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This Post Will Not Go Viral
Elon Musk, X and the end of tweeted articles
Emma Carmichael wrote a feature for GQ on those Cavinder Twins, the student athletes turned Tik Tok influencers turned WWE wrestlers. In it, Carmichael referred to the controversy I got into when the Cavinders took public umbrage with my way of describing an obvious connection between marketed looks and NIL money. Carmichael even makes reference to a WWE promo photo of one twin stacked on the other with a caption that reads, “tag team? more like double teamed 👀.”
In the feature, Haley Cavinder addresses the looks + cash connection:
I see it, though. I see why people will be like, well, they're two white girls, they show their bodies, whatever. I'm not gonna deny that fact. But at the end of the day, what would you do? I wanna make this amount of money.
My perspective notwithstanding, these were frank quotes and it’s a quality article because Carmichael is a professional. It comes with a GQ level glossy photoshoot. The twins seem happy with the piece and tweeted it out to their followers. Given that my controversy was mentioned, I had an interest in whether the article would resonate. I braced for popping up in the news again and then I remembered: Oh ya, articles don’t go viral anymore.
At the moment of this writing, the tweet of the article from GQ’s 1.3 million follower account has yielded…only 25 Reposts and 115 Likes. For comparison, this Atlanta Braves writers’ photograph of Matt Olson with a list of his home run stats relative to other past Braves has garnered 33 Reposts and 271 Likes to date. No expensive photoshoot needed, no interview booking necessary, no writing or editing. Just a shot from the back of a jersey plus some basic stats and you get more X traction. I know little of the writer Grant McAuley, but he seems to have savvily moved with the medium’s incentives. Photos rule now and links are out. Podcast links are suppressed, but embedded audio can spread the word on X. Longer articles can’t be made so discoverable, though, and now live in the discourse wilderness. This seems like it should be a bigger story, in my opinion. However one feels about it, the nature of how content resonates has been quietly—yet greatly—altered.
The End of Viral
Twitter, back before it was X, used to be a place where a big feature article might catch on. Obviously there’s this issue of playing to Twitter vs. actual popularity, but retweets, back before it was reposts, was usually a pretty good proxy for whether your piece was getting traction. Years ago, at an established institution like, say, ESPN, I could reasonably expect hundreds of retweets from a launch of a linked article. If I went viral, that number could creep into the thousands. I recall a few ESPN writers getting into that 10K territory and wouldn’t be surprised if searches dug up instances where articles reaped hundreds of thousands of retweets.
Now, not so much. Articles almost never go viral because article virality is suppressed. When I talk to other Substackers, they relay this inability over these past few months to get major traction and connect it to the Elon takeover. I say it descriptively and not as a lament, though I also personally lament it. Going viral is fun, and my business includes writing articles. I could stand to go viral more often. But I also hated pre-Elon Twitter for other reasons, mostly related to how quickly angry mobs could assemble. Link virality was part of that story too. There are tradeoffs in life, and it’s an open debate as to whether this shift is good or bad for the culture.
A variety of publishers, including Substack, could point to evidence that they’re being targeted for suppression, but this is a general rule, related to strategy. X wants you to tweet, rather than redirect users to your links. It’s perhaps juicier to focus on which shops Elon Musk might have a personal gripe against, but this distracts from the overall outcome of lost virality, which is a pretty important shift in Internet discourse.
Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker feature on Elon Musk, whatever you thought of it, was something of a viral throwback in earning over 12K reposts on the original tweet. Farrow also made a show of posting the story to other social media sites, in reaction to a reader’s fear that Musk would silence him. So, the article launch was like the past in that there was this buzzy feature bouncing all around media Twitter, but unlike it in how even a highly discoverable launch conveyed this streak of content suppression fear. In any event, the article wasn’t worth the buzz. The rare viral feature’s moment came and went faster than you could likely digest the product.
The New Visual Viral
I mentioned the GQ article earlier to juxtapose its reach against what I’d experienced when the Cavinders expressed their issues with me. Back then, on June 13th, I hadn’t thought much about the medium with which they conveyed their message: A screenshot of two photos containing text. When it was released, I just chalked up the viral nature of the criticism to inherent factors, including how much people enjoy a public feud.
And yes, those factors were likely the driving forces behind a story that had my phone blowing up and news producers from all over the world emailing me. But back then, the Cavinders weren’t exactly household names and I’m certainly far from famous. That post got nearly 6 million views on X though (1,426 Reposts, 12.8K Likes). Despite their D-List celeb status and my non existent celeb status, the photo tweet’s reach is not far from the 7.7 million views garnered from an internationally hyped story about the world’s richest if not most controversial man, penned by America’s most famous exposé writer. Huh.
You can pick this comparison apart and wonder whether Elon undermined the expected reach of Farrow’s article, but the general truth remains: A photo, or anything else that stays within medium, goes viral far more easily on X. If your goal is visibility, you are well advised to tailor your messaging to the medium. That means skewing to the visual and away from the linked article.
I’m not opposed to adjusting and I’m thinking about ways to extend this site’s reach despite link suppression. My general approach in these matters is to try and find the best strategy, regardless of circumstance. This isn’t a plea for your subscription to help save me from Big Bad Elon, though if you want to subscribe, that’s great. I’m mostly noting it because I’m surprised by how little of the current media conversation is about just this topic. I’ve seen it here and there, but not at scale.
During Musk’s reign I’ve witnessed a lot of prominent journalists bemoaning what’s happened to this “hellsite,” and decrying the influx of “Nazis.” I’ve seen a lot of loudly performative quitting of the app, followed by silent returns. What I haven’t seen is much discussion about what it means when X kills off the ability of articles to go viral. I haven’t read much analysis about Twitter trending in the direction of Instagram as an image based medium.
Perhaps discussion of all this hasn’t happened at scale because the new incentives aren’t ideological conditions, at least overtly, and journalists like conversations that fit political frames. I suspect, however, that it hasn’t happened for the following depressing reason: These days, fewer journalists care about what the link leads to. They aren’t so wedded to their turbulent institutions and the traffic those places seek. They don’t believe in the power of reasoned argument over a few thousand words. They might even fear getting taken out of context if given so much space to talk. And anyway, the success of that article isn’t the game.
Twitter /X is the game. The attention economy is the real economy, and after years of incentives, most Twitter famous journalists don’t see their role as rooted in lengthy investigation or nuanced persuasion. This is a place for being seen, not a place for being heard. So they’re angrier at Elon for inviting unwashed anons and deplorables to the gala, vs. frustrated with an inability to move readers with features.
Elon Musk might have killed off the viral article, but he’s just following the cues of the journo class he so despises. It’s not like this group aggressively defended their article writing craft as its cultural relevance got ripped away. They’d moved on even before he made his move.
Back in the day, the big time feature was one means to the end of getting well known on Twitter. Now the end is clearly the end: Being on X is what helps you get known on X. And so, for the writer, we’re back to the pre Twitter days while existing just beyond them. We’re back to the 1990s while entering the mid 2020s: Word of mouth wins, as does email. Similar to the cable bundle breaking, only to likely reassemble, the more things change, the more they revert.
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