I’m not Anonymous. Or an ancient Chinese proverb. I’m also not a fortune cookie. I’m probably not your Facebook friend, either. As it turns out, I’m not even a bitter and hateful person. But I did write and make this card:
Exactly one year ago today, I published the “May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook” ecard on someecards.com’s user section and it went sort of viral. Not Rebecca Black viral, but I’d suppose it may be around the 70th percentile of someecard virality. :)
Because I’m a vainalytics slob, I’ve tracked the card around the web as best as I can. I’ve seen the text quoted, retweeted, misattributed, favorited, sold as merch, duplicated onto another SomeECard (oddly enough), and disputed. I’ve seen the image repurposed, blown up, copied, sold as merch, repinned, and liked. I thought it may be interesting to discuss what I’ve learned from the ecard’s bigger-than-me life.
Start of the Card
For a couple of months last year, I came up with a number of someecards.com user cards. At some point, it seemed like I was publishing new ecards every few days. I was not promoting them except to a couple of friends who I may have had in mind when I wrote the card. This Facebook card was just another one of those. I had gotten sick of browsing the same old status on Facebook, so the phrasing came to me pretty easily at our dining room table. I dashed the card off from my Chromebook before heading to bed.
The first time the card went viral was a couple of days after I published it, when it was given an Editor’s Pick by someecards.com. It was also tweeted from their feed and even held a position in the site’s sidebar for a short while. There’s no doubt in my mind that the boost from that Editor’s Pick was responsible for the initial virality of the card.
I’ll Never Have Good Numbers on How Far This Card has Actually Spread
The current view count is decidedly less than viral. All of my cards and, apparently, everyone else’s someecards have had their view count numbers reset multiple times over the past year due to some site bugs. I know that 5 days after I posted this card, it had over 17,000 views. About 1 month later, it was at 52,000 views. At some point soon after, it had eclipsed 100,000 views. Then the counter dropped off. It’s a shame, but tracking views has been futile since then. Most of the first month’s activity was all from the first surge of attention and it seemed to die down after one month. Then it picked up again.
Facebook’s walled garden makes it very difficult to track the progress of the card or the quote. But by periodically searching for the exact phrase of the card in public posts I loosely tracked how much recent Facebook attention it had received at any given point. I know that early on, the text of the card had died on Facebook public posts about 1.5 months in. I thought that was the end of it. I didn’t expect Twitter.
It turns out that Twitter likes making fun of Facebook people even more than Facebook does. Tweets propagated the card pretty much all by themselves during the Facebook lull, with some swapping out the “Facebook” bit with “Twitter.” From there, it spread to Pinterest and Tumblr. It was kind of amazing to watch it go as I had done nothing to help it spread except publish it.
Searching the Social Media World is Still Really Messy
It’s a shame that the search functions through all of the major social networks are so difficult to use, because it should be easy to track a card through its various incarnations. Because almost all of Twitter and Facebook’s older-than-several-days archives are off limits for searching, you can only stitch together a sad semblance of how viral something actually is.
Another thought: I don’t know of any search engines doing image OCR at the scale of the internet, but what a great mine of data waiting to be found. A significant amount of our social commentary is done with white text in Impact font overlaid on top of a relevant image. That seems like it would be fairly low-hanging fruit for someone’s 20% time.
For now, the best I have for searching reach is using Google’s similar image functionality. And it does a pretty decent job.
Viral Content Has Many Lives
I naively had thought that ecards only have one adoption curve, so I never really expected the dip would yield to a surge of resonance on Facebook. But due to the persistence of social media, Facebook collectively rediscovered the card en masse probably around 4 months after it was originally published and frequency of sharing the card continues to grow even to this day.
Longevity > Virality
Seth Godin recently made this point as well, but a viral event might look impressive numerically, but it’s not creating a real relationship. It might convert a few viral visitors into repeat visitors. But my constant work at something is what brings them back, not the viral thing. The temptation is to get caught up in whatever is viral, but that may not be what brings people back to hear from me.
People Will Merchandize Anything (even if I don’t)
Spreading digital files around is great and I was proud to have made something that struck a chord with lots of people. But I never expected that some enterprising folks would sell physical products based upon my ecard. I first noticed a very plain bumper sticker of the text on eBay. Then I stumbled upon a t-shirt which lifted the source image and erased the SomeECards branding. Then a mug popped up. Then another bumper sticker. Then, another t-shirt. I presume there is more that I’m missing.
Surprisingly, watching something you create get sold by others is a great way to consider what matters to you. It also shines a new light on where the value lies within the digital world. I’d argue that more value is created by the sharing of the ecard within the various social networks than the t-shirt. However, people like to physically associate with ideas, so a t-shirt is a great way to express that and simultaneously support the creators. In this case, if one assumes me to be the creator, I’m currently not being supported at all by the various merch sales of this phrase. Honestly, it is a little hard to swallow. But I recognize that t-shirts carry a different set of risks than ecards.
I also wonder where ownership lies. I am sure that SomeECards would claim ownership to at least some of the rights to the ecard that I made. And, certainly, its virality would not have happened if it weren’t for their platform. So, if SomeECards never merchandises the user card, am I free to do it? I never asked, but it’s at least an interesting thought.
I Can’t Do Everything
People that know me already know that I’m not a fan of strict intellectual property laws. I think Randall Munroe probably has the best approach to copying out there, and if I had the skill to put out as great of work as xkcd or What If, I’m hesitant that I’d be as okay with duplicators as he is. In the big picture, I can only do so many things and policing the merchandisers isn’t something I can really do.
I Didn’t Build That
One final disclaimer is that there is a big “You didn’t build that” rabbit hole in the new media world. It’s as true as it is irrelevant. No one person can build the many critical pieces that make the internet work as a marketplace. But that should enhance the argument in favor of those who are using the platform as a jumping off point to find new revenue.
The Card Resonated with People
Finally, while lots of factors could have gone wrong, the card had a well-timed message that struck big with a large amount of similar sentiment about Facebook. That’s the cool part to me; a card I hurriedly typed became a banner for people to wave and a discussion point.
I’m constantly in awe of the fact that we are all mere seconds away from doing something that touches hundreds of thousands of people. That’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.