Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What it's like to go Viral

I woke up one week ago today and discovered I had 129,000 hits in one hour. What the fuck? I had gone viral.

This was a new experience for me. Over the last 7 1/2 years I had had big spikes in traffic, usually when I had guest bloggers like Aaron Sorkin or my daughter, Annie, but never had I received one million page views – not even for my Traci Lords rant.

Now that the craziness has died down and I’m once again forgotten, I can reflect back and share the experience.

It's insane to think that some nimrod can sit at a computer and bang out a point-of-view essay and over a million people read it.   This is Cliff Clavin's ultimate dream -- even more than getting a joke on the TONIGHT SHOW. 

The best part was being exposed to so many new readers. The worst part was how many of them never came back. Hey, what did I do? That’s perfectly normal in the blogosphere and I have picked up some new followers (and for that I’m very grateful. Not grateful enough to give you VERONICA MARS T-shirts but still.). But it’s a huge ego boost to see all that traffic and incredibly humbling when your numbers drop worse than week two of 1600 PENN.

The viral post in question was my rant against Zach Braff using Kickstarter to fund his movie. If I had my druthers and could choose which of my articles I would have preferred got a million hits it would probably be my tribute to Larry Gelbart, something strictly funny, or a plug for my book so I could make some damn money. But hey, I’ll take it. From time to time articles I write get linked from other sites, but that’s never in my thinking when I write them. And I’m usually surprised by the ones they pick. Getting an MRI generated big interest. Casting Tom Hanks – meh.

I figured the Zach Braff piece would result in some controversy. I’m no stranger to that. Roseanne Barr savaged me in her blog (which I consider a badge of honor), Diana DeGarmo’s mother had to be restrained, Traci Lordds tweeted that I was an a-hole, any time I say something even remotely political like Sarah Palin is an idiot I get grief, and worst of all is the hate I receive whenever I say anything nice about Patty Heaton.

But all that was nothing compared to this. I checked on Thursday and when I Googled “Zach Braff Ken Levine” there were seventeen complete pages of articles and discussions. Yikes! The ones that got me were those with headlines like KEN LEVINE IS WRONG, as if anyone in the world knew who the hell I am.

That brings up another issue – lots of articles and commenters confused me with the other Ken Levine, the far-more-successful creator of Bioshock. On the day the piece ran he tweeted: “Dear Internet, I am not the guy who hates Zachary Braff, that is tv writer and sportscaster Ken Levine. Met him once, nice guy but not me.”

But in addition to all the comments on my blog, a lot of bloggers and websites did their own articles reacting to my happy little essay. A thousand sites I had never heard of with names like Buzzo and Trendstop and Waaznew? I am thrilled and relieved to say that in the articles and the comments, even those who disagreed with me did so in a very respectful way. (I once wrote an offhanded joke about a certain shock jock morning team and received a thousand death threats, all misspelled.) In the best sense of the word, what we had here was a debate. Some arguments against my position were forceful but not personal. No one said I should “be in a plain crash and DIE!” (And there’s no such thing as an “Oozy.”)

On the other hand, there is a new trend on the net that if you disagree with someone you are labeled a hater. Your points are summarily dismissed and you're just a hater.  Or a troll.   Mr. Braff himself paints his naysayers with this one brush so I guess I'm a hater, despite saying nice things about him and promising to praise his next movie if I like it. 

From what I hear there was a lot of discussion about this topic around town so it took everyone’s mind off Justin Bieber’s Anne Frank comment for two days. And some newspapers ran it. Imagine if I had done something really noteworthy!

Ultimately, I have no idea the percentage of people who agreed or disagreed with me, but I stand by my position. And I wish everyone success who has a project on Kickstarter. Even Melissa Joan Hart. (Please follow me on Twitter, Melissa. PLEASE?)

As of this writing, I have not heard personally from Zach Braff, Rob Thomas, nor Melissa but I don’t expect to. I’m sure I’ll bump into each of them at parties or at the very least on the next WGA picket line and it will be real awkward.

