I went viral on purpose on Twitter and it was terrible

Ben Johnson Dec 16, 2015

At 1:42 a.m. in the morning on December 3rd, I did not feel great about the state of the world. The San Bernardino attacks had occurred hours earlier, and much of the reaction I had seen online mirrored my own: dismay.

This came during a week where two of the tech world’s richest white men — Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates — had pledged to use their own considerable resources and connections in the technology world to solve big world problems like climate change. And in my moment of dismay, I tweeted from our Marketplace Tech account:

People freaked out on Twitter almost immediately. A lot of them seemed to be in England, where British Twitter was just getting started in the morning. Big Sexy Jeb! Lund tweeted:

Soon a horde of users were reacting negatively to what I had dashed off a few minutes before. Someone said “I want to throw this tweet into a volcano,” which even by Weird Twitter standards, seems like a pretty negative reaction.

This week’s Codebreaker episode touches several times on this moment: when you mean to one thing on the Internet and it completely blows up in your face. Erin Ryan, of Vocativ, tells us about that time her post on Jezebel.com went viral and ruined a weekend trip with her boyfriend, with her glued to the phone and monitoring negative blowback for a simplistic headline. Founder of the controversial Peeple app Julia Cordray talks about getting death threats on the phone, 100 emails a minute, and having to send the police to a former residence following the public posting of an old address online. Our virality episode on Codebreaker has a lot of people talking about the anxiety and stress that results from going viral, and weeks after I’d interviewed them for our show, I was getting that experience first hand. It was not good.

In my own mind, at that moment I hit that blue “tweet” button, I thought it would be crystal clear what I meant to say. What I meant to say was despite all the swelling music in the promotional videos, despite the talk about changing the world, Silicon Valley seems these days to be really focused on solving small problems at a large scale — not large problems at a large scale. There are a lot of reasons for this. For example, the inherent challenges of funding a “big problem,” solving startup with venture capital that is invested for the very purpose of getting a massive return on a risky investment. In the case of gun violence, as many people pointed out, government policy should lead change. But it doesn’t make it any less disappointing that in an era when an app can go from an engineer’s idea to a $50 billion company, Silicon Valley doesn’t seem all that interested — or able — to tackle the really big stuff.

For the record, I’d be thrilled to see Silicon Valley tackle the big stuff — and I don’t doubt that whether we’re talking diversity, climate change, or gun violence, there are tons of entrepreneurs there and all over the world out there who are trying to do exactly that. It would be nice to see more funding and resources go towards those ideas. And in a country where government seems to struggle to make good policy to thwart these problems, getting help from the tech world doesn’t necessarily sound like such a bad idea.

But all of this is difficult to say effectively in a tweet. More proof that sometimes going viral feels a little evil — even if you were trying to advocate for the world to be a little more good.

Check out our Codebreaker episode on “Virality” here.

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