Pranksters and self-promoters have gotten pretty good at engineering virality on the social Web. But Nic Vargus says that’s not what he did this week — honest.
On 26 August, the 27-year-old writer dropped a joke tweet that’s since been heard around the Internet. It’s been retweeted so many thousands of times, in fact, that he and his long-time girlfriend, Lindsey Oakes, may actually have to abide by it.
Now, of course, Vargus’s joke is up to more than 120,000 retweets, enough to provoke a response from Twitter and entire think-pieces about the changing nature of Internet fame. We reached out to Vargus to ask him What It All Means, if anything. (This conversation has been lightly edited for length and grammar, and to make it flow better.)
Can you tell me a little bit more about the circumstances of this particular bet? Was this an actual, genuine wager that sprang from a normal conversation, or was it more premeditated than that?
Originally, the whole thing was *completely* a joke. I wrote the tweet, sent it and then went and grabbed coffee. By the time I came back, it had something like 40 retweets and I texted Lindsey. Right away, she was amicable — and neither of us actually thought it would break 100k — so we just sort of laughed about it and she agreed to the bet. She texted me several times throughout the day to see where the tweet was at.
Did you have that premonition when you posted it, like, “Man, this is going to be really big”?
I definitely didn’t think it was going to go viral. I thought it was going to get maybe 10 people to interact with it. That was kind of the original joke … I guess the Internet had other plans.
But I think that’s probably why it succeeded. At some point, the story people were telling by spreading the tweet became more important than the tweet itself. People wanted to engage with it because they were helping me out, because Ninja Turtles are equally awesome AND ridiculous, and because in the age of the Internet, weddings can be kind of fraught and ostentatious.
That’s really interesting to me, because it feels like the viral media environment has gotten markedly less organic. It’s become much easier to measure and track viral content, which means it’s also become much easier to engineer it. I saw on your Facebook, for instance, that three of your friends “went viral” — your words — on the same day as you. Is that an unlikely coincidence, or is it an example of how good we’ve gotten at predicting and catering to the interests of this particular media environment?
People obviously engineer things to go viral, but I’m not even remotely smart enough to figure out how. I’m sure my result is reproducible. My friends all built and made products that have genuine purposes, and they all got attention around the Web on the same day. I don’t know exactly how you catch the Internet’s attention. I think the only surefire way is to put work out there, over and over again. A little talent helps.
Or, in my case, tweet something that’s almost too dumb for words.
[A note: Vargus’s friends’ projects, which you may have seen around the Web this week, are legitimately very cool: They include short stories made from dictionary sentences, a site that lets you literally judge books on their covers and a Kanye West emoji app.]
You obviously watched the RTs as they happened. Do you have a sense for how your tweet spread? What are the actual mechanics of going viral on Twitter right now?
I think I have a pretty good sense for how the tweet spread — but fair warning, this part’s probably pretty boring. I used to work at IGN, and several of those guys have a large number of followers. One friend in particular jumped on the cause right away — which boosted it to 40,000 people. It hit around 7,000 RTs by the evening, which is probably 70 times more than any of my other “viral” tweets.
When I woke up, it had hit 30,000, and a moment later Dan from Bastille retweeted it. We absolutely love that band, so that was actually pretty special for Lindsey and me. A few minutes later, Seth Rogen retweeted it, which boggles the mind. I think a bunch of other celebrities got behind it, but by that time Twitter couldn’t really handle the information.
It went from 70,000 to 100,000 in several minutes.
Last but absolutely not least: You haven’t actually proposed yet. Are you going to? And if she says yes, will you actually dress like a Ninja Turtle?
We’re not engaged yet, but we’ve been talking about it and sort of getting ready for the next steps. If we’re so lucky as to get married, there’s no question — I’m wearing the turtle suit. I’m really hoping for something custom-made. (I’d like to stress that Lindsey has been an absolute angel during this whole thing, and I’m thankful every day she puts up with me.)
What is your mom going to make of the turtle costume?
When she heard, her exact response was, “Cowabunga, dude.”
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