The interesting phenomenon, that I alluded to earlier, is that as fast these things go viral, they disappear almost as fast. But every day or two some other site will pick it up and there’s a renewal of comments calling me ill-informed and naive so I still have that to cling to. Only fourteen of my fifteen minutes are up.

So I’ll happily go back down under the zeitgeist radar where my readers can get a laugh and won’t be confused when I discuss comedy writing. Why would a major video gamer discuss seltzer bottles? It’s nice and comfortable and manageable enough that we can all get to know each other. And if I want another spike in traffic I’ll just ask Annie to guest-blog for a day.


Mac said...

Never mind all those fly-by-nights who didn't come back, Ken; your regular (highly discerning, highly intelligent and unbelievably sexy) readers will always stay. Even for the baseball stories.

Anonymous said...

Well...we might skim over the baseball stories.

Mike Barer said...

The numbers are all in perspective, but my post on the Vancouver Canucks making the Stanley Cup Final went semi viral, which is funny because I don't follow Hockey and it was not more than a few sentences. It was because of the use of the logo off "Google Images", more than people reading the actual post. It was still fun to watch the numbers spike.
I also had a much smaller spike when I wrote about a popular radio personality leaving her station to work in TV.

Mike Barer said...

PS, I love your baseball stories!

JT Anthony said...

Still don't understand the logic or sentiment of your position.
It brings more attention to Kickstarter (more people to the site, more opportunity for someone else to get funded); his project is likely of higher quality, so it has a better chance of getting funded (more publicity, and industry people get jobs and experience as a result); it likely does NOT take away funding from another project (it's not as if there's a fixed amount of money to be allocated to one project or another).
His net worth is irrelevant to the discussion, yet he's still willing to contribute to the project anyway. Your argument is an indictment of all other directors (who don't own their own studios) that seek funding for projects outside their own bank accounts. This is as much about spreading out the financial risk as it is building awareness of the project by connecting with the general public.

Erika said...

For what it's worth, I agreed with you. Granted, I'm a nobody too but still. And I love Zach Braff! Don't wish him any ill will. Hope his movie is a big success. I also hope the law changes so people who participate in crowdfunding can be investors instead of just donating. Then I will be all for endeavors like this.

Tom Quigley said...

Your post going viral -- specifically one about an endeavor that can only be accomplished via the Internet -- is an indication of a trend that sadly, most of today's media powers (meaning studios, networks and advertisers) are still lagging far behind. While the younger generation of consumers are taking to the Internet as their means of communication and contact in nearly every aspect of their lives, networks and studios continue to dig their heels into the over the air and cable methods of delivery and sink their dollars into those arenas. The younger generations have already dropped them as a relevant means of entertainment.

Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, there is a new trend on the net that if you disagree with someone you are labeled a hater. Your points are summarily dismissed and you're just a hater. Or a troll."

Sadly, this is true especially when it comes to politics. No such thing any more as people agreeing respectfully to disagree. Too bad. Because often I learn things (and sometimes change my mind) based on civil disagreements. Conversely, I never stick around to listen to (and hence never learn from) people who screech and namecall.

~ Shelia

Charles H. Bryan said...

I wish I could say that this is an original idea, but I saw it in another blog recently and the author claimed that it works if you want more traffic:

Mention Neil Gaiman.

Thomas said...

What is your typical traffic? The comments are always pretty lively, so I'm genuinely curious.

Hollywoodaholic said...

I'm curious where your blog was linked that sent all the traffic over, and maybe skewered it against your point of view (which I agree with). When Jim Carrey's video on guns ran on Funny Or Die, it was linked from the Drudge Report, so a million illiterate Rush-Beck-Hannity lapdogs showed up. Any idea who linked it?

Also, NPR did a piece about the same topic with the guest expert taking the same stand you did. Wonder how many calls they got?

