my laptop, I fled to a nearby hotel for a couple of days. When I returned, I found the bottle of olive oil in the cabin’s kitchen area (above) had frozen completely solid. Freezing point of olive oil: somewhere around 3°C / 37°F.
For this reason, I frequented a lot of cafes. My favourite was a community-run place just round the corner - and it was there, at the first table just in from the entrance, that I published this Twitter thread, as a prelude to writing this newsletter from season 4.
Three utterly bewildering days later, it had (according to the analytics) reached over 9 million people, grown my Twitter following by 25,000 people, and turned both my Twitter app notifications and my Gmail Inbox into complete meltdowns. Mainly, the incoming emails were free subscriber signups to EiA - over 6,000 of them - and from around a hundred people going paid.
Around Christmas I’d concluded I was a few months away from having to find a new part-time job to tide me over, because getting this newsletter to the point where it could pay my way through the world? I couldn’t quite see it. Two years? Five years? Maybe?
But in half a week, I’d achieved the thing I’d spent over a year unsuccessfully and increasingly desperately trying to engineer for myself.
And that felt…uh…
2. How Did That Feel?
I’ve read oral histories of online success stories before - so I know this is where it’s really easy for me to sound deeply, insufferably annoying.
Obviously, this was an incredible, life-changing thing. I’m never going to forget realising what had happened, which took weeks to truly sink in. I’m a lucky, lucky man.
On the other hand, it felt like being run over by a truck. I hardly slept for a week, and six months later, my sleep patterns were still recovering.
That amount of attention was utterly overwhelming, and since I’d only recently recognised my emotional needs as an introvert (grateful shout-out to, author of Quiet and this calming newsletter) and hadn’t yet got myself into sustainable balance, this was far too much for my brain to handle. My imposter syndrome went through the roof, and I really struggled to…
3. Yeah Yeah Your Life Is Hard. But What Did You *Do* To Make It Happen?
Okay. You’re - really not going to like this answer, because I certainly don’t, but here goes:
It was almost entirely luck.
At least 90% luck. Maybe 95%. Maybe more.
I’m proud of that up-to-5%, which took about 6 months of sporadic experimenting and testing (see below for details), but on the whole, it was pretty much luck.
For this reason, it was never "I made this go viral, yay me”. It was just good fortune - but the kind I’d made sure I could capitalize on if I found I was lucky enough to suddenly reach a lot of people.
I think this is the reality about writing online, and not just with viral social media stuff. You don’t know what will reach a big audience (or reach the right audience). Instead, you discover it - and the most important work here is always being ready to use that sudden, unpredictable torrent of attention to get people interested enough in your work to sign up for more.
However, the vast bulk of it is always going to be you writing mainly to your existing crowd, doing your best each time, trying to sound like yourself, and banging out a body of work that eventually matters way more than any single lightning-strike event ever could.
Internalizing this is really hard. It’s the opposite of a formula, because of the inherent uncertainty at work within it - but if you reframe it the right way, it’s also oddly reassuring. (Especially if you’re an anxious sort, like I am.)
It means there’s always some mad new experiment for you to try, the outcome of which will be forever unpredictable to you. It means that when everything feels stressful, you’re not facing a grimly deterministic future where all is predestined to be lost. It means the game is still and always afoot - and your job is to keep rolling the dice with all of your creative energy, because you never know. You never know.
So hey, friends, never stop believing in your…
4. Whatever, Snowflake. Cut To The Chase. What’s Your Secret?
Wow, the side of me that writes subheadings is a real d**k.
Anyway. What I tested for six months before it put me in a good position to capitalize on my luck was raw, semi-clueless enthusiasm.
I used to find Twitter - and social media platforms, generally - immensely depressing. The cruelty, the rage, the cynicism. The despair and the fatalism. All done very cleverly, with that sophisticated, disaffected kind of wit that made me feel gauche and stupid because I could never react that fast or that funnily.
Then the nature writer Robert Macfarlane arrived, and immediately started cheering up the place (or at least, his small corner of it). In his first months on Twitter, he broadcast his love of awakening wonder in other people in all directions, and quickly found a huge audience. He wrote about words, he wrote about birds, about hills and mountains and rivers and seas - and he did it all with such irresistible warmth and joy that it made you want to feel a little of the same.
Enthusiasm is infectious. Especially when it’s combined with a storyteller’s awareness of the power of hooking you with the promise of something amazing “if you just keep reading”...
Robert is a master, but he didn’t invent all this. I’d just forgotten it existed as an alternative approach for using social media - allowing it to be driven out my head by the most depressing aspects of everyday Twitter. So, with a newsletter to promote and a very limited social media following to do it, I figured infectious enthusiasm might do some of my marketing, creating a cascading effect that went far beyond how far I could reach on my own.
So, I started writing threads of tweets, the first being this one, with a link to my newsletter positioned somewhere within them.
Each thread sent me a steady trickle of new signups and grew my Twitter following by a few dozen people, and - I cannot stress this bit enough - it was fun. It was just fun. It wasn’t hard to put aside time for, because I really enjoyed doing it.
(If you’re looking for the closest thing to a universally actionable takeaway in this newsletter, this is it. Choose fun, and find a way to build around that. I sometimes get asked “Hey Mike, as tedious and derivative as I think your work is, I love how successfully you’ve used social media to promote it. So, should I be on Twitter / Threads / reddit / Instagram / BlueSky / Craigslist / HotOrNot / [other]?” My answer is always, “Would you find it fun to use any of those platforms? If the answer is No, then find another way. There always is one.”)
