Prompt Images

On Saturday, January 4th at 10:52 P.M. I tweeted a photo of two of my daughter’s Christmas presents to my 205 Twitter followers. It was my first tweet in over four months.  Within 7 days, it had been retweeted 2,565 times, with 12,412 likes in over 775,000 people’s news feeds. Not to mention the millions of people viewing it on other platforms. This, my friends, is called going viral. Apparently, the idea of a Barbie “Breaking Bad starter kit” was amusing.

Let me back up.

My daughter didn’t ask for Barbie toys for Christmas. Her list to Santa was specific:

  1. A ukulele
  2. A remote control car
  3. A kitty keyboard (a keyboard in the shape of a cat that has a setting that makes all the notes sound like a meow)
  4. A robot to clean the house (We’re not sure what instigated this gift request. Are we not keeping the house to her liking? Is she anticipating that she is old enough for chores soon? Does she think my wife and I fight too much about floor dust and wants to ease the tension? Whatever the reason, we sensed an urgency in her request and Santa got her a robot vacuum.)

As a parent, you come to terms with the fact that people buy gifts for our kids, and you have to deal with the fallout. Grace had two or three Barbies going into Christmas—all gifts from people other than me or my wife—and she never played with them.

But in America, when you have to buy a gift for a 6 year-old girl, Barbie is a tried and true option.

My mother picked Barbie’s camper van, a modern version of a toy my sister had 30 years earlier. My wife’s sister picked a Barbie science lab from a new series of “Barbie can be anything” playsets. It came complete with a Bunsen burner, beakers, and a heart-shaped test tube.

When I saw the two next to each other, I laughed out loud. Having performed, written and directed comedy for 13 years, I have a Spidey-sense when something is genuinely funny. I can feel it in my bones, and I felt it here. If you haven’t heard, Breaking Bad, widely considered one of the best shows of all time, follows a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher who becomes a drug kingpin.

It is, by all accounts, the exact opposite of Barbie: Malibu vs. Albuquerque. Dream-house vs. Meth-house.

But the way the protagonist, Walter White, starts his blue crystal drug empire is with a science lab. In a camper.

One day, a couple of weeks after Christmas, I was still enjoying a private laugh over my daughter’s new toys. I snapped a quick photo of the playsets next to each other with a smiling Barbie wearing a rainbow shirt, red high heels and protective science goggles (safety first!). I posted the photo to my Instagram and Facebook accounts, then went about my day. That evening I noticed my friends were responding to the photo. People I hadn’t heard from in a while had hit the like button.

Comedians love applause, so I dusted off my Twitter app, and copied the post over, hit send, then went to sleep.

Now the social experiment begins. When I checked Twitter the next morning, five of my followers had retweeted the photo. This was on par with the most retweets any of my tweets had ever received. A smashing success. I checked back in that afternoon and looked at the impressions, which Twitter explains as “the times people saw your Tweet on Twitter.”

It had reached 140,759 people and been retweeted over 400 times. Whoa.

By day’s end, the tweet had 250,000 impressions and one thousand retweets. As the impressions came rolling in my mind asked the important question: How do I get rich or famous off of this?

Luckily, in my personal life, I am both a capitalist and an artist. Last year, I self-published a comedic memoir on Amazon. I also produced, wrote, directed, and acted in a TV pilot that I posted to YouTube. I added tweets to the thread so people could find those projects and make me a best-selling author (I make about 50 cents per digital copy sold and three dollars per paper copy sold) or a YouTube star that Hollywood plucks to act in and direct the next Star Wars trilogy. (Oh, you thought we were done with Star Wars? We will never be done with Star Wars.)

It was curious: the post was viral on Twitter but had not become anywhere near as popular on my Facebook or Instagram pages. (Maybe Zuckerberg prefers LOL Dolls?) The next day I updated my friends that the tweet had gone viral. They started replying that they had seen the picture on Facebook too, except it wasn’t my original post. The first page to copy the tweet was called “Look, I have a meme to show you”—which over 130,788 people have liked. Their post of my content had received over 2,000 likes and 4,000 shares.

A second friend sent me a second Facebook page that had copied my tweet.