But I hope many of those day visitors stick around to enjoy your other consistently funny and informative content. Enough that you could follow Andrew Sullivan's model and charge a yearly subscription for the blog. But then that's bound to be another viral topic.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I still haven't had the experience of going viral yet... but I try... often times when I upload my content to YouTube, I'll put certain keywords or search terms into the video details that I think will gain people's attention, and it doesn't... but then again, Google has screwed up YouTube so much anymore that those search terms don't even work.

Jee Jay said...


I thought there already were videogames where people fight using seltzer bottles: First Person Spritzer, yes?

gottacook said...

This reminds me of the early-1970s SF novella "Flash Crowd" by Larry Niven. Today the term refers to a planned event, whereas the story is about a spontaneous event and its aftermath. Teleportation booths, which cost only a chocolate dollar* to use, have displaced all other forms of travel, and the title incident happens when hundreds, then thousands of curious people teleport to the site of an interesting event (in Santa Monica), and a days-long riot results.

This is much like when something goes viral today, in that the people who learn about it relay it onward and possibly make a comment or two of their own, thus becoming participants of a sort - in contrast to the "old days" when some interesting news item would be passively received via newspapers or TV.

*The term "chocolate dollar" is never explained in the story. Among SF stories, the prototypical example of this sort of fun background detail that lets you draw your own conclusions is from a pre-war Robert Heinlein novel: "The door dilated."

Jake Mabe said...

Ken, you're dealing with some serious issues here about the digital age -- ranting replacing discussion, the ramifications (and cowardice) of calling someone every name in the book and then some while hiding behind an anonymous moniker, the fact that one is a "hater" if one shares a strong opinion with which someone else disagrees, the eight-minute news cycle, the fact that Melissa Joan Hart is still working...

I am kidding about the last one, but your post and the reaction to it brings up some sticky wickets, as John Daly would sometimes say on "What's My Line?"

I don't have anything profound to say. I do know that the so-called "Information Age" has brought fantastic advances -- an opportunity to read a blog written by someone who's work you admire, for example, but also ethical questions and potential ramifications, not the least of which is how all this web surfing and smartphone browsing has further decreased our attention spans to maybe 15 seconds.

Keep blogging. Keep sharing your opinions. Keep writing about baseball every now and then.

This "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers" and baseball fan can honestly say that finding your blog about three or so years ago was a true treat.

And, if I were you, I'd make that Roseanne thing into a literal badge and wear it proudly.

Johnny Walker said...

I can't understand your position either, Ken. It seemed to come from the incorrect assumption that Kickstarter is for the "working man", and anyone famous/successful using it "defeats the whole purpose of Kickstarter" (as you wrote).

This assumption, from you and many others, led to Kickstarter reiterating what was already on their "About Us" page on their blog. (Short version: It's wrong, Kickstarter has never been about that.)

It's not a direct response, but it maybe the best you're going to get :)

Personally, I've been dying for a FIREFLY Kickstarter since I first learned about the site a year ago, and have been wishing more people get involved, big and small, not less. I have money, I want more Firefly, so does Joss Whedon (and the cast and crew of that show). Fox and Universal aren't interested in making that happen, just like Warners wasn't interested in making more Veronica Mars.

Why do the powers that be get to decide what gets produced? Kickstarter is paradigm shifting -- the power of deciding what gets produced is slowly being given to the audience. (See also: Netflix's brave experiment with Arrested Development.)

Anyways, I digress, but I will say that since backing my first project a year ago, I've backed 26 more. I feel like I'm speaking from experience when I tell you that where my money goes is motivated by the questions: Do I want the project to succeed? Do I want the people behind the project to succeed?

In other words, the money I give to Kickstarters is done because it would be too painful not to... I want them to succeed, and it will bug the crap out of me if I don't try and help them.

It has never been from a desire for placing a "good bet" or "to rub shoulders with show business" (your words). The money I donate comes from passion, either for the project itself or for the people behind it -- isn't that the same for you?

Braff's KS is the exception for me (I'm not that big a fan of his), but his apparent clear understand of what makes KS so special, and his desire to share what the filmmaking process is like through his updates swung it for me.

