On an otherwise normal Thursday in August I published an article on my website, posted the link to Hackernews and forgot all about it. I didn't expect much to happen.
Four days later, over fifteen thousand people had visited my website and my mailing list had grown by 3267%.
This is the story, day by day, of how it happened.
In 2018 I went to take portraits at a flat earth conference in the UK. For the full story of why, you can find the article here. I wrote about it afterwards but, In the intervening years, I didn't know what to do with the draft I had. When the pandemic hit, my normal work as a photographer was no longer possible. I saw the new time I had available as an opportunity to turn my little-used personal photography website into a personal blog, instead.
I hoped it would be somewhere I could publish what I was spending all my time writing during lockdown, including the flat earth article that I still hadn't found a home for. It had bothered me for ages.
In late June, after completing work on the website itself, I started working on the article. It took about a month of writing and rewriting, followed by a month of edits and tweaks.
What I struggled with most was how to explain to the reader why I had waited so long to publish it. Yes, there was the problem of not knowing what to do with it but, then it slowly occurred to me that the article was even more relevant now than it would have been in 2018.
The swirling conspiracies of the Covid19 pandemic and the pending American election had raised the stakes worldwide for what truth means and who we should believe. I rewrote the article a final time, tying the links of the present to the event of the past.
I hit the 'publish' button at 2:58pm.
At approximately 4pm, after some minor tweaks to formatting, I posted the link on Hacker News. I closed my laptop and went to work out and get something to eat.
When I came back online at 5:45pm, I checked Twitter. I had four notifications (which is four more than it normally is).
‘Huh, that's interesting.’
I checked Hacker News again to see if anything had happened. It turned out that, while I'd been gone, a huge debate and discussion had begun raging underneath the article with people dissecting it from various angles.
My heart rate started to rise. My mouth went dry. This is not something I'd experienced before, so it was a shock. My immediate thoughts were 'Have I left anything stupid in the article? Any typos?'
I checked my Analytics account and found that there were currently 110 people on my website, all of them on the article page. Without having seen it directly, I made the assumption that the article had briefly appeared on the HN homepage for some amount of time to generate such an interest. (It turns out later that yes, it had even hit the Top 10.)
At 6pm, I had to take a phone call about something entirely unrelated, meaning the laptop was closed once more.
Forty five minutes later, after the call, I went back to look at what was happening. Traffic was now coming from more sources than just Hacker News - the editors at Digg had picked up the story and it was at the top of their homepage.
This was what continued to drive even more traffic, the spread of the article online broadening online with each passing minute. From both Digg and HN, the article started to then be picked up by the many lesser-known news aggregators that are out there on the internet.
Most of them I hadn't heard of, but because they had the link on their pages - passed through automatically - their readers started clicking through.
As more and more people saw the article it started to appear on social networking websites. Primarily this was Twitter, but with some Facebook posts and even a couple on LinkedIn of all places.
The article was, almost entirely, being touted as something worth reading. Comments on Twitter were interesting. 'Sobering', 'reading this made me understand the mentality that elected Trump', 'an interesting and sad insight on the anti-science mentality'. Somebody with over ninety five thousand followers called it 'a relevant read in the age of fake news and misinformation'.
With the attention it was receiving on Digg and Hacker News, plus all the added attention on social media, it should have come as no surprise to me that it was picked up by a newsletter or two. But it did, and it was a huge source of traffic.
The next day (after very little sleep) I noticed another spike in traffic around lunchtime. Even more people were on my website at any given time than at the peak HN and Digg hours the night before.
Checking my Analytics account I found that almost all the traffic was coming from a newsletter called 1440 - a daily digest of interesting links from around the internet with over three hundred thousand subscribers. The permalink to the newsletter can be found here.
The vast majority of readers coming to the website were from America, generating a steady flow of traffic as Americans woke up, from one shining sea to the other.
Later in the day, Digg tweeted that they had put it in their newsletter as well. The process continued.
This isn't the most viral article ever, not by a long chalk. But for a relatively new blog with virtually no readers to begin with, it's made a significant difference and it was an exhilarating experience.
Now that the dust has settled, I've had some time to assess what all the immediate effects were and what they'll mean. Here are the four main things that happened as a result of the article being picked up and shared widely.
Across the four days after I initially published the link to Hacker News - the only 'publicity' I did - there was an enormous spike in traffic. There were a total of fifteen thousand users and seventeen thousand sessions, suggesting that a few people came back for another look or a second read
I gained 300 subscribers to my mailing list over those four days. Considering I’d only had a handful of friends and family on the list to begin with, this was significant.
I did this with a simple newsletter signup at the bottom of all my articles connected to a Mailchimp account. There's no annoying popups or interstitials - I only want the people who get to the end of what I've written to bother signing up. These people are the most interested and engaged readers. Anyone else caught by a spammy popup is more likely to unsubscribe.
Even this modest number of subscribers will mean that, over the coming months I can continue to drive traffic back to my website with regular roundups of what I've published and an increased chance of them forwarding my articles on to others.
With all this attention, I bagged about twenty new followers on Twitter. This isn't many, but it's something. I have a relatively new Twitter account; I'll take it.
