Last week, I did something a lot of people do every day: I tweeted out a joke. The joke in this case was a photo of a fake college English class essay I typed up about Tom and Jerry, then marked with frustrated red-pen notes and a D grade before tweeting it as though I were the professor at his wit’s end. To be clear, I’m not a college professor — I actually work in IT and am a comedian who performs in New York, presumably for other people who work in IT. But that didn’t stop thousands of people from seeing my tweet and assuming it was real.
Since last Monday, the tweet has been posted to a handful of big Instagram accounts, shared on Twitter by LOLGOP and BuzzFeed, covered by sites like U.K. Daily Mail and Barstool Sports, and currently has nearly a million likes, with responses ranging from “I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time” to “You should be arrested.” So how did it all happen, and what’s it like to see a dumb joke you made spiral into an out-of-control viral Twitter moment? To help explain it all, I documented the whole 72 hours of what it was like to go viral.
Monday, February 10, 12:15 p.m.: It’s the 80th anniversary of Tom and Jerry. I’m in my office alone thinking about it during my lunch hour, and start laughing to myself about how funny it would be if somebody wrote about Tom in terms of class consciousness. I wondered what a professor would think about it. And so I freewrote an intro paragraph, making sure to set up a “professor” for some line edits.
Monday, February 10, 12:45 p.m.: After messing around with some funny line edits, I print out a second copy of my “paper” with what I want my final version to be. However, I realize that it’s too weird for a student to just hand in a paper about Tom and Jerry. What the hell was the assignment? So I think about famous Toms and add a line above, claiming the assignment was supposed to be about Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby.
Monday, February 10, 12:57 p.m.: With three minutes to go in my lunch hour, I post the tweet with the caption “Teaching my first English course this semester has been rewarding but I don’t know what to do with this student,” making sure to crop it correctly for Twitter, hoping to get a few likes from my friends.
Monday, February 10, 1:30 p.m.: It gets a few retweets and about a hundred likes. A friend of mine who works at a comedy show sends me a screenshot of the writers’ room Slack, and they’re discussing all the funny details I put into it.
Monday, February 10, 2:58 p.m.: A comedian I’ve met a few times responds earnestly that the student is bored, and that I should work harder to reach him. This comment will go on to get 20,000 likes. It dawns on me that people think this is real.
Monday, February 10, 5:16 p.m.: Binyamin Appelbaum, the New York Times editor who asked Pete Buttigieg about bread prices, quote-tweets my post and asks what it takes to get an F. I’ve hit 20,000 likes. I have to turn my notifications off.
Monday, February 10, 5:39 p.m.: A major account claims what I did was deeply unethical. Considering that I didn’t realize people would believe this was real, I hadn’t realized that this would upset people. After he and several other big accounts realize it’s a spoof, a new debate emerges about whether or not jokes about professors are okay. A college professor who thought it was funny debates a Marxist-Leninist writer in my replies about whether satire is permissible. She says fiction is a sign the artist empathizes and understands a subject beyond simple observation, and he says all lies are used to mollify the proletariat. Even though I’m kind of a leftist myself, I silently agree with her. I’ve hit 50,000 likes.
Monday, February 10, 11:15 p.m.: Several Instagram accounts such as @kalesalad, @complex, and @lettuce.scream have posted screenshots my tweet. However, they have also tagged me, leading to nearly a thousand DMs and comments on all my pictures asking me for the rest of the paper.
Tuesday, February 11, 10:15 a.m.: My boss is on vacation, and my boss’s boss visits me in my office and asks me if I teach English. I tell him no, and he explains that he had to ask because people are calling him asking him to fire me. I apologize for the disturbance.
Tuesday, February 11, 12:07 p.m.: The New York Daily News asks me for a comment. I tell them it’s fake, and the reporter thanks me for saving him the trouble because had I said it was real, he was going to have to contact NYC area schools looking for my student.
Tuesday, February 11, 2:54 p.m.: I am so exhausted by how many people think it’s real and keep messaging me on every platform that I comment under it that it was fake. The U.K. Daily Mail writes a story about it, with a huge picture of me captioned “Jokester.” I hit 500,000 likes.
Tuesday, February 11, 8:00 p.m.: I have an improv show at UCB. Before he asks for a suggestion, Tom Johnson asks the audience to give me a round of applause for going viral. Only about a third of the packed UCB audience understands what he’s talking about. I hit 700,000 likes.
Thursday, February 13, 9:45 a.m.: CNN asks me to come on, and I tell them it was made up. They tell me that in the future they’re considering having comedians on to read funny news stories, and that they’ll put me down as a possible guest. Even though I believe they were just being nice, this is my first and last comedy job offer from the tweet.
Thursday, February 13, 10 a.m.: My boss arrives from his vacation not knowing anything about my viral tweet. He opens his computer to find 200 emails and calls me into his office. I tell him about my tweet and how it went viral in the past 72 hours. He suggests I not do that again.
Thursday, February 13, 11 a.m.: Twitter has moved on to whether or not it’s okay to recline your seat back on a crowded plane.
So, has my life changed? Not really. I have a few articles about my prