So this is what happened last week: I published a post slightly different from the usual style of “The Cat”. I had this idea of writing some funny stories about me moving to Prague. My wife has been telling me for ages: “You should definitely write something about your life in the Czech Republic!” and I had the idea stored in the back of my mind for months, brewing.
When I finally did it, it was entertaining – fist of all for myself. And liberating. You know, to be able to express in words the frustrations of my everyday life here.
I hit the “publish” button and I thought, that was that. Except this time, things started to happen that I didn’t expect.
The post just got viral, scoring 121k + views as of now, and counting. Even now, after more than a week, it’s bringing more than 1000 views to the blog, every day. Previously I would get a maximum of 20, 30 clicks on a no-post day . What will happen next? I don’t know.
What I know is that I went from 400-500 average visits in a month, to this:
127 thousand. I agree, that’s a difference.
Anyway. This article will be about what happened.
I will be sharing my main insights about what happened in the last 10 days or so. The snowball effect, the interactions with the community.
And yes, again, this will be a “numbered list post”, and there is a reason for that (see below, point #1).
1) first of all. It’s not just what you write, it’s also WHEN you write it.
As I realised later, I found myself in the perfect storm for a blog post.
I normally don’t pay a lot of attention to details such as the posting time, the day or the placement. But this time, by accident, I did everything right.
- friday night. I wrote the post on a cold and foggy friday afternoon. I clicked “publish” at about h 21.30. Friday night. I got a good immediate feedback, going from this
It was a very good result for “The cat”, but not without precedents. When I wrote about a very successful training course, or when I covered my first impressions of “The Force Awakens“, I got even more in one day.
- a good picture and a cool title. It’s a little sad to say, but “numbered lists” are a true click magnet nowadays. It’s a little sad, because it’s a sign of the fact that we live in times where structure, results and productivity seem to be important above all. But I respect that, and I decided to use it also in this post (ironically, ok? it’s ironic) but it’s not necessarily the line that I want to use for my blog. No click baits here, and I will keep writing about the topics that passionate me, even if it means going back to 20 casual readers a day. That’s a promise.
- initial high visibility. Just before publishing the article, the last picture posted on my facebook was… well, of me walking over fire.
and – I admit – that was a bit of a click baiter. It got more than 230 likes and comments were going on. So my social profiles, right then, had a higher visibility than usual.
- weekend. Then, of course, the weekend happened. Saturday and sunday, the post went viral. Or so I thought.
It was the first time after one year and a half of blogging and more than 40 articles, that I was approaching 1000 views in a day. I really thought that was going to a nice achievement.
I even posted a funny requests for help online:
hoping to reach the highly symbolic number of 1000 in a day. Naive me.
- the weekend… ended. As I understand now, the viral effect was just waiting to happen. People enjoyed the article, evidently, but people would enjoy it even more instead of working. Weekends are sacred in Czech Republic, remember? Numbers started to rocket, especially early in the morning, during lunch time, and around h 17.00. There was clearly a correlation with the times of a working day.
I was completely surprised to realise that I got more than 4000 visits, that monday.
- the domino effect. Once the critical mass was reached, the snowball rolled. The link went viral on twitter (more than 200 tweets), facebook, and different websites, blogs and news aggregators started to refer to it. Just as I was wondering “when will this stop?”, the peak was reached on wednesday the 23rd:
with more than 45 thousand visits in one day!
The whole day, wordpress kept reminding me that that was not normal:
I mean, 3,559 people per hour? That’s a lot of people. I was trying to imagine them in person.
Imagine them being together, all in one place. A big shopping mall, or a hospital. Somewhere out there I imagined a big place jammed full of people, who were all reading my (silly little) post. All at the same time. The feeling was… really interesting.
Yes, people were enjoying it, and that felt good.
But I also (probably!) damaged the Czech economy with all the procrastination that my post created. Somebody somewhere may have lost their job, because they were caught reading my article. I wonder if that’s a thought that ever occurs to real celebrities. Like, are pornstars aware of the marriages they ruin? Do they ever think about it?
Ok, it’s a tangent. Off to number 2.
