Deconstructing a Viral Article

In mid-March 2016, Robin Weis’ article “Crying” went massively viral, getting hundreds of up-votes and comments on HackerNews, as well as many shares elsewhere. Rather than focusing on the subject of the article itself, I’m going to focus more on the meta-narrative: why the article was so popular and what its popularity says about post-2008 society.

By showing vulnerability in describing her crying habits, Robin exudes authenticity, a major theme of post-2008 society. Here is a passage showing vulnerability, hence authenticity:

I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of a crybaby, triggered frequently and privately and sometimes for hardly any reason at all. I’ve also always considered myself to be a fairly strong person, stable and resilient and able to work through challenging situations. I found it difficult to reconcile that part of myself with my overwhelming sensitivity, and I wondered about the exact nature of the things that were capable of pushing me over the edge. Naturally, I turned to spreadsheets to help me find the answers to my curiosities.

A defining characteristic of post-2008 (and 2013) society is the synthesis of intellectualism and individualism. Her account of crying is a very personal (hence individualistic) and she is obviously very smart, being that the site is about data visualizations (data visualizations could be considered a STEM field, combining statistics with programming, requiring a high IQ), she is a highly competent writer, and an introspective and possibly introverted person (INTP), completing the synthesis. From Post-2008 Themes:

The common thread here is individualism, a defining characteristic of post-2008 society…Our culture of individualism prizes individual accomplishments (like a physics or math discovery), popularity (Instagram & Twitter followers), and merit (related to individual intellectual accomplishments), which tend to be harder and more exclusive and celebrated than collectivist ones. Religion is inherently collectivist, generally having a low barrier to entry to salvation. Same for political parities, which tend to have low barriers to entry for participation. Neither spotlight the individual. But a degree in physics or math, while much harder to obtain than going to church, brings much more prestige to the individual than being a random churchgoer. Perhaps some are tired of the celebration of ‘self’ and wish to return to simpler, more collectivist times. As I discuss earlier, some individualism and intellectualism is need to for society to advance, and there is is probably an optimal balance between the two.

This is also related to the the post-2008 rise of the ‘STEM nobility‘ and ‘STEM celebrity‘, with ‘STEM people’ becoming ‘esoteric celebrities‘ through blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, and other mediums. Wikipedia editor and blogger Guillaume Paumier is another example, as well as ThunderFoot on Youtube.

From Meta Narratives:

A meta-narrative is why was this tweet so viral? What does its viralness say about the state of America, the economy, and society? The explanation, according to this blog, is that we’re in a ‘smartist era‘ since 2008, and especially since 2013, where intellect and science is more valued than ever, and this is related to the post-2013 SJW backlash and the rise of ‘nerd culture’. Culture is emulating economics, where nerds are more valued in terms of higher wages, approbation (the tweet going viral) and appropriation (The Big Bang Theory show, Instagram culture, etc). Nerds create value though merit and talent; SJWs, on the other hand, seek to persecute nerds for nor being inclusive enough to other genders or races, or for not sufficiency spreading their wealth. Rising stock prices and rising home prices are rewarding nerds for the economic value they create, and now society, in general, is too. The viralness also seems to debunk the belief that America is ‘dumbing down’, as the joke requires an understanding of fractals, a concept that until recently was considered esoteric. If Twitter and the internet existed in 1985 instead of 2015, I don’t think such a tweet would have gone viral. Meta narratives are subjective, so yours may differ from mine, and perhaps a narrative doesn’t exist. Notice how the meta-narrative is much longer and perhaps more interesting and thought-provoking.

Had she written about a more mundane or gender-specific topic (gardening, cooking, fashion) and maybe had a fashion blog instead of a data visualization blog, no one would have cared and going viral would have been impossible. Even though fashion, gardening, and cooking are huge industries, they are saturated. Unless you have a huge advertising budget, you can get much more traffic focusing on niche or esoteric subjects than larger, mainstream ones. Consider there are 50-100 million people interested in cooking and or fashion, vs. only, say, 20,000 interested in data visualizations. Intuition would dictate to focus on the former, but this may be wrong because those popular subjects already have 1000′s multi-million dollar brands behind them, sucking in all those millions of people, whereas ‘data visualization’ has far fewer sites relative to the total audience size. 30% of 20,000 is still better than 0% of 50-100 million. Being an esoteric celebrity may not compare to being Angelina Jolie, but it’s still many magnitudes better than being a nobody. As evidenced, for example, by the huge viralness of a WaitButWhy article about the Fermi Paradox, there is a surprisingly large demand for complicated, esoteric stuff.

I wrote many articles covering the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, but as far as I can recall have only written five or so articles about Trump, Hillary, Sanders, and the 2016 election, mainly because those subjects have become so saturated. There are simply too many people writing about those things that it’s impossible to write a perspective that hasn’t already been covered by at least a dozen bloggers and journalists. In 2008, social media was only in its infancy, and there was no vox.com, fivethirtyeight.com, or Bloomberg View. Topics such as NRx, meta narratives, intellectualism, eugenics, HBD, and Social Darwinism, although not nearly as popular as politics, have far fewer people writing about them.

As I show in the example of Warren Buffett, intellectualism, competence, and merit is what draws people in, not being extroverted. Every year, thousands of people flock to Omaha for Buffett’s annual shareholder meetings – not because Buffet is a people-pleaser, but because he is very competent and his insights are invaluable. Elon Musk, another example of someone who is extremely competent, had the most popular Reddit AMA ever. Richard Dawkins, who lately seems to have gotten into habit of offending the easily offended, also had an enormously popular AMA.

According to the ‘social taxonomy‘, it the article could be categorized as: smartist era > individual > intellectualism culture > naval gazing and introspection.

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