Tweetstorm: Five Lessons from Going Viral

Tweet activity

A viral photo became my most popular tweet ever, racking up more than 200,000 impressions.

It’s a picture that I captured outside the White House Correspondents Dinner, a quick shot of Parkland survivor David Hogg before I was shooed away by security. Happy to get any photo, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my photographer friends would enjoy it.

And then it blew up online, my phone steadily buzzing with notifications through the night and for days afterward.

What can you learn from going viral?

  1. It will be accidental. It’s nice to think that you can make a post go viral – you can’t. Twitter is driven by the users. Their likes, dislikes, passions, prejudices and whims determine what goes viral and what doesn’t. I’ve written funnier tweets, taken better photos and shared more interesting links but it was this post of David Hogg that went viral, for it was timely (the dinner was going on as I posted the photo) and Hogg is a controversial figure in the gun control debate.
  2. You’ll want to change your tweet. In my photo, another person is pictured. I didn’t recognize him so just identified David Hogg. Within minutes, a reply told me that it was Zion Kelly, whose brother was shot to death on the streets of DC. You can’t edit a tweet so I added a threaded post identifying him.
  3. You will be personally attacked. I didn’t reply to the gun nuts who thought that the presence of David Hogg at the WHCD was preposterous. But a couple people said that I was racist for omitting mention of Zion Kelly in my original tweet. When I explained to one that I didn’t recognize him, she grudgingly admitted that I might not be a racist but my response was “problematic.”
  4. You won’t understand the analytics. My original tweet had 221,000 impressions. The thread I added with Zion Kelly’s name had 680,000 impressions. Why does the thread have more than the original?
  5. It won’t amount to much. Seeing the photo go viral, I wrote a post the next day on the moment, which captured some of the traffic my photo generated. But out of 220,000 Twitter impressions, I gained five new followers. The raging discourse of America had landed briefly on me, lit me in its fire, and then moved on to the next topic in the endless, infernal debate.

Going viral is short-lived and unsatisfying. All that storm und drang around my photo ultimately amounted to little.

The next morning, I bundled up and biked to see my friends from the District Department of Transformation, a group of activists trying to make the city’s streets safer. They’re all people I’ve met through Twitter. They had blocked off a street for breakfast, an action designed to show that streets should be for people, not cars.

I took a photo and shared it using the #BikeDC hashtag.

That’s the type of engagement that matters – real, small-scale and committed.

If you’re a social media manager, don’t chase social media fame, which is ephemeral and low-value. Instead, use Twitter to build an impactful community of engaged supporters, people who will show up for you on a cold Sunday morning to occupy a street.

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Michelangelo and Real Artists Don’t Starve

Real Artists Don't Starve

The Starving Artist is just a story we’ve told ourselves, according to Jeff Goins, author of Real Artists Don’t Starve.

And it’s a story that we can change. Marshaling examples from history (Michelangelo was the Steve Jobs of the Renaissance), Goins demonstrates that you don’t need to starve to pursue your art.

Rather than seeing money and creativity as diametrically opposed, see them as intertwined. Money allows you to make your art. Michelangelo was not content to be a starving artist – he demanded to be paid. Money is a form of respect.

Prior to his stand, artists were considered mere craftsman. When the Pope sent Michelangelo a letter addressing him as a commoner, he sent the missive back, demanding be addressed as a nobleman. He believed that he was descended from a noble family. It turned out not to be true but this belief is a helpful one for an artist.

Michelangelo kept careful records of what he was paid, and owed, as he supervised vast construction crews during the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. More than just an artistic genius, he was running a business during the Renaissance, and died a wealthy man.

Michelangelo understood that artists need patrons – Popes and Medicis – and artists need networks of collaborators to complete their work. The myth of solitary genius is another false idea we cling to.

His genius did not arise of out of nothing. Michelangelo apprenticed with earlier artists, learning by copying their work. We’d call what he did forgery – he made copies of Roman statues that were passed off as original – but this work taught him the classical principles that he needed for his greatest work.

