What Makes Content Go Viral?

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Writer and author Tracy McMillan made a splash in 2011 for a blog post on marriage and relationships that went viral and reached millions of people. Here's how she uses social media and why she thinks writers should have spinach in their teeth.

Omega: Many people try to write viral content—stories that reach millions. Your article, “Why You're Not Married,” was one of the most popular of all time on the Huffington Post. How did you come up with that piece?

Tracy:  I wrote that piece for a reading. One of my mentors, Transparent creator Jill Soloway, asked me to write something for it. I asked her, “What should I write about?”

She said, “Write about what only you can write about.”

I said, “Well, I've been married three times. I can write about that.” And people always ask me, “You’ve been married three times? I can't even get married once. How do you do it?'"

I wrote what I knew in as sassy a way as a possible way. I did it for 99 people at a reading. I had no idea how they were going to react, but they loved it.

When it came time to do a piece for promotion when my paperback was coming out I thought, “Oh, I could rewrite this a little bit and publish it,” and that's how it all happened.

Omega: Why do you think that particular article went viral—what makes any article go viral?

Tracy: When I wrote it, I didn't know I was writing something viral. There weren't a lot of viral hits back then—the world was different. It was less intense in 2011.

I was a television news writer for 16 years, and I think that has everything to do with why I wrote something that went viral. Because viral is mass media and that's what I'd been working in. 

I also say something goes viral because there's something about it that makes people sick. It's like an infection or a virus—people get sick and they have to give it to somebody else. They could be sick with anger or sick with fear—or it could be a happy sickness—but emotionally they're infected with something. It has to get them worked up somehow.

I also have another theory that a “hit” in America is when the blue state people and the red state people both think it's their thing. The movie “Juno” is a great example.

The red state people say, “She keeps the baby. That's our movie.” And then the blue state people are like, “It's an Indy film. It's got Jason Bateman and Michael Cera in it. That's our movie.”

Or even the Kardashians. Some people see it as a show about a family. “They're sisters. They're like a family.” And then other people think, “They're transgressive.”

Omega: How did your writing life change after that piece?

Tracy: I got a new book deal from my viral piece. That's the dream, but I didn't even know that that was the dream!

I got the big book deal and then nothing changed for me. My habits as a writer and my life as a writer are so ingrained, it was just the same. I did the carpool, I wrote for an hour, I did the carpool, I wrote for two hours. Or I didn't do the carpool and I wrote for two hours. I went to my job.

It's important not to think too much about the world’s view of you. There's almost no upside. I don't need to read the comments; I don't need to know about it. I need to move on to the next thing, not look in the mirror.

You can glance into the mirror from time to time to ask, "Do I have spinach in my teeth?"

But as a writer, if you're doing it right, you do have spinach in your teeth. 

Omega: How has social media shaped the way we tell stories? Do you have any tips for staying authentic while showcasing our lives to the world?

Tracy: In some ways social media is a memoir, and you're a character. I have a thing my character does on social media, and I only do that thing. I'm not going to show you my random trip to CVS Pharmacy unless it fits with the thing I'm trying to do on social media, which is basically to help people heal and live better lives. I want to inspire people to grow, no matter what has gone on in their lives. I like doing social media that way.