The ‘Great American Article’

From Wikipedia, The Great American Novel:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that shows the culture of the United States of America at a specific time. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

I propose something similar: The Great American Article – an article, at least a thousand words, that also encapsulates the culture of the United States at the present time.

Scott’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, posted on September 30, 2014, would probably qualify in terms of capturing the polarized, contentious (particularly online) political state of America, that became more markedly divisive in the years following the election Obama, between feuding ideological ‘clans’ and ‘tribes’. One could argue that Obama’s legacy is one of fostering division and polarization (even if unintentional on his part) rather than unification.

A candidate for 2016 is Joshua Brown’s Abundance article, about the frustrations and contradictions of modern society. Although I didn’t agree with all of it, I wish I had written it.

Although Josh says it went viral, the response on Reddit was lukewarm, failing to go viral on any subs.

However, Facebook shows that article was shared over 1,500 times – very impressive, but still thousands short of a typical Wait But Why article. Readership size matters a lot, too, which is probably why Wait But Why articles always go instantly viral. I also wonder how much of the viralness of Wait But Why is due to the cute stick cartoons, versus the writing. I suspect the cartoons play an important role in viralness, and to test this could involve split-testing, sending half of traffic to an article with cartoons and the other half the same article but without cartoons, and then comparing the shares for each version of the article. If it makes no difference, he could save a lot of work not drawing them anymore.

As shown with Abundance, an article that may go viral on one network (such as Twitter or Facebook) may be met with a more muted reception elsewhere (Reddit).

For 2015, although not quite meeting all the criteria, Scott Adam’s Clown Genius may still qualify. This article, which in August 2015 presciently predicted the ascent of Donald Trump, single-handedly propelled Mr. Adams to online pundit super-stardom after years of otherwise being in doldrums and a PR mini-disaster in 2011. A Google archive search shows this was his first post about Trump.

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