My friends Neil and Rachel called on the evening of May 13, excitement in their voices.
“You’re on TikTok,” they said.
“I don’t do TikTok.”
“No, you’re ON TikTok.”
And with that, they sent me a link to the viral video that would change my life. It was from earlier in the day, when I had mocked fascists after they snuck into DC to march and pose for photos.
@mrsmisanthrope2 #equality #blm #lgbtqia #fascist #progressive #cult45 #washingtondc #notallheroeswearcapes ♬ original sound – Mrs Misanthrope
I didn’t even know that I had been filmed. I thought the cameras would be on the fascists, not me.
We looked through the video. It was hilarious, the way that @mrsminthrope2 had edited my insults together, added captions, and closed on, “You like General Custer’s illegitimate son.”
By Saturday evening, it already had tens of thousands of likes and hundreds of comments and reactions.
Should I identify myself? In the video, I was labelled as Red Bike Guy, for I was riding a red Capital Bikeshare bike.
As I read the comments with Neil and Rachel, delighted by each one, we realized it was too late. The threaded comments went from “Who is this hero? He must be protected!” to “That’s Joe Flood!” with a link to my Twitter account.
My anonymity was gone.
“You’re a well-adjusted introvert,” a friend once told me, correctly summarizing that while I could do very extroverted things, I needed my alone time.
Sunday morning, I felt overwhelmed by the attention. Lying in bed, every time I opened Twitter, there were 20+ notifications. I was gaining followers by the thousands. The TikTok video had been posted to Reddit, shared and shared again, with me frequently tagged. Comments were pouring in.
The day before, I had considered creating a TikTok account to thank people for their encouragement, but the video had some many comments that it now seemed impossible to respond them all.
I decided to go for a bike ride, a long leisurely ride down the Potomac River to Old Town Alexandria, using my personal (non-red) bike.
What I like about biking is that it occupies your brain completely. As long as I was moving, I didn’t need to think about my loss of anonymity as I became Red Bike Guy.
My Twitter account had grown from 2k to 10k, with a similar increase in Instagram. Suddenly, I had thousands of new followers from around the world. Should I still share my hyper-local interest in DC-area bike trails and sandwiches?
I decided to use my powers for good, and to share places in DC which people may not have seen, like the lovely Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.
Though not in real time, for suddenly I was more conscious of my security.
I was featured on Washingtonian Problems, a funny Instagram account that focuses on life in the nation’s capital. The story had gone from being an online curiosity and had escaped out into the real world.
And into my world, for many of my friends, neighbors and past colleagues subscribed to Washingtonian Problems. Thank you’s poured into my Instagram.
I had thousands of new Twitter followers, one of whom was a producer with the Rachel Maddow show, who got in touch with me for an interview.
We talked for about fifteen minutes about my experience on the Mall.
I didn’t think it would be used on the program but watched anyways. And, suddenly, at the very end of the hour, my words were splashed across the screen as Rachel Maddow said my name again and again.
It was the most surreal experience of my life.
But the week was just beginning.
I’m fortunate to be surrounded by an excellent network of people.
Key among these people have been my friends Neil and Rachel who have gone on this journey of viral fame with me. It’s good to know people who are techies and designers. I’ve known them for years and we operate as a mutual support system.
Excited at my new celebrity, they set up a web site for me, RedBikeGuy, and Rachel created an amazing logo and t-shirts so that fans could share in the fun. (And if you like tarot, check out her cards on Etsy.)
And I got my first, “I know you from the Internet!” as I shopped at CVS.
After being interviewed for a great article in The New Republic, I was contacted to appear live on CNN.
Me? This is CNN?
A car picked me up and took me to the studio near Union Station. I was not nervous for I was just so fascinated by every element of the process (this will all be great content for a future novel, I thought). They put me in a room with lights and a camera as I responded to questions over an earpiece from Sara Sidner in New York.
My dad asked me if I had ever done public speaking training, for I was so clear and concise. I hadn’t but, in a way, my life had prepared me for this moment.
My career has been in communications, so I know that reporters demand prompt responses. I’ve been a freelance writer so I know how to construct a story. Also very helpful was my volunteer work with the DC Shorts Film Festival, where this introvert had been thrust on stage more than once. Talking to a packed theater as you wait for ballots to be counted is much scarier than appearing on a remote shot.
Another good PR lesson is to have a headshot and a bio handy, in case of viral fame. At the start of the week, I took a selfie with Capital Bikeshare, anticipating that reporters might need it. I noticed too that reporters mined the about page on my web site for more information about me.
A friend asked me if I would make a Capitol Hill bike ride. I was going to be out of town, however. “A retweet will do,” he replied. LOL. I was wanted just for my new-found fame.
After a day of all this media attention, I went to a Greek place to relax. I was sitting outside eating a gyro when my heart stopped.
Mark Hamill had tweeted about me. That was the thing that really got me, sending this craziness to a different level. I had been endorsed by Luke Skywalker.
Later, I went to meet friends at a cocktail bar where I was greeted, not as an alcoholic, but as a minor local celebrity. One of my friends mentioned that her mom had seen me on CNN at 2 AM. My story was being run and rerun around the world.
“I forgot how the Internet worked,” Neil said.
Our RedBikeGuy t-shirts had been ripped off almost instantly, with the designs duplicated and sold on other web sites. Neil sent takedown notices.
I was leaving town, on a pre-planned trip to Florida, turning down a chance to appear on MSNBC to see my family.
In my email were a bunch of other requests, including the offer of a cape.
National Airport is the best airport in the country (people in DC don’t call it Reagan National). Located just off the Mount Vernon Trail, you can bike there, with a Capital Bikeshare station next to the parking garage.
I packed light so I could ride a CaBi to the airport. Getting on one of those familiar red bikes for the trip, I heard, “Are you him?”
“I am Red Bike Guy.”