A Single Sentence Went Viral on Medium - Time for an Existential Crisis

I don’t really know how to start this post, but then again, I don't really know much about anything anymore. You see, my article just went viral on Medium, but it wasn't something I actually wanted anyone to see. The article, if you can even call it that, was just one sentence long. It was an afterthought of a post -- verbal lint I picked out of the recesses of my brain and flicked onto the internet.

And, as I mentioned: It was one stinkin' sentence. One. And the resulting explosion of both readership and responses caused me to question not just what I know as a writer but what I know about people. One sentence. One absurd headline. Some reactions were encouraging. Some were discouraging. I just...one sentence! Absurdist headline!

I don't... I mean I'm just not...

(Shoots bourbon.)

Okay, that's better. Now then -- let me start at the beginning.

Shortcut Culture & Paralyzing Emotional Turmoil

This all started a few weeks ago, on Friday, September 25, at around 5:30pm. You know -- right around the time nobody cares what you post to the internet.

On Medium, I wrote the following post:

Let’s take a few seconds to read the article together ... because, quite literally, it will take us just a few seconds: 

The One Secret Thing All Successful People Do

1. They don’t look for secrets to success in freaking blog posts. 

…aaaaand scene. The End. Roll credits. They lived happily ever after in Shortcut Land, where everybody has a silver bullet for everything and you never need to work hard at anything ever again.

Over the first two days, this post generated 30,000 views. One week later, it had passed 50,000. It was recommended (the Medium version of a retweet) over 2,000 times. And despite being just ONE FREAKING SENTENCE LONG, people still found enough substance, somehow, to use the Medium highlighting feature over 140 times. Yes, they highlighted the entire article ... all one sentence of it.

Continuing the bizarre traction of this piece, people in tech like investors Chris Sacca and Nabeel Hyatt and entrepreneurs David Cancel and Hiten Shah recommended this piece. With the exception of Cancel, none of them have ever shared anything I've ever written. Hell, they may not know I even exist. And now they react to one sentence I wrote. Okayyyy.....

If it's not obvious yet, just know that this experience has made me feel all the feels, and I haven’t been able to make heads nor tails of the situation. But I have to try to do just that to avoid being utterly paralyzed for the rest of my career. So although it feels like trying to run through molasses, I need to work through what the hell just happened and how I feel about it or else you're gonna find me curled up in a little ball in the corner, muttering to myself.

Here goes ... something.

Encouraging: Lots of people read something I wrote on the internet, and lots of successful people I admire recommended it.

Cool! But, um...

Discouraging: Did I mention it was one freaking sentence long? It was one freaking sentence long. 

This happened after years of me writing longer articles (or, yanno, actual articles) that I was particularly proud of. Despite many sentences ending in prepositions. Or containing sentence fragments. (Or parenthetical asides). Or all of those things.

A one-sentence piece can't be my crowning achievement as a writer, can it?

It was also discouraging to know that I'd potentially found a loophole in the Medium algorithm. They want to promote quality content, which I not only applaud but actively fight for in my work, including on this blog. Medium's algorithm doesn't reward empty metrics like views. Instead, it rewards view-to-read ratio. When something has a lot of reads relative to its views, it gets recommended around the Medium ecosystem by the algorithm, appearing beneath other articles and potentially on the home page, where mine surfaced eventually, claiming the top spot for a day and the home page for a week. 

But if your article is one sentence, then almost every view is a read, so your ratio looks great to the algorithm (at least I'm guessing this happens). So I accidentally tripped the algorithm to suggest my post to lots of other readers without the post being something genuinely worth reading.

(Facepalm.) I hate everything.

But maybe...

Encouraging: Maybe the mark of a good writer is that even one sentence you write can hit home. 

Maybe this wasn't about gaming a technical system. And maybe good writers can trigger an emotion in an audience regardless of the delivery vehicle or structure of a piece. And hey, we all love saying, "I would have made it shorter, but I didn't have the time." That speaks to this exact scenario, right? Right??? (Oh God, please say yes. I need this.)

Let's just go ahead and assume that the ability to write one sentence that resonates with a massive audience is a testament to one's writing ability. It can't just be about an over-promised shortcut found in a clickbait headline used to prey on how humans now operate on the internet.

Yeah. The writing skill thing. Let's go with that.

But the mind grows numb. The spirit wavers. All because of this:

Discouraging: Lots of people actually believed there was one secret to success.

Really truly stop to think about that. An entire Yankee Stadium full of people thought, "So you're saying there's this one single thing that every successful person does? AND it's a secret? AND I can learn it right in this here blog post? I'M IN!"

What if I placed a sign outside a local store that read, "Free: I Will Tell You One Thing That Will Make You Happy For The Rest Of Your Life." You'd balk, right? You wouldn't go inside! 

What if a pet shop claimed to offer free flying horses that could also brew espresso and beat anyone in chess? You'd be at least a little skeptical, no? 