2) this was the point when the connection with the story really started to matter.
Ok, so I had the right timing, the weekend, high visibility. At that point I had attracted the attention of a couple of thousand people.
Then, what started to matter the most was the actual story.
The article sparked real discussions. During the days of highest popularity, on my page there were real debates going on. People talking not to me, but to each other. Between Czechs, foreigners, and a lot of people who had something to say just because they were personally touched by the post.
This was a blogger’s dream. A lot of writers will agree that the most difficult thing to achieve, is to receive honest and genuine comments from the readers.
A lot of the interactions we have on the internet are anonymous and impersonal: we read a piece, we take what we want, we continue surfing somewhere else. But this time, I received more than 400 comments, and discussions on Czech culture, grammar, immigration, history. This showed real engagement, and interest.
What kind of comments? I try to divide them in a few categories.
- The “Thank you! Your post made me feel proud” comment.
This was by far the most common type of comment I received (more than 90%).
Proud? And I thought the post would be sarcastic, and I would end up making a lot of people angry. Turns out, for the most part, I didn’t.
A lot of people commented that my ironic descriptions made them feel happy and connected. Even if I was just talking about drinking too much, being grumpy and overly busy, getting casually naked and being obsessed by time.
So what happened? This is my best guess.
A lot of foreigners live in Prague and in general in the Czech Republic. And I think most of the times, the debate sounds like this: “hey dude, Czech Republic is great, the only problem are the Czechs!”. Ah ah ah, laughter follows.
Come on guys, really? Czechs also hear that, and they are tired of it. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s a very superficial approach to living in another culture, to take what is good and to block out what we don’t like, or don’t understand, or challenges our assumptions.
“Enjoy living here”. Of course I enjoy it: otherwise, I wouldn’t. And I am proud to say it. I believe some other people don’t. At least, not that openly. For me it’s important to express gratitude for the good things that happen in my life. I take no gift for granted, ever.
So, I think what I managed to do (unintentionally) was to give a balanced look. Just that. There is good and bad in every place, in every culture. I was just trying to give a fair description of a culture that is not my own, that I will probably never adopt entirely, but I find fascinating and try to understand.
And I hit a nerve apparently: a lot of people commented expressing their “sense of pride” and somehow that made me think of a latent, offended dignity. Turns out that Czechs don’t mind some criticism, but also like to read a few nice things about them. Just like everybody else.
That, plus I managed to address all the community of foreigners living in Czech Republic. I write in English, so people obviously need to be able to read it.
I am not an expat – I am too lazy for the social life that it implies – and I am not strictly speaking an “alien” – being married to a fantastic Czech woman, which means I have an easier access to friends, relations and opportunities. This gives me a mixed point of view, external but not too much. Apparently, this is what makes it easy for so many people to connect with my stories.
- The “people adding information or wanting to help” comment.
I got invited to have a beer (or two), people offered to translate the article (and somebody did – without asking, see below), people gave me a lot of background information and points of view that I hadn’t considered, or stories that I simply didn’t know.
A lot of people offered help with the language, by providing more information or explanations on some of the grammar hardest points. Those didn’t really help, but I appreciated the effort.
- The “this is just rubbish” comment.
Well, that’s as respectable as any other opinion. I appreciate criticism, when it’s constructive. Some wasn’t (see below, again).
- the “I know better than you” comment.
Seriously, this really happened:
Followed by a totally new list of not 10, but 11 points. So basically he is saying: “I didn’t even read your article, but I am an interesting guy and here is my own opinion“. BAM, text wall. Now read this, everybody.
My reaction of course couldn’t be anything but:
I mean: the point with opinions is, they are
just like assholes: everybody has one, and some are just full of shit all equally respectable, but none has an intrinsic superior value, so don’t impose yours, thank you.
- the “I agree, but…” comment.
This is very interesting. My post was intended as an ironic and satirical article. It was obviously going to deal with stereotypes. A good number of readers commented that they agreed with it in general, BUT there were a few aspects that weren’t accurate or supported by evidence. Or that they were somehow an exception to the general rule. Yeah, but that’s exactly how stereotypes work. They are only true up to a certain point.