It belonged to a woman named Scarlet Magdalene. She is a self described “Greek Polytheist, Priestess of Apollo, Witch, Asexual, Professional Nerd, and Part Time blogger.” Her posts, mostly  championing liberal causes, average between one and 10 shares. Yet somehow, her copying of my tweet became the epicenter of Facebook viral sharing. Her Facebook post of my tweet had received 28,000 shares and nearly 3,000 likes. In her own comments section, she tracked the shares and stated how she went viral.

Can you take credit for going viral when it’s not content you created?

The answer to that question is: On the internet, obviously you can. She had left my Twitter handle on her post, so it was clear I was the one who originally created the content. It was just her stream that found the ocean, while mine stopped at a quiet pond with only 13 shares and 168 likes.

Having read articles about online joke theft and lack of attribution, I began scouring online to see who else shared my photo. Starting with the Barbie hashtag on Instagram, I scrolled for my photo.

Within seconds, I hit pay dirt.

This time it was a self-described single mother of three that quoted the heavy metal band Pantera in her profile, and posted about protecting the second amendment. Probably the opposite of my polytheistic witch from earlier. The mom had copied my photo and cropped out my Twitter handle, erasing me from the credit as creator. Her post had only 14 likes. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion about whether the left or the right values artistic credit and the karma behind that.

One thing was undeniable: my Tweet was bringing people together. It was something the Left and Right could agree on. The comments on the Tweet were a melting pot of race, gender and language, all playing together in my silly joke premise. What other groups was it connecting? A third friend sent me a message. She had seen the picture on a Reddit she follows called TrollXChromosomes. It had been posted there by someone who pulled it off Imgur, where it had been viewed 110,199 times. As an elder millennial, I have never participated in either of these websites. (Aside from looking at Star Wars leaks on Reddit, but that’s just because Disney may ask me to act in and direct the next movie. C’mon, I need to be prepared.)

It was clear that the Millenials and Gen Z had found my photo, but what about the Boomers?

A fourth friend sent me a screenshot of an email from her father-in-law (who knew me from seeing me in improv shows). It read:

“I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post by Jim, a guy I used to work with. He belongs to a Facebook group called Beyond the Far Side where people post Far Side cartoons and other bits of humor in a similar (not jugular) vein.

“Jim was reposting something from that group which had been posted by someone I don’t know. But that person had posted this, which he apparently picked off Twitter.” Then, clear as day, was a picture of my tweet.

I can’t think of anything more representative of a Boomer’s comedy tastes than an underground Far Side comic share group.

I headed back to Twitter to check whether I was rich and famous yet.

I was not. I’ve gained 48 new followers, five of whom are people I already know, including my aunt. After seeing the initial tweet, 98 percent of people don’t look at the subsequent tweets in the thread. Of the 2 percent who do look, only about .5 percent click on the link to my book. That breaks down to 75 clicks to my book from almost 750,000 people. If I have a 100 percent purchase rate (which I won’t), I could make between $37.50 and $225.00 from pleasing millions of people with my wonderful tweet. The link to my TV show has added ten views on YouTube. (One of them could be Disney about Star Wars, right? JJ? Rian? Baby Yoda? Did you watch my show?)

Luckily, I found someone to put this whole experience in perspective.

An improv friend in Los Angeles had two joke accounts go viral with celebrity attention and news coverage. I reached out to him as things were ramping up to ask if there was anything I could do. He replied:

“Dude, I wish I knew how to make it into something worthwhile. Mostly it’s just kind of fun to see your notifications blow up. The first time one of my accounts went viral I got super jacked up — I thought something important was happening. The second time I was just like: Oh, it’s happening again.”

After giving it much thought and tapping into my Gladwellian “10,000 hours” of experience writing, performing and directing comedy, I have a hypothesis about why this tweet went viral.

  1. It’s a subversion of expectations for two things that are widely known.
  2. There is a hint of “I’m doing the best I can, but parenting is hard,” which is relatable.
  3. The final and most basic reason is the repetition of the B sound in “Barbie Breaking Bad starter kit.”

Armed with that formula, you can now go out and make your very own viral post. How about a “Megatron Mad Men starter kit” with Transformers holding tiny business lunch martinis and you’re worried your toddler swallowed one of the tiny plastic olives?

I would retweet that in a heartbeat.

Greg Tindale

Greg Tindale is a dad who loves writing about his kids. He lives in Washington, D.C.

learn more
Share this story
About The Prompt
A sweet, sweet collective of writers, artists, podcasters, and other creatives. Sound like fun?
Learn more