Anyway - I had a breakthrough with this Twitter thread on light pillars, where I put the signup link not to a newsletter on the same topic, but just to the front page of EiA. (My thinking here: when someone reads a whole Twitter thread and then you link to an even longer read about the same thing, it’s like offering someone another full meal after their appetite is satisfied. Make it the engagement equivalent of an After Eight mint, and they’re much more likely to click.)
This thread reached a million people and drove 600 free signups. WOW!, I thought. I’m never going to top this!
Two months later, I was hit by a Megaflood.
5. Why Aren’t You Selling This As A Course, Mr Alleged Big-Shot Online Success Guru?
Selling what? Luck? Enthusiasm? Those things come free.
(Although I do think they’re interrelated - the more you show up with enthusiasm as a creative artist, the luckier you seem to become.)
Also, I already have a course, on non-fiction storytelling. Some paying readers of EiA took the previous version of it last year, and I’m relaunching the new version this month for all paid subscribers. If you want to tear me to pieces for being a crappy teacher, save it for that.
But, look: this isn’t a “how to go viral” formula. I don’t believe in those, mainly because cutting through the noise involves Avoiding Being The Noise - the kind of noise created when a lot of people follow the same identical formula.
I think your biggest asset is your ability to spot your own way to stand out, to be thrillingly weird, to bend the rules away from what a lot of other folk are doing, and to act on your chosen weirdness in the hope that people like it and maybe even share it.
(But if you’re going to take online advice on trying to make your work popular on social media, please follow the Snake Oil Rule: if someone is selling, say, a Making Money Online course using impressive-sounding case studies, but those case studies are themselves selling courses on making money online, that is no damn proof at all, and the whole thing looks like quicksand. Any advice worth trusting should work for stuff utterly, utterly dissimilar to what powers the technique itself, as random as possible - say, getting people excited about teapots, or ancient Greek poetry. Buyer beware, and all that.)
6. Okay. By That Measure, If This Follow-Your-Enthusiasm Stuff Really Works, Why Hasn’t It Made You Famous?
Le sigh. No - I said it helps.
What works is time, and doing loads of good work, and hopefully being a bit lucky here and there, and making sure you have a way to benefit if (big if!) you suddenly get a lot of attention.
7. Lame Answer.
I’m sorry. I did say you wouldn’t like it.
But - do take a look at the enthusiasm powering a good, fun viral hit. Say, my friend Geraldine’s love of terrific food, which turned into this glorious rant about a mind-flayingly awful restaurant experience in Italy, which in turn led to this amazingness:
(That’s Geraldine there, looking a lot more calm and collected than I bet she actually was when this episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert aired.)
You never know what will take off. But Geraldine was ready for this, mainly by spending decades learning how to tell a story in the funniest way possible.
(That story is now in her upcoming book. More about that another time.)
This week on the new social media platform Threads, my own enthusiasm for ridiculing myself (I honed this as a travel writer) led to this post going mildly viral:
The replies quickly became glorious:
Sometimes your viral breakout hit isn’t actually about you at all. Take a seat, grab some popcorn and enjoy the madness as it unfolds.
And if you’re wondering if theose sciencey kinds of threads still work on Twitter, check out this fantastic rabbit-hole from the co-host of the podcast Radiolab:
8. I Get It, Some People Are Awesome. Do You Have Any Actual Advice Here?
You mean the prescriptive kind, which will always work in every situation, guaranteed?
I do not.
Well, other than “do stuff that’s fun if you want the longevity to get anywhere meaningful.” I think that always works brilliantly.
9. But Since Virality Is So Fickle And There’s No Formula, Who Cares About Social Media? Isn’t It Just A Bunch Of Trolls, Fools And Pathetic Losers?
You seem really nice. I might just book that therapist appointment after all.
OK. Social media platforms are a long way from being representative of “the world at large” - but they’re a lot closer than any single newsletter’s readership. And I reckon it’s a good thing to be able to reach a lot of complete strangers - or it can be, depending on what you have to offer?
In my case, I’m trying to get people excited about science. And when I say “people” I mean everyone, but a little differently in each case. Scientists are already excited about science, so instead I want to be a useful idiot for them, helping to promote their latest work that deserves to reach a bigger audience - and I want to be open to being corrected by them too, because I’m bound to get stuff wrong.
But this is also an entertainment newsletter, aimed at everyone who isn’t working in the sciences but enjoys those “wow!” moments in the same way I - a fellow layperson! - do.
Social media is where all those folk hang out. At least in theory. Or: it’s where they’re more likely to hang out than anywhere else I know. So I want to go there, to cook up ways to get their attention, people who had no idea I exist, or never knew the thing I’m writing about is, you know, a thing. If I’m not doing this, I’m just not growing my newsletter in the way I think I should be.
Simple as that.
10. Ugh. 2,500 Words And No Practical Takeaways. I Don’t Think You’re Ever Going Viral Ever Again.
Neither do I! 😁
But what I’m doing instead is working just fine, it’s certainly just as fun - and I even get to have a (somewhat) normal sleep schedule!
There are worse places to be than here, in the relatively unremarkable middle of things. You can do a lot with such a place - and I certainly intend to do my best.
Thanks for reading!