Some also just deflected the topic. The “See what happens somewhere else” subcategory comment.
3) big numbers bring big trouble.
So my silly post about Prague got far more attention and visibility than I expected, went kinda viral in Czech republic, in the USA, UK and a bunch of other places, and sparked some pretty serious discussions in the comments section about identity, culture and history.
But with big numbers, comes a big responsibility (Spider Man crypto quote).
This is the aspect of my unexpected popularity that worried me the most. All of a sudden, more than one hundred thousand people were exposed to my words and thoughts. Or should I say – I was exposed to more than a hundred thousand people. I felt vulnerable, and for the first time I realised in a totally new way what it means to publish some content on the internet. Once it’s out there, it’s there forever and it’s there for everybody to see it.
Normally, my posts would only have a few readers. A hundred, two hundreds at most. For the most part, people who know me personally. They know my ideas, my
sick humour, my points of view. If they disagree – which is welcome – they don’t disagree violently.
But suddenly, this had changed. And so it happened for example that I received also comments like this one:
Which certainly made me think. I still don’t know if it’s ironic, or not. The guy never showed up again.
That’s a lot of judgement there, right? How does a person presume to know me so well, only by reading a few lines I wrote? And judge my whole life experience? “Immature, neurotic and brainwashed”?
Well… Ok. Let’s rationalise. If I speak in person to 20 people, chances are that one of them will think I am an idiot. Fine. It’s probably reciprocal.
So if I speak to 100 people, they will be 5. But they will be too polite, or not angry enough, to really tell me. Suddenly increase this numbers one thousand times: if I talk to 100 thousand people, that’s an impressive 5 thousand people who will think I am just talking rubbish. Five thousand? That’s an army. And if the interaction happens online, chances are that some of them will have absolutely no problem saying it right to my face. I am actually lucky that I only got 2 or 3 really negative troll-like comments.
“That’s the internet, baby”. Right? No, it’s not! Internet is made of people.
It made me think. This time I was on the receiving end of the bullying. But how many times have I been doing exactly the same?
No way we should allow ourselves to judge a person so completely and without the benefit of the doubt, just by reading a few lines on a random blog. And yet we do it all the time. The social space on the internet seems to be there exactly for that, to judge without knowing, and to be angry. The level of violence that is on the social media, on youtube channels, and so on? It’s just crazy. Who would want it in their own neighbourhood? And yet, through social media, we invite it in our own living rooms, kitchen and bedrooms.
This is a challenge for every educator, activist, parent and indeed anyone with common sense. We need to work to change this.
I have to say, however, that just a few trolling comments on 120 thousand readers is really not much. I probably shouldn’t even complain.
Also, another thing that happened was this.
Without informing me or asking for any kind of permission, a website (which I won’t name, because I don’t want to promote it any further) made a summary of my post, translated it to Czech, and published it with a title that says (basically) “We are xenophobes and exhibitionists. 10 things that a foreigner thinks of us”.
Which is the total opposite of what I wrote, of course. But what if somebody read the (fake) article, got mad at me, and decided to beat the living crap out of me for calling him a “xenophobe”? That would prove the point (which wasn’t my point, anyway), but would that make me feel better? Or anybody on that website?
Seriously. “Us” versus “Them” is the oldest trick in the book. There was also no link to the original article, so people had no chance to form their own independent opinion. It was just news fabrication, pure and simple.
No-no. Everybody involved in information has a huge responsibility in the way society is shaped. This power should be used in a much more mature way.
I wrote an email asking to remove my name and edit the content of the article, and I know of a couple of Czech friends who did the same. With no result. Ok. Maybe it’s better to bury the whole issue after all. It was an isolated accident.
4) stereotypes can be funny. Prejudice is not.
Or more in general about humour, comedy, and people who get easily offended.
This is important now. Because comedy (and satire) is a very serious issue. I was aware of this possibility. I wrote a long disclaimer, stating very clearly that my post would have an ironic tone. Maybe I succeeded, maybe not. Still, some people took every single word I wrote pretty seriously.
