What It’s Like Going ‘Viral’

You may have heard about Louisiana’s new law requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in school classrooms. Over the weekend I made a comic (pictured above) expressing my take on the matter. To my surprise it went viral on X (formerly Twitter). It was shared over 2,600 times with 18,000 likes and over 400,000 views, and is still going. The comic was also re-posted by other meme accounts. On one such account it got another 1.9 millon views.

I jumped from about 400 followers on X to almost 4,000. To welcome everyone I re-posted one of my more popular cartoons from the archives, The Great Exchange. That comic now has over 800 shares and has been viewed a quarter of a million times.

Quite a weekend.

Here’s a few random observations about what it’s like to “go viral”:

First, it consumed my weekend. About every half hour I was pulling out my phone to watch the numbers climb and to skim the comments. Even though I know there are far more important things in life, it was hard to think about anything else. Including sleep. The little screen in my pocket was like a portal into a parallel universe where total strangers were shouting over something I created, churning up sparks and dust. Yet I would look up from my screen to see my mundane life grinding on normally as if nothing was happening. It was kinda surreal.

It’s impossible to keep up with all the comments. For a while I was getting notifications faster than I could read them all. Apparently I touched a nerve. People either really loved the cartoon or really hated it. Most of the comments were just the same four or five thoughts being said a hundred different ways. The biggest criticism of this cartoon is some version of, “What about separation of church and state?” I answered that objection here. A surprising number of people also said I was making a straw man argument because of course the government’s job is to impose morality on everyone! It just has to be a secular morality, not a religious one. God has no say in the matter.

Despite going “viral” on X the comic kind of died on Facebook and Instagram. The internet can be a fickle place.

This cartoon was about a controversial topic so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any butterflies in my stomach. Once you post something online, you lose control over it. The more it spread, the more I started to wonder, “What if any of my clients see this? What will my friends and relatives think? Am I burning any bridges?” Of course I had thought some of that through before I drew it and posted it. If I feel strongly enough about something to post it online, I have to be willing to live with whatever response comes. But that was theory and now it was reality, which was kinda scary. Not everyone looks at the world through the same lens, and I respect that. I am trying to learn the balance between being bold but not brash, being blunt and yet (I hope) not unfair to the other side. That’s a hard line to walk and I do NOT have it all figured out yet. I’m still learning and I’m very open to thoughtful criticism and critique. Still, some people will be offended no matter what and I guess there’s nothing I can do about that. As a pastor I respect once said, “I don’t care if the truth offends. I care very much if I offend.”

Going viral didn’t bring me much income. I don’t have a big enough following to earn any ad revenue from social media. Since posting the cartoon I’ve gained 7 new subscribers on Substack so far (six as “free” subscribers and one of them as “paid”) and sold one item on my web store. It turns out giving away things for free on the internet is not a great business model. There was a time when a popular cartoonist could become rich and famous through newspapers and books (The Far SideCalvin and Hobbes, etc.) but those days are long gone. 

As far as I can tell it is possible to earn money on social media IF you have a large enough following, but that’s a tall hill to climb. The truth is most people don’t even bother to notice who the artist is, they just hit “like” and keep scrolling. Only a tiny fraction even bother to comment or share. Very few people go to the trouble of looking up the artist and check out more of his work. I learned this lesson a few years ago when one of my Sketchbook Silliness comics was voted all the way up to the front page of Reddit (one of the largest sites on the internet) and yet I didn’t gain any new followers. In order to build an audience I think you have to go viral over and over. Repeat the trick enough times and maybe you can start to gain a reputation and some fans who might one day part with a few bucks to support you. One viral post just isn’t going to do that. If you have merch or books to sell, that helps too. But overall, earning income with social media is a long, slow build. (Though I’m always super grateful for new subscribers. Every bit helps!)

It’s hard not to feel any pressure for my next cartoon. But I’m trying not to worry about it. All I can do is my best. Whatever happens after that is not up to me. 

After all, ultimately this moment is really just a “flash in the pan”. By tomorrow everyone will have moved on to a new tempest in a new teacup and my little comic will be forgotten.

All I can do now is learn from the experience.