As for being labelled a "hater", well... you did call the Veronica Mars Kickstarter "obscene" and imply that Braff was motivated by laziness. There seems to be a lack of love there! :)

Johnny Walker said...

PS - Thanks for sharing your experience of going viral. I always wondered what that must feel like.

McAlvie said...

"if you disagree with someone you are labeled a hater."

It's a buzz word now that people use to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them. It frees them from any obligation to think about someone else's point of view and potentially learn anything.

Moving on, I'll just say that while the industry discussions are interesting, I come back because you write very well. Even when I disagree with what you say, I respect that you've said it articulately. And there's so much truly horrible writing on the internet that the gems, such as your blog, are worth savoring.

AlaskaRay said...

The last time I went viral, I had to stay in bed for 3 days.

Frank Paradise said...

I predict that shyster Braff's easy money grab will soon lead to Adam Sandler asking Kickstarter suckers to finance his next hilarious comedy in which he will play every role except the dog, who, will be played by Hollywood comedy legend Pauly Shore. Write on Ken!

Julie Ann Sipos said...

Ken, since you and I started blogging every other person (and house cat) on the planet grew an audience and an opinion, the latter of which is shorter and more uninformed than ever. Personally, I like you long and ranty. Please forgive our shortened attention spans and keep putting the screws to fading porn, awards show and sitcom stars, hypocrites, blowhards and dumbasses. Okay, I have to go answer the 700 tweets that rolled by since I started writing this.

Janet said...

On line comments present many issues. One problem with anonymity is that you have no context with which to interpret the point of view. You could have the exact same discussion with a coworker, in person, and not get all hot and bothered because you know them and perhaps admire them. One is then inclined to give that opinion a little more weight. Balanced consideration is impossible on line because you are arguing one point, and one point only. And usually only two points of view are being expressed. There are no redeeming features of the one with whom you are arguing so it is easy to completely dismiss their comments.

I have had talks with people I know and respect and even when we disagree I will listen. Maybe I can even be persuaded.

McAlvie said...

Janet - what you said about anonymity providing no context is very true.

Way back before we had tv and radio, if you had something you wanted to say you either stood in the town square or you set it down on paper, hired a printer to create copies, and set about distributing your words and ideas. There was an anonymity to that since people reading your pamphlet formed an impression based solely on your words. Your words would become your reputation. I think this, and the cost of the printer's labor, led people to be careful in crafting their words.

We lost a little bit of that with tv, radio and the telephone. You could use inflection and tone of voice to indicate anything from anger to humor without much alteration of the words, and before long the words became less valued than the attitude behind them.

Now we have come somewhat back to the age of print, using the internet to distribute the written word, and I think we need to relearn the importance of the right word in the right place. This is hampered by the fact that we no longer have to pay the printer to get our thoughts and ideas distributed. Maybe if we did, words would again have greater value and people wouldn't throw them away so carelessly.

Johnny Walker said...

That's a very astute observation, Janet, and nicely put, McAlvie. The worst is when you've written something in the tone you would normally speak in, but someone who doesn't know you reads it in an entirely different manner.

I've had arguments erupt over nothing more than misunderstandings in tone -- one with an acquaintance I literally had to call up on the phone to resolve. When he heard my argument from own mouth, he wasn't nearly as upset about it. Not knowing me very well, he had assumed the worst when he read it, but talking about it with the benefit of inflection changed everything.

When the internet first took off, it seemed like everyone was very considerate about what they put online -- well, most people! Or maybe it's that we used to moderate more.

Either way, now the internet has become integral to our lives, we're having all sorts of complicated, intricate and personal discussions *with strangers* through the written word, on a daily basis. Something we've never done before.

You'd hope that discussions and debates could be distilled to their purely logical components through the written word, but we're all still human -- and we all still need to feel understood and connected to those around us, even if we don't agree -- and you're right that a carefully chosen word can make all the difference.

I think another part of the problem is the speed at which things happen on the internet -- we're almost encouraged to view everything we engage with as disposable. Absorb, comment, move on. Absorb, comment, move on. We write things on our phones, on our way to work, on our lunch breaks, during ad-breaks. None of that seems conducive to a considered discourse!