The number would have been higher, too, but I didn't have any social share icons on my site. This would have allowed people to share it to Twitter, Facebook and via email much easier, in a way that would have included my username as well.
You win some, you lose some.
When a large amount of traffic comes to your site over a few days, it's a very important signal to Google. Clearly, there's something worth reading on your site - it must be worth sending people to.
This is borne out by a modest hop up in organic search numbers that I was able to see on my Search Console. This is something that needs to build consistently over time to continue to bear fruit, but the initial bump it gave was certainly helpful.
Something is normally worth reading if it possesses, to some degree, the three following attributes:
Interest: is this something that people - niche or majority - will have an interest in reading? Does it get their attention and keep them rapt?
Composition: is it well-written, thoughtfully composed and presented carefully in a way that makes it a pleasure to read?
Utility: does it help serve some purpose or use? That is, can I do or understand something better after I have finished reading it?
My article was an interesting one that I put a lot of time into writing - the utility came, I think, in helping people understand the mindset of the people that I met.
Here are some further thoughts as to why this happened and why it happened in the way it did.
Most of the readers of this article were in America. I received emails from a number of people who read it to tell me that they 'knew people like that', and I saw tweets from a variety of accounts that indicated there was something in the article that mirrored the belief systems and behaviours of hardcore-MAGA supporters, Covid19 truthers and, worst of all, QAnon conspiracists.
In the midst of a pandemic and with a presidential election approaching, I suspect this article allowed people to process what is currently going on through the proxy of a small event that happened far away and some time ago.
Who doesn't have at least some curiosity to hear about people that believe the earth is flat? The headline itself immediately conjures interest and the many minor revelations - about the attendees and from my own perspective - maintain that interest over time in the article itself.
I spent an awful lot of time researching, reporting on, going to and writing about the event that I attended. I think this was borne out by the fact that people were surprised the article was just so sad.
At the time of the event, there were a clutch of articles that appeared in the British broadsheets, and online, written by journalists whose total time spent on the event could be counted in days, not years. They were mostly dismissive and light hearted.
This article went considerably deeper. I also spent weeks working on it, honing and cutting and improving the article until I felt comfortable enough sharing it. Even after publishing I continued to make minor corrections and tighten the text here and there.
Bothering to write something is all well and good, but you need to then put it in a place where people are then likely to be able to find it. Having spent some amount of time working on my website since late Spring, it had become a place I felt comfortable with people visiting it and looking at it.
I had debated at length, with a friend of mine, the possible benefits of pitching the article to an established publication of some nature. I eventually decided against this because I preferred to maintain complete ownership of the piece. I'm glad I did.
After this, the simple act of posting the link to Hacker News was all it took to get people to start looking in that direction.
It doesn't hurt that my website has no adverts, loads extremely fast, has a font/background colour combination that is easier on the eyes and a serif font - most people find that easier to read than sans-serif.
If my site had loaded with ads and interstitial popups, people would have been turned off faster. What's more, Google would likely have penalised me.
This is all well and good, but now that something has gone viral what does it mean - if anything - for what I continue to do from now on?
There's a Zen Koan that goes like this: 'Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.'
Without going into an exploration of Buddhist philosophy, my intention is to carry on much the same as I did before the article was published. That is, to follow my interests, write good articles and learn as I go. This is what I believe led to the success of this article in the first place.
So why change that formula? Chop wood, carry water.
Before writing or publishing a piece, it is important to ask whether the topic actually interesting, useful or well-written.
Recently, I've been enormously interested in creativity and the psychology of how it works in the human mind. So far, a lot of what I've been writing on the topic hasn't yet seen the light of day because it hasn't felt quite right.
Eventually (I hope), I'll find the missing piece(s) that will make the articles sing the way they need to before they are published.
In the meantime, I'm focusing on publishing the articles that flow from my interest and have plenty of utility. I make sure that each one is as well written as it can be, too.
There's no point writing something for people to read if you don't put it somewhere they're going to find it. For every article that I write I'll be looking into more ways to put it out there into places where it can be found.
Hacker News, although amazing and a great source of interested traffic, is famously fickle and it's often anyone's guess as to whether a link will rise to the top of the front page or disappear into obscurity.
I'm also dipping my toe into republishing posts onto Medium. In future, I may also look into guest posting elsewhere, too.
In short, I need to improve my distribution.
This was a big mistake of mine. I sacrificed making the blog easier to share in favour of avoiding any great big ugly social buttons. In retrospect, I think this likely limited the number of social shares I received because it required users to copy/paste the link and head over to their website and... you get the idea.
This is much easier to do with one big button, so that's a change I'll be making immediately. (And have now made.)
It’s perfectly possible, after all this, that it was all a fluke. A blip. A chance occurrence. I wrote an article about a click-bait-y topic like flat earthers, enjoyed my moments in the limelight and, now, will return to obscurity.
The other possibility is that there is a direct correlation between spending a lot of time writing something interesting, timely, useful and well composed and the number of people who will be interested in reading it.
My hope is that the latter is true. Time to get working on the next one, then.
If you found that interesting, why not sign up to my mailing list? You'll join several hundred others receiving interesting updates about curious things that you won't see here on my blog. The emails are infrequent, it's easy to unsubscribe and I don't have anything to sell you. Neat.