My Short Time as a Viral Hit Maker
On June 23rd, as the results from the British EU Referendum or “Brexit” began to come in, it was clear that the Leave vote was ahead. Once the lead solidified and the BBC called the result, the Pound Sterling began to tank. The mood on Twitter turned grim. I had an IM window with Nick Mamatas open at the time. Sparked by I’m not sure what, I shared the notion that I might Photoshop the big reveal at the end of Planet of the Apes and replace the Statue of Liberty with Big Ben. Nick said, paraphrasing, “DO IT.” Not the most original joke I’ve ever come up with, but I’m fairly proficient with photo-editing, so I got to work. About twenty minutes later, I had this:
This is actually a slightly cleaned up version of the original image, because I can’t resist fixing mistakes that I let go by in my rush to make the joke first.
I sent the image over to Nick, and before I could tweet it out myself, he tweeted the image along with credit:
Nick sending it out turned out to be the ticket to success for it, because it spread the image far faster and wider than my own followers list would have. Within seconds, the retweets began. Early on, Cory Doctorow retweeted it. By the time I went to bed just after midnight, the tweet had over a thousand retweets and showed no sign of slowing down as morning came in the UK.
Somewhere along the way, the image began to circulate without attribution. Warren Ellis (my favorite graphic novel author of all time!) picked it up and retweeted it:
A couple of different people, especially one @Guy_Lawley, pointed out to him that I was the original creator of the image. Warren Ellis, forever cementing for me his reputation as a stand-up guy, apologized to me (unnecessarily, but much appreciated) and sent out another tweet with attribution:
At this point, I completely lost track of where things were going with the image. It spread faster than I could keep track of. I tweeted the image in response to a similar idea from Dara O’Brien (an Irish comedian big in the UK), and it picked up dozens of retweets from that as well. I had no idea so many people read the mentions for a famous person’s tweets.
Pretty soon, other versions began to circulate. Accusations of copycats were made, but I didn’t buy that personally. It was an easy reach, and I don’t doubt that dozens of people came to the joke at the same time. I probably was not the first to make the joke, although maybe the first one to photoshop it.
Word spread on Facebook that I’d created the original and first image, and people began to tag me in posts acknowledging me as the creator on posts by people such as Hugh Howey and many random viral Facebook pages. The Guardian ran an article with a hand-drawn illustration that had a similar concept, and people called them out on Twitter, tagging me. For about four days, I could barely keep up with my Twitter mentions and notifications. I am very glad I had them mostly disabled on my phone.
My rough estimate is that the image was shared and retweeted over 20,000 times, but it is impossible to know for sure because of how easy it was for the image to drop attribution. I imagine I could have added a watermark, but I didn’t want to mar the image and frankly I didn’t really care if attribution was maintained. The only reward I wanted was to see people get a laugh in a kind of dark and shitty moment, and in that regard, the joke succeeded better than I ever expected.
The lasting result was that I picked up 40 new Twitter followers and three or four new Facebook friends. Otherwise, my life is now back to normal. No, as some friends have asked, I did not get rich. I did not make any money, and if I had somehow, I imagine the people who own the rights to the movie would have deserved 99% of it.
As a postscript to the whole experience, I want to note that things have turned darker in regards to Brexit since I made the image, with many accounts of public acts of racism circulating on the Net. I don’t find racist attacks funny, and this image was not making light of such things.