Going semi-viral – how it happened by @unshaunsheep

A little while ago, @vahva invited me to begin contributing to her humorous website Tea and Cake or Death (aka Anglican Memes & Humour). The site provides comic relief for Anglicans and my postings are generally satirical. The core audience for the site is fairly niche: it’s of interest mainly to Christians or people who get the references to church culture at least, with a sub-core of people who are clergy or very involved lay people. Recently, though, a few of my satirical postings went semi-viral. By this, I mean that they spread beyond the general readership of the site via Facebook and Twitter, getting many more views than most other posts. I say semi-viral because they didn’t launch into mainstream media or make an impact to be counted in the millions, but we’re talking about several thousand viewers and over 10,000 in one instance. @drbexl asked me to share my thoughts as to why this happened.

Why did these particular posts spread?

The posts that spread the furthest involved a mixture of niche, Church humour with elements which touched a nerve more widely.

doctor_venn

If both sides of the Venn diagram are fairly broad, there will be plenty of people in the “I find this funny enough to pass on” intersection.

The most popular post involved a Doctor Who reference, portraying the transition between Archbishops of Canterbury in terms of The Doctor’s regeneration. It made number two on the WordPress “What’s Hot” list the day after it was published, being clicked through to by over 7000 readers. By now it has received over 10,000 views. The reason this was by far the most popular was that it was judged funny by those who read it and by their wider networks who then passed it on via their own social media networks. As it spread it was also picked up on and shared by people who were Doctor Who fans but had no interest in the Anglican church, including repostings on some fan sites. It also helped that the church-based element had wide appeal: a lot of people were aware that Justin Bieber is taking over as Archbishop of Canterbury from Rowan Atkinson [whoever’s sub-editing this week, please check details – thanks, Nick], so all elements of the story had broader appeal than more niche postings. The timing also was crucial: by linking the story to the turn of the New Year, it became very current as it was published just a few days before the end of 2012.

The Sci-fi Posts which sank without trace

starwars_venn

Where do you belong on the Sheep-o-matic Venn Diagram of Star Wars vs Anglo-catholic Niche Groups vs Humour? What’s that? You don’t? Oh… who knew?

However, this success wasn’t just a by-product of linking to a popular subject such as Doctor Who. Science fiction themes have lots of interest online, but even well-informed mentioning of sci-fi content is not a guarantee that a story will spread into those communities.  More recent posts which combined Star Wars with the internal politics of the Church of England had very few views and appealed to to a very narrow section of even the regular readership. Just because people are Star Wars fans, it does not mean they give a hoot about special interest groups within Anglicanism. And even those who have an interest in both would have had to have shared my peculiar form of humour which finds both elements amusing to some degree. The Venn diagram explains its lack of success visually.

Too much time on Sheep’s hands, or just the correct amount?

So were these less popular items worth posting? Well, I reckon they were, and possibly were more important to post than the more popular items. They appealed to a few and I personally found them funny – that was the main test. Plus, they weren’t unkind in their humour or denigrating towards the groups they featured. The main reason for posting niche Anglican humour, to my mind, has been to encourage others in the Church of England, and hopefully in the wider Church.  So much attention is given to division and issues which the mainstream media finds more compelling than our core mission, that I find it good to have somewhere to just have a smile or a laugh at ourselves, knowing – I hope – that it is done affectionately.  The beauty of social media is that it can get things out there which meet the needs of niche markets, of those weird intersections of unlikely Venn diagrams.  Mainstream media is generally rubbish at this.  And there is surely a lesson for mission in here too: if we only try to trawl the mainstream, are we not simply buying into a capitalist, market-led model of mission which doesn’t value everyone equally as it measures success in terms of numbers rather than in terms of authentic witness and faithfulness to our calling?

So, my observations…

People won’t pass on things which aren’t funny to them. So, if something is quite niche humour, it’ll get passed around the people interested in that niche only. Others in their network will read it, shrug and move swiftly on.

Satire only gets passed on when all elements of the humour are found amusing. Even if there is a popular subject in one part of the Venn diagram, if the other one is too niche, it won’t pass through the individual’s funnybones filter and won’t spread further.

The measure of success is not whether lots of people found something funny. Let’s be honest: even the article which reached 10,000 was not really an effective piece of mission (though it did no harm). If a post encourages just one person in their ministry, makes one beleaguered priest smile, jollies one more discouraged Christian along, or just makes a few of us laugh at ourselves… it’s been worth posting.

About Nick Morgan

Nick Morgan, Church of England ordinand based at a welcoming, bijou-sized northern Cathedral. Writer and composer. Tweets as @Unshaunsheep