All artists copy. There is nothing new under the sun. Michelangelo remixed Greek and Roman influences to restart Western Civilization in Italy.

Real Artists Don’t Starve is much more than Michelangelo, encompassing anything from the muppets of Jim Henson to paintings sprinkled with moon dust. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

But the story of Michelangelo – painter, sculptor, architect and poet (yes, that too) – is the one that stayed with me, this Renaissance man alive for an explosion of culture and technology. A time much like our own, with new opportunities for artists willing to discard the myth of the starving artist for something better.

Horror on the Great Plains: The Hunger

Alma Katsu examines the dichotomy between the myth of Manifest Destiny and the grim reality of settlers trudging west in her new novel, The Hunger.

It’s a story you’ve heard before, of how the Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive after getting stuck in the mountains on their journey west.

Katsu’s point in this gripping novel is that the evil began long before then. It was with the wagon train from the beginning, trapped in the dark hearts of the settlers, all of whom had good reasons to flee their lives back east. These are less brave pioneers than troubled souls seeking salvation in California. The Hunger tells us their stories, unwrapping them slowly, the true horror not revealed until the very end amid the squalor of a desperate camp in the Sierras.

Interestingly, the book overlaps with another I read this year – A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. The doomed Donner party originated in Springfield, with many of the principals familiar with the future president, though this is unmentioned in The Hunger. You could read the books back-to-back, the straight historical fiction of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and then the horror of The Hunger, to see how different authors depict historical figures and events.

They’re both good reads, particularly if interested in American history, and the truth behind some of our most cherished myths.

Don’t Fear the Gutenberg

Zac Gordon speaks at the April WordPress DC Meetup

What is Gutenberg?

A new publishing experience for WordPress: get ready to make your words, pictures, and layout look as good on screen as they do in your imagination, without any code.

Named after the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, this new WordPress editor is a response to drag-and-drop page builders like Wix and SquareSpace, giving users more flexibility in how they design their pages.

Around the Block

Gutenberg takes the wonderfully blank canvas of the current WP editor and turns content into blocks. Text and images become blocks that can be dragged around on the page and reused on other pages as well.

I was skeptical. My experience as a Web Editor has been that content management systems (CMS) only get worse over time. I’ve seen sites go from neat collections of Dreamweaver pages to inscrutable Drupal beasts that require weeks of training to understand – and still don’t work.

When I heard that the graceful WordPress that I love, with its mantra of the user is always was right, was changing, I was alarmed – especially when I heard talk of blocks. One shouldn’t have to learn a new vocabulary, like Drupal’s use of nodes, just to write a blog post.

WordPress DC Meetup

My fears were allayed at the recent WordPress DC Meetup on Gutenberg. Zac Gordon, who teaches WordPress, previewed the new CMS.

Once I saw that the freeform editor that I love would be largely unchanged, I was relieved. I could write the way I want in the editor and turn my paragraphs into blocks, later, if I wanted to, and drag them around on the page.

“Convert to a shared block” is a useful feature, too, for page elements that you want to use elsewhere. I could see myself creating a shared block of text to promote my novel, The Swamp, across my site.

You can also get into the HTML of the blocks in case something isn’t displaying correctly. A little bit of HTML knowledge is still necessary in this CMS age.

Finally, Better Photos

Moreover, the page builder in Gutenberg has features that I like – the way it handles images is far superior than the current editor. On my site, I embed photos from Flickr in posts because that’s easier than WP’s image management and display capabilities.

In contrast, Gutenberg allows you to easily move images around the page, create photo galleries and make photos full-width across the page. A “hero image” according to Zac.

Try it out for yourself with a live demo of Gutenberg. Type content, move images around, reorder blocks and get a taste of new WordPress.