I snapped a joke or two towards Poland. I apologise, but that’s a common thing to find in Czech humour. In comedy, picking on stereotypes is a common (and easy) way to get a laughter. That’s the thing, stereotypes are usually funny, unless the joke is about you.
I am happy this Anonymous reader got the whole point:
But some others, didn’t.
Again, maybe it’s because people read fast. I write long, elaborate articles, I know it. Such long texts require a certain minimum amount of time and consideration on behalf of the readers. And this doesn’t always happen.
There is a line where I wrote that “[Xenophobia] could be much worse, like in Hungary or Poland”. Nobody complained from Hungary (and is this bad news or good news?).
But I received a few critical comments by some – I presume – Polish readers.
Now, this doesn’t have much to do with comedy anymore. It’s more directly related to freedom of opinion in general. This is my blog, it’s obvious that I express my opinions here.
And then, I was in no way talking about Polish people. I have met hundreds, worked and lived with them, and I can only express the highest praise about their generosity and passion for life. No, I don’t believe that people tend to be more xenophobic there, than in any other place on Earth.
In that particular case I was talking about the impressions I receive from government statements, media pieces, policies enacted in countries across Europe, and in particular, Poland and Hungary. I spend a considerable amount of time reading and checking different sources of information, and talking directly to people – lots of different people that I meet in my work. That’s how I form my opinions. And still, they may be biased, incomplete or just wrong. It’s only my opinions!
I write them in a few lines, and some people get defensive or feel directly insulted. By me? A guy they have never met?
There is an interesting fact here, I believe. We have become so obsessed with anything related to politics and identity, that we are ready to react at the slightest hint of a challenge. And in defense, we attack.
This reveals a lack of self confidence. In other words, if I feel really grounded in my ideas and values, I am not afraid when somebody challenges them. In fact, I am happy to have a discussion about them. In a discussion (not an argument) everybody wins, all sides get richer and learn something by the exchange of ideas.
This is why satire and comedy have a ever more important role in the media space today. Bigger than ever. They must be there to challenge limits, push boundaries. To touch our most sensitive areas, to break taboos. To hit us where it hurts.
If I feel offended by a statement, or a joke – the problem is not in the joke. The problem is in the issue addressed by the joke. And I can go and make it a learning experience, reflecting on why I was so sensitive to it.
so maybe 5) yes, discussing politics is complicated. And that’s exactly why we need to do it.
Yes, I know.
I try not to get entangled in discussions that are bigger than me. I don’t want to open my inbox, and find more trolling emails and insults. Nobody likes that, before breakfast.
But I believe that the need for political confrontations is now most burning than ever. The danger is that we become too entrenched in our own views and values. Social and ideological conflict in Europe and elsewhere in the world is growing at an alarming rate, and as reasonable individuals we need to address that.
We don’t have to be afraid of conflict, on the contrary we need to learn better how to deal with it. How to channel it in the proper places (which are the domains of Politics, capital P), so they can be addressed and produce a healthier society. That means accepting and dealing with minorities. Understanding how religions and ideologies can produce a totally different world view than ours. It’s not easy, but it must be done. Building a Great Wall could maybe have been a viable solution in feudal China, but times and challenges are very different now.
The opposite is very dangerous. If we avoid or suppress dialogue, talk only with the people who agree with us (or “are us”), block different ideas, we take a road that leads to entrenched positions. It’s totalitarianism, and it’s something we know very well in Europe unfortunately.
We have been down that road. It devastated Czech Republic, for example (and most of the world, really), and created social and cultural scars that are still producing effects in our days. As some readers said, the famous “Czech grumpiness” and mistrust of foreigners are also the product of those scars.
I believe that things are changing, and some processes take time. Just let’s try and make sure all that disaster doesn’t happen again, all right?
Well, that’s it. Thank you very much for reading and, if you like, engage in discussion again! I will be happy to answer. And if you invite me for a beer, this time let’s make sure it really happens.
Do you want to know more about me and my work? I live in Prague and work as an independent, freelance author, lecturer and trainer.
A professional profile of mine can be found here, and my next workshop – about public speaking in English – will take place on December 20th in Prague.
Want to come and have a look? Here is the link.