Make it go viral
what actually happens for a creator when something goes viral
For 10 years I ran a digital marketing company. We did good work. One of the internal games we played was – will this client tell us to “make something go viral?” Mostly every client at one point or another told us to “just make it go viral” and it was always some vanilla nonsense that they thought was tepid enough to be acceptable to the masses. It was definitely the most annoying conversation we had to have over and over again because…that’s not how any of this works.
As an artist, I’ve had several pieces go viral over the years. The most recent, this week. Here’s the thing about work going viral…it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I am always thrilled to see that my work has connected with millions of people and sparked something in them. That’s why I make art.
Alas, because it is social media, it always comes with a very overwhelming onslaught of digital hate, threats of violence, or just general idiocy. I take my digital spaces very seriously. Keeping them safe for my digital community is paramount so that we can continue to have real conversations about real issues. That means I spend an inordinate amount of time deleting and blocking stupidity and hate.
Additionally, it inevitably means that digital pariahs appear to steal my work, slap it on some cheap products, and profit if off at without my permission or a licensing agreement. It’s really special how capitalism has normalized stealing peoples work.
The first piece of my work that went viral was my protest sign for the first Women’s March
It was really fun having that piece get so much attention because it actually created an opportunity for me to connect with people in real life at the march. The piece went viral prior to the march so when I showed up in Chicago to actually march with it, people knew it and wanted to take photos with it/me and talk. It created space for real human connection. It was funny so it didn’t inspire a lot of ire. Trumpians were riding high on their win, so they didn’t give a shit about coming at me on the internet. It was a little utopian in it’s virality. It was included in several books and just generally brought folks a little joy at a time when there seemed to be none. Win.
The next piece to go viral was created over a year before it went viral and was created in direct response to the Trump grab ‘em by the pussy video.
It got some traction when I first posted it, but it actually went viral at the start of the #MeToo movement when celebrities shared it in response to the Harvey Weinstein situation. It then became the illustration that hundreds of thousands of survivors used to share their #MeToo stories. I immediately became very protective of that piece because of how it was used by so many survivors. The majority of folks tagged me in their posts to credit me for my art which means I read and responded to hundreds of thousands of survivor stories. It was hard and important. From that moment on, whenever my phone would blow up and I would see that piece was making the rounds again I would immediately go to Twitter to find out what famous man had been outed by the movement. Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, and on and on.
Naturally, the anti-feminist response was massive, and I continue to spend time deleting hateful misogynistic comments. I got so many death and rape threats from that piece. Yes, I also deal with a steady stream of threats of violence against me for my art. I told you…double-edge sword.
Shortly after Vogue wrote about it, a UK fast fashion company – LaSula Boutique stole the piece, slapped it on the ass of some skinny jeans, told folks to “pair it with a bodysuit and boots for the ultimate babe vibes” and had the balls to include “inspired by Shannon Downey” in the product description.
At first people were messaging me super pissed off that I would “sell out” like that. They assumed I had given permission and was profiting off of this! I was outraged. I reached out to the company via DM’s and after 24 hours of no response I took matters into my own hand. I stitched a pair of my skinny jeans calling them out, recreated their ad, and told everyone what had happened. The digital community flooded the LaSula insta account with outrage and then, suddenly, LaSula wanted to talk to me.
I had a lawyer send them a cease + desist letter and I took a phone call with what I can only picture as a man child. He offered me $200 and “more credit”. I told him to fuck off and stop selling the jeans immediately. They took the jeans down. I decided to turn it into a moment of action. I put a tutorial up on my website and encourage folks to stitch their own messages onto the back of the skinny jeans they already owned and clap back at the commodification of feminism and fast fashion using the #reBUTTal. You should have seen it! Thousands of folks did it. It was awesome.
That piece will forever be my most important piece because of how many millions of survivors connected to it. I find it still making the rounds and that makes me so very happy.
Then these pieces made the circuit.
It was mostly just fun to watch those get passed around and see how folks used them. The only real hate I got was from folks who…you guessed it…won’t got to therapy.
After that, came the beast that was #RitasQuilt. This was interesting because it a project + story that went viral not just a piece of art. Approximately 150 different artists worked on completing this quilt that I found and felt compelled to finish in honor of all women crafters and makers whose work has gone largely undervalued throughout time.
The amazing part of this going viral was how the press positioned it. It was the holiday season and no matter what I said to the press (which was usually about the history of capitalism and misogyny impacting the disregard for artistic mediums that throughout history were women-dominant) they always framed it as - nice ladies finishing a dead women’s quilt. While I was deeply annoyed at first, because for me this was a radical feminist act, it turned out to be very helpful in terms of the digital response.
I was living and breathing this project for 4 months and it was made easier by the fact that it seemed like EVERYONE on the internet had only positive things to say. Add to it the fact that the quilt was a super Americana quilt and the press said shit like, “stitching the country back together” and damn if the full political spectrum didn’t experience the story in a way that spoke to their particular sensibilities. I’m fine with that.
What was really funny was how many people came to my account to praise the quilt project, saw my other work, and could not deal with the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing. To their credit, most stayed with me and we have had some really brilliant conversations.
This past week, what I thought was a funny, mostly innocuous invitation to get vaccinated went VERY viral, very quickly.
It was delightful to see so many people share it and talk about getting vaccinated. Simultaneously, thousands of anti-vaxers came to my Instagram to spew their bullshit conspiracy theories, freedom of choice (oh the fucking irony), and my personal favorite, vaccines = medical apartheid.
Here’s the thing, for the most part I allow my Instagram page to be a space where people can express their thoughts about what I’m putting forward, to disagree, to engage in dialogue BUT I refuse to allow my space to be littered with hate, violence, or STRAIGHT UP STUPIDITY. People coming to yell about dead babies and microchips in vaccines or Jesus saving us or crystals and reiki protecting them from covid can honestly, fuck right off.
I spent almost an entire day of my life blocking and deleting these asshats in order to keep my space as safe as possible. Some folks even went through the hassle of making fake accounts so they could COME BACK and complain that I blocked them. Guess what I did? Blocked ‘em again. Like…what on earth did they think was going to happen?
When I posted this piece, I used all the hashtags one might use. Here’s the thing…the hashtags are one of the major reasons these trolls, bots, and science deniers show up. So, I made a follow up piece and did some writing (ok maybe I just went off) to express my building rage. And I have rage y’all.
This time I used no hashtags. Guess what? A total of 3 anti-vaxers appeared. This was not surprising to me at all since I know how the bros built these tools and platforms, but I share this for your consideration. Troll bots use hashtags to find “hot topics” and stir shit up to continue to build dissent. I’m willing to bet that more than half of the anti-vax messages that appeared on my first piece were simply troll bots. Food for thought.
But wait, it wouldn’t be a complete going viral story if someone didn’t immediately steal the art, slap it onto some shitty products, and sell them without my consent would it?
I’m looking at you House of Swank (or as one UK community member said, house of wank LOL)
I share this with you to give you a bit of insight into what it means for a creator when something they made goes viral. It can come with so many wonderful positives – real human connections! It also comes with a ton of emotional and physical labor, threats of violence (especially for women), and thievery by capitalistic pariahs to name a few.
I will never stop making art. I will never be silent. I will continue to try to model how social media can be used for good, for movement building, for connecting, for community organizing and mobilizing. I will deal with what comes with that because these experiences have proven to me that we can use social media as a tool for creating positive change.
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Thanks for reading.