Graham: Twitter triumph didn't last long

Thermonuclear tweet has little real world benefits

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

I went viral this week, and as much as I’d love to tell you it was fabulous, nothing at all in my life changed.

Some 92,000 retweets (users sharing the tweet to their own audiences) and 372,000 likes (electronic pats on the back, essentially) later, I’m still the same guy I was. No one cut me a check. I didn’t get a free pair of sneakers out of the deal. I don’t even think I influenced anyone.

The digital dream is a myth.

Make no mistake, this was a big tweet. Trump doesn’t get those kinds of numbers. (Obama does, which Trump must hate.) According to Twitter’s analytics, the tweet had 18 million “impressions” and 4.3 million “total engagements.” I don’t know what any of that means, but it certainly sounds important.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a huge tweet. It sounds weird, but it’s true. It took me 10 years and I finally did it, and the experience was as empty and self-congratulatory as Twitter itself.

Fitting, I suppose. 

Twitter's importance, it should be noted, is inflated from the start. Reports say only around 7 to 15 percent of the American population uses Twitter, and its monthly users are falling. So why do we hear so much about Twitter all the time? A disproportionate number of those users are members of the media (hi!), and its use among celebrities and politicians feed that media. All of which is easy to forget when you're inside the echo chamber, and Twitter feels like the world.

Here's what happened. After work on Monday, I got home and flipped on “Jeopardy!” Thumbing through Twitter — because to the Twitter-fried brain, simply watching TV is never enough anymore — I saw a tweet from Kim Kardashian saying she had a beef with the fast food chain Jack in the Box and she needed to talk to someone from their team, pronto. (Yes, she used the word pronto.)

I don’t follow Kim, and I find the Kardashians generally uninteresting. But I saw the tweet, and in Kim’s mentions were a handful of non-Jack in the Box fast food joints using snarky human voice on Twitter — Burger King, Wendy's and Shake Shack among them — angling for a piece of Kim's audience of 60 million followers.

They were affecting Twitter slang and shorthand, one of the truly annoying facets of corporate branding in 2019. (Is your favorite brand's online voice that of a cool teen? Just check their Twitter account!)

The whole thing struck me, as much of Twitter does, as depressing, an ecosystem of brands and vapid celebrities in a logarithmic dance. So I screenshotted some of the replies, used a photo app to mash them together, and composed a tweet: “Whatever Twitter’s intentions were,” I wrote, saddling up on my high horse, “this is what it has become.” If Twitter allowed italics, I would have used them. I added a picture of Kim’s tweet and six different replies, and hit send.

It blew up.

Most of my tweets do not blow up. I’m a pretty heavy Twitter user, and I’ve never had a tweet get more than a few thousand retweets or likes, and even those are extremely rare. Most of the time I get just a handful of responses. It’s lonely out in digital space. 

But not this time. Within a few minutes I had a dozen or so retweets; by the time “Jeopardy!” ended, I had 400-plus retweets and 1,000 likes.

And then it took on a life of its own.

The tweet in question.

After the first wave of activity, I couldn’t keep up with it anymore. I joked about its attention with friends over text messages. A friend told me Miley Cyrus “liked” it, but it turned out it wasn’t the real Miley Cyrus.

My tweet actually got more attention than Kim’s initial tweet. An Instagram meme account took it, and that post got 20,000 emoji hearts.

Judging by a lot of the responses, my point about digital thirst and brands pretending to be people was lost on the masses; many were amused by the fast food accounts’ responses, which were perhaps more clever than I was originally willing to concede. But that wasn't the point. My point was: What even is this? 

As its activity swelled and them calmed — by Friday, it was still getting a few dozen mentions an hour — it was entirely confined to the online world. When I put my phone down, it didn’t exist. It wasn't even anything I could take a picture of myself next to. If you go to a baseball game and catch a foul ball, at least you get a keepsake. What am I going to do with this tweet, print it out and hang it on my wall?

Emperor, clothes, etc. 

It’s troubling the amount of currency and headspace we give to “likes,” “favorites,” “followers” and such in social media these days, when so much of it has no bearing in the real world. Some leverage online presence into a book deal or a spot on “The Amazing Race,” but for most of us, they’re just ones and zeroes.

My flirtation with Twitter superstardom didn't last; on Friday, I tweeted a link to a Spotify playlist I made, and garnered responses in the single digits. Things are back to normal, which is fine, since they never really changed in the first place. My advice to anyone chasing the fantasy of going viral: Get a better dream. Pronto.