Viral Shakespeare

So, a funny thing happened last week.  Five days ago, on the little used Reddit forum for Shakespeare, I first spotted this post about “Things We Owe Shakespeare“.  It is a picture of someone’s notebook scribblings of a bunch of now-cliches that originally came from Shakespeare.

At the time (you can see my comment on the post), I wrote that it was neat primarily for the artistic value, but I would have liked it if the font was different for each quote, instead of looking obviously like one person wrote it all.

I didn’t give it another thought.  We see these “Stuff Shakespeare said first” lists multiple times a day.

But then the funny thing happened – it “went viral”, as the marketers like to say.  I started seeing links to it a dozen times a day, including from such mega-traffic generators as NPR.  The original poster even said that she (I think?) was getting over 10k hits a day on the thing, and was surprised at it.  She even acknowledges that some of the sayings aren’t original to Shakespeare (dating back to the Bible), and that she spelled some things wrong.

So, then, why did it “go viral”?  That’s the mystery about this stuff.  Here you’ve got the Shakespeare bloggers who do this stuff on a regular basis and hope beyond hope to score such a win.  And then a random writer with no particular connection to Shakespeare (her tumblr appears to be a wide variety of found and created images) happens upon a gold mine.

Here’s my thoughts, and believe me if I knew anything about this stuff I’d be a rich man:

  • Artwork.  This post was not a bullet list of things Shakespeare wrote, it was a hand sketch.  It has a certain artistic quality to it (as I noted way back when I first saw it) in the way that they’re all jammed in at odd angles.  People like pictures.
  • Originality.  This is not a picture of a poster that somebody saw.  This is the original artist saying, “I made this.”  People appreciate that, and are more likely to share/like it. 
  • Needle in a haystack syndrome.  If somebody posts a funny Shakespeare list every day, then the people that frequent that site will implicitly alter their standard of expectation about the content on that site, and no individual list will jump to the top.  Make sense?  I don’t know if it’s true, but it feels right.  Think about it like this (what with the Emmy’s having just been on television last night) : the television show Modern Family is, by current standards, very good.  Every time.  I’ve never had somebody forward me a clip of any individual episode with a note “OMG U have to see this soo funny!!11!”  But in any water cooler conversation somebody can say, “Hey have you seen that show Modern Family?” and most of the people in the conversation will say, “OMG I love that show!”

    In this case we have the opposite. Go look at the original poster’s account, and see how many entries there are that did *not* go viral.

  • Audience.  Some audiences, I think, are more attuned to the sharing concept.  I don’t know for certain but I expect that the audience for the site in question is more of a younger, possibly teen audience.  I think that stuff can spread like wildfire through that crowd. It’s not that us older folks (ahem) are less likely to share the good stuff – it’s that we just have fundamentally different networks.  The average teenager’s social network is some substantial multiplier larger than mine.  Plus, the people on that network are more actively online, and therefore more likely to see stuff.  If I post or share something, half of my relatively small social network may not even log in for a couple of days.  Compare that to the younger crowd who are online almost constantly and the minute it gets shared, they see it and forward it along as well.

Like I said, I don’t have any secrets to this, otherwise I’d have a following 100x the size I do :).  I do think that this was an interesting event in the world of viral Shakespeare, and I hope that I’ve been able to learn something from it that I can use in my strategy going forward.

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