Greg said...

“…and worst of all is the hate I receive whenever I say anything nice about Patty Heaton.“

I know everybody loves Raymond, but I had no idea that ANYONE hated Patricia. Yikes. Haters gotta hate, I guess -- and be buttheads, of course. (Yes, I realize the dangerous implications of my use of haters.)

Michael said...

Greg - it's not true everyone loves Raymond. Ray Romano was recently part of a bit on the Jimmy Kimmel show where celebrities read mean tweets people had wrote about them. His was about his appearance and he was one of the few celebrities who lashed back at the person who wrote it.

YEKIMI said...

So, If you ran into Zach Braff and he discussed his reasons for going the Kickstarter route [without fisticuffs being involved....or maybe even if there were] would you do a "mea culpa" and write a column why you changed your mind? Or is your opinion set in stone and nothing he said would change it?

Brizdaz (Darren) said...

I only discovered your blog through the Zach Braff post and I came back (yes,I am the one.-),although I don't promise that I'll hang around for ever,but I like what I'm reading so far.
And don't worry,I've had my shots (slings and arrows mainly.-),so fat chance of my blog going viral.

And as for "haters",I hate "haters" being hated,as long as they aren't abusive,that is.
You're not one though.

And being an Aussie,or Ozzie,and not an Oozy,I'll probably skip over the baseball posts,as they just aren't cricket to me.
Not that I like cricket that much either.
Although I wouldn't mind seeing the movie "42".

emily said...

Why don't we launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund Ken & David in the creation of a new sitcom?

A_Homer said...

Hope now that you've ridden the 'controversy' viral serpent you can stand the normal again.
As a sidenote, I've just watched the first of a new BBC series about American television, which pointed out that when All in the Family started up (and it was deemed controversial enough to even need a warning label scrolling before the show started) they soon had 40 million viewers, when the US was around 200 million in total,i.e. non-adults included. So imagine what kind of platform Norman Lear must have felt he had for his stories.

Tony Schumacher said...

You should be grateful, last time I went "viral" I needed cream and pills for three weeks.

Barry Traylor said...

Actually Ken I had to Google Zach Braff as before your piece I had no clue who he was.

Mark said...

I can't understand.... people who post that they can't understand your postion.

You made a clear case in your original post and follow-up. Certainly, people can disagree with it, but failing to understand?

chuckcd said...

Considering that I am a lot more likely to get an MRI than to cast Tom Hanks, I can see why that post got more attention.

In the interest of boosting your blog hits.....MORE TRACI LORDS!

PolyWogg said...

What I liked more than the retweets and references was journalists (like those who write for Toronto Star) who looked like they read your post, used almost all the same points, posted it as an article, and gave no reference whatsoever to the fact you had written it first.

I saw multiple newspapers running non-main page stories making similar arguments, none of them making reference to online discussions like yours. I guess some reporters / aggregators really do steal from anyone.


Unknown said...

Hehe you finally found out what a SEO goldmine your name is, especially in combination with Zach Braff who's extremely popular as well as Bioshock Infinate which came out a couple of weeks ago and is highly regarded and of course the internet darling Kickstarter.

Admit it - you did that on purpose. Don't play coy.

Funny enough I came here to leave a comment because "Bones" did an episode I saw today from the point of view of a skull they dug up - and of course that reminded me of you - and when I dropped "point of view" into google and restricted the results to last year and your website, this post came up. So I'll just leave it here - the episode was the ninth of season eight (S08E09) in case you want to look it up. It's nothing special if you ask me but hey I thought it might interest you.

Eric Mesa said...

It's the weird thing about the Internet, isn't it? As a blogger with about a half dozen dedicated readers who regularly comment, it's crazy when I have an article go viral and get 20 or more comments. But when no one stays around after that it's kinda sad. It's like I thought I'd finally made it with that article, but, nope, people weren't so much interested in me and what I have to say as they were in the topic and wanting to agree or disagree with me.