That's all this post was. But instead of being highly skeptical of the headline, people clicked it. Even if you argue that many were just curious to know what some hack writer had to say, at least SOME of the readers expected the headline to deliver on its promise. Even just 1% of 50,000 people seeking something real makes this depressing. Right? Am I crazy? WHY DO PEOPLE ON THE INTERNET BELIEVE THIS STUFF IS REAL?!

The sad reality is that shortcut culture is everywhere online, as perpetuated by both media outlets and millions of content marketing articles. Just scan any B2B blog and you’ll instantly believe all your troubles will melt away IF YOU ONLY READ THIS ONE POST OF OURS!

It's like a late night infomercial, only we crank these out at all hours: "Are you working hard to learn your craft? Hell, are you working hard at all, ever? Well don't you worry, in just one easy installment of 10 minutes to read my blog, all your problems will be solved...forever!" 

Ugh. Blah. Yech. And other assorted grunts.

So, I was thrilled to see so many people reading, but that feeling was mitigated pretty darn quickly thanks to this realization.

But let's spin this more positively... 

Encouraging: A ton of people got the joke and it was awesome. 

My goal with writing this "article" was to hold up a mirror to the internet and say, “Look how absurd we all are! This is what the internet is doing to our brains!” 

Regardless of why someone clicked in the first place, the vast majority laughed at themselves and each other. Through a steady stream of lighthearted tweets and Medium comments, I received all kinds of digital winks, knowing smiles, or larger bursts of laughter. They steered into the skid. They were "in on it." They appreciated it. And they not only made me feel better about humanity as a result, but they were the ones who contributed to the article spreading. So while it definitely spread for a terrible reason (algorithm gaming, clickbait-y BS), mixed in was some hope: "Oh, us, we're so ridiculous in our search for shortcuts. Ha, ha, let me share it now."

The best part was that some people were rather clever in sharing or commenting. One guy inducted my article into the "Medium Hall of Fame” in a hilarious way, while others simply kept the ball in the air, saying things like, "This article is too long." Still others simply flipped the post to their followers with a laugh. It was all excellent.

All of these people made me so incredibly happy to be alive in the universe and using the internet from my couch. (Those two things carry equal depth of meaning, yes?)

But, I mean, it IS the internet we're talking about here, so...

Discouraging: There were a handful of people who were angry about it. 

One person wrote, “Successful people don’t write posts like this!” (Yes, exactly. Thank you for proving my point, sir. The same goes for people who read this stuff!) 

Another person simply stated, “Clickbait.” (Really think, friend-o: I promised you one single secret to unlock all the success in the world, and you believed this post would deliver and wasn't clickbait?)

Besides, Frustrated Shortcut Seekers, we all know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is not my Medium post. It is 42. Has been for some time.

But I can only imagine these angry readers careening around the internet every day, clicking on every clickbait headline -- every procrastination site ("I really CAN'T believe that happened next!"), every empty LinkedIn blog post from someone you don't actually know ("Tell me more about what The Muppets can teach us about career growth!" ... actually, I'd read that. Let's just move on.)

To seek shortcuts and silver bullets and hacks for something has become the normal way to use the internet. And it starts in a great place -- be efficient, be smart. But it winds up devolving into some kind of panicked search for the best way to do something found through unending research, before totally self-destructing into a hunt for a single hack. And people who act like that who were angry at my Medium post and couldn't see themselves reflected in the article behaved eerily similar to, well, Peter Griffin:

Lois: "Well, Peter, I bet you learned a valuable lesson today."

Peter:

The internet is full of crackpots and jokers promising you secrets. Some of them are actually crackpots and jokers. Some of them just act that way because an analytics report says it generates lots of clicks and views. But all of them are full of it. There are no hacks or silver bullets to being successful. Show up. Do the work. Work hard. Be humble. Be kind. Read and learn a ton, and never stop learning. Those are the only "hacks" that work.

After more than a decade of writing on the internet and trying to get people to enjoy what I write, I can safely say I’ve never put anything into the world with less thought than this stupid Medium post. And yet THAT was what stuck.

Maybe I don’t get people. Maybe I don't get the internet. Maybe I don't get writing. I should just turn in my laptop, hand in my notebook, and let my writing die and go to the big hipster coffee shop in the sky.

Or maybe...

Just maybe...

I'm onto something. 

Maybe I've uncovered the single best way to write on the internet. Maybe everything I write should be one sentence long and paired with a clickbait headline. Over and over. Again and again. Could it be that THAT is the secret to success?

---

This post's One Different Thing: Encouraging/Discouraging sections

What's this "One Different Thing" all about? I believe content marketing would be a much better industry for both practitioners and audiences if we tried to do just one small, different thing in each piece we created, rather than churn out more similar junk. Read more about the One Different Thing challenge.

Posted on October 14, 2015 .