Coming Soon

In contrast to other CMS, the WordPress upgrade is designed to work with the rest of your plugins. Users, like me, who haven’t done a lot of customization probably won’t even notice the change on their sites. Backward compatibility is a key WordPress principle.

If your site is hosted by someone else, you probably won’t have to do anything to upgrade, according to Zac. If you’re a developer who has done a lot of CSS customization, you’ll want to edit and experiment in a staging environment before upgrading.

Also, a “classic editor” plugin will be available for users who don’t want to change.

WordPress for the Future aka Gutenberg has no release date yet. But it’s coming soon, developers say.

No Revolutions, Please

While the WordPress will not be as revolutionary as Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, that’s a good thing. Broad, sweeping changes are to be feared, in societies and content management systems.

With Gutenberg, expect a gentle upgrade that helps users get their ideas on the web without having to learn a line of code.

My DC: Blossoms, books and gelato

Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

A weekend of cherry blossoms, books and gelato taught me to love DC once again.

I’ve become inured to the sights and sounds of Washington, DC – the historic monuments, the thudding helicopters, the blue sparkle of the Potomac. I see and yet don’t see, because they’re so familiar. Playing tour guide for the weekend helped me rediscover the city.

The occasion was a college reunion. Because I was the only one who still lived in the city, I was appointed tour guide.

It’s hard work being tour guide! Much easier to be led by another, not knowing where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to do next, confident that the tour guide has those details figured out. Make it a large group – eight people – and make it the height of the spring tourist season, and you can understand why I was a bit anxious. Thankfully, it was an easy group that I knew from time spent together at American University.

The advantage of being tour guide is going to the places you like best. Here are my choices for 36 hours in Washington, DC.

Friday

The Darcy
My friends stayed at this boutique hotel by Hilton. Located near Logan Circle, it’s an ideal home base for visitors who want to explore the city. Even better when you get an upgrade to a top-floor suite!

Tidal Basin
If you come to DC, you’re going to walk. During cherry blossom season, it’s also the easiest way to get around (other than biking, of course). After checking-in at the Darcy, we walked down 16th St to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, along with half a million of our friends, it seemed. The walk is about thirty minutes, and filled with interesting sights along the way, like the White House and Washington Monument.

Thai Tanic
Every Thai restaurant in DC must have a pun-based name. Popular among Logan Circle locals like me, Thai Tanic been serving interesting Thai dishes on 14th St for years. They were also very accommodating as our party grew from six to eight on a busy Friday night.

Gelato time

Dolcezza
How I love this place! The gelato is delicious. I almost always get a combo of dark chocolate and hazelnut. If you’re with me, this is a mandatory stop.

Saturday

American University
It wouldn’t be a college reunion without a trip to college. We went to AU in the pre-wonk era, which was far more fun, and considerably cheaper, than the serious world-changers of today. While the campus is nicer, with a brand new School of International Service, it’s not the same, probably due to the lack of alcohol.

Surfside
One of the challenges of leading a large group through DC is, “Where will we eat?” While they took my favorite burrito off the menu, Surfside in Glover Park was still a good choice. No one noticed a group of eight in this taco joint mobbed with soccer moms and kids from the field across the street.

Bob in Georgetown

Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re with me, you’re walking (or biking). Thankfully, my friends love to walk. After lunch, we walked down Wisconsin Avenue and 33rd Street to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which has a great view of Rosslyn and the Key Bridge.

Dog Tag Bakery
Georgetown Cupcake is for tourists. Instead, visit this pleasant little shop near the C&O Canal that helps military veterans and families. The scones are great and they serve Compass Coffee.

Whole Foods P St
Finding a table for eight on a Saturday night in Logan Circle struck me as impossible. Instead, everyone got food and drink at Whole Foods and partied back in the suite at the Darcy Hotel. Sushi, cheese, fruit, beer, wine, chicken, chocolate rugelach – we ate well, without the hassle of going out.

Sunday

Lil B
This New Orleans-inspired coffee shop at the Darcy Hotel became the spot to meet every morning. While the beignets are more like fried dough than what you’d find in the Big Easy, they make good hangover food.

Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Why don’t I go here more often? This sprawling market has more than just produce. You can get pancakes, pizza and even a growler of beer from Right Proper.

Spanish Steps
One of those 0ff-the-beaten path places that I love, this miniature version of the Roman landmark is a spot I captured in an award-winning photo. It’s a lovely walk from Dupont Circle, as well, in which you pass art galleries and embassies. Makes a great spot for portraits.

Kramerbooks

Kramerbooks
Now, this is a required stop, at least if you’re with me. Washington loves its bookstores and Kramerbooks is the oldest and most famous. I have a connection to it too – I did a reading here. You’re sure to find something smart for the plane in this bookstore.

Of course, this is just a small sample of things to do in DC. But if I’m the tour guide, there’s going to be gelato, coffee and books. That’s my DC.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science

The thinking cap photo is mine

I have a photo in this beautiful book from MIT Press! Science Not Silence celebrates last year’s March for Science with stories and photos from around the world. More than a million people came out to support science, in cities across America and around the world.

My photo is the guy in the thinking cap. Heading down to the march in Washington, DC, I didn’t know what to expect. The weather was terrible – it had rained all day. Would people even show up? But when I approached Constitution Avenue, I heard a dull roar. Crowds stretched in both directions, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, a half-million people joyously marching, singing and chanting.

I was proud to support the cause. I’ve spent a career working with scientists, helping to communicate their achievements at The Nature Conservancy and NOAA. What makes science different than other professions is that it’s not just a job, it’s a life. You are a biologist or an oceanographer or a chemist – it’s not just something you do 9-5.

It’s inspiring to be around that kind of passion. After my NOAA experience, I wrote a novel, The Swamp, that features a meteorologist as a character. He has to send his employees home after their shifts, otherwise they would hang around the forecast office:

weather being as much an obsession as a vocation and one that they would abandon only upon death.

That’s the kind of dedication I’ve found in the sciences.

At the march, there was so much to see – women dressed as Klingons, people in dinosaur suits and countless hilarious signs grown soggy from steady rain. I captured the photo of the guy in the thinking cap toward the Capitol, where the crowds began to thin. I liked his expression.

I had been out for an hour, zipping around the edges of the massive demonstration on a bright red Capital Bikeshare bike. Despite my raincoat, I was cold and wet. The thinking cap photo was one of the last I took before I left to get warm.

“Science predicted rain,” read one sign. The forecast came from a National Weather Service meteorologist, a government employee and a scientist, which must enrage the red state know-nothings who believe that they can live in some kind of lawless, free fire zone of ignorance.

The rain fell on everyone – marchers, tourists, photographers. Like science, it was non-partisan. Like science, you can deny it but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re soaked.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science Movement is available from MIT Press.

SEO for Everyone: Search Engine Optimization with Yoast

nice bikes

You can’t outsmart Google.

That said, there are simple things that you can do to improve Google’s ability to find your site. That’s called search engine optimization (SEO).

Yoast SEO is an excellent WordPress plugin for search engine optimization. Coming in free and paid versions, the free version will keep you busy for weeks while you tweak your site and learn SEO along the way. It’s better than any course, for you will learn by doing rather than dozing off in a classroom.

Yoast SEO concentrates on three main factors in search:

Keyword

What is this page about?

A keyword doesn’t have to be just a single word – it can be a phrase, the more specific the better. It’s the word or phrase that you want in your page title, description and throughout the content of your page.

For example, when I worked at the National Weather Service, one of our best-performing web pages  was on Wireless Emergency Alerts. Why did this page get so much traffic? Because it was focused on a single topic – Wireless Emergency Alerts – and repeated that keyword over and over again in an organic manner, for it was an FAQ about Wireless Emergency Alerts. Google loves FAQs.

Title

The most important decision you will make will be your page title. Imagine readers scanning down a list of search results, trying to determine if your page is relevant to their needs, with only the titles and little bit of description to help them out. You have just a few words to grab their attention – what will they be?

Your title should include your keyword, to make it as easy as possible for your customer.

Here’s a good example of a title from Capital Bikeshare. With “bikeshare” mentioned three times in the title, it’s obvious that they’ve optimized their page on the “bikeshare” search term.

Description

Think of the snippet of text nestled under the page titles in a search result. That’s the page description.

If you don’t write a description, Google will take the first text it sees on your page and put it in this field. Frequently, this is text that does not help the reader.

Here’s a company that didn’t put anything in their description field. Without a description, Google pulls text from the site’s navigation.

A good page description is a sentence or two that contains your keyword and provides additional context for readers.

SEO Belongs to You

I’ve worked on web sites my entire career. SEO is typically an afterthought, something that the coders do, metadata that is added during the publishing process.

But SEO is key to your site being found. It belongs to the writers. It belongs to you.

Keyword, title, description – if you write relevant content for these fields you’ll have done more than many sites and improve your chance of being found by customers.

Learn SEO the Yoast Way

Yoast SEO ranking screenshot

Yoast SEO will teach you how. With the plugin installed in WordPress, you’ll see a set of SEO bullets like the ones above for each post or page. Look at the analysis to see how you’re doing. You’ll get an overall ranking for your post, using a simple stoplight formula – Red, Orange, Green – with the same scale applied to the specific factors that impact search engine optimization.

Fix the errors and the red bullets turn green. It’s weirdly satisfying, like a game – the sign of a good user interface.

SEO for Everyone

What makes Yoast SEO different are its guides that are actually fun to read. Confused by one of your SEO bullets? Click on the Content Analysis Guide to learn what you’re doing wrong and how you can fix it.

With a mission of SEO for Everyone, it’s no surprise that they’ve managed to write content on search engine optimization that’s engaging and free of jargon. Even if you don’t use Yoast, their site contains information helpful to anyone, like their sections on SEO basics and small business SEO.

Search engine optimization is not a dark art. Help readers find your content by producing quality content with good keywords, titles and descriptions.

Free Library Find: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members

I let books find me. One reason I never fully embraced the Kindle is that I don’t always know what I want to read. Sure, you can find anything in the world by typing  a few letters into an e-reader but that’s not the same as aimlessly browsing titles on a Sunday afternoon.

Serendipity is what’s missing from the e-ink experience, the happy accident of stumbling upon the right novel at the right time.

In Praise of Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are ideal for us serendipitous book browsers. Located in every neighborhood in Washington, these little boxes offer literary surprises for readers.

“Take a book, leave a book” is the motto of this nonprofit organization that fosters reading across the nation. I like to drop copies of my book, The Swamp, into Little Free Libraries in DC.

And I almost always find something interesting to take home with me.

The nicest Little Free Library in Washington is located at the top of a hill in Kalorama. Just a block from witless Jared and Ivanka, this bookish outpost is in a park, and offers a sunny bench to read your discoveries as dogs bark and children play.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was a free library find, a book I pulled from the box like literary treasure.

The novel is a hilarious satire of academic life told through the endless letters of recommendation that Professor Jason Fitger is forced to write for students and colleagues. Each letter is inventive and unique; combined they tell a story of budget cuts, romantic humiliation and creative failure. Schumacher’s wry, ironic style reminded me of David Lodge, who satirized academic life in forgotten classics such as Small World.

Free is a powerful attractor, drawing you to things you might never consider. But the world is full of free things to read.

Selecting a book is an investment of time, not money.

You never know what you’ll find in the free library – biology textbooks, romance novels, books by unknown authors. Finding something worthwhile, like Dear Committee Members, feels like an achievement, not just because you discovered something great, but also for participating in the great reading experiment that is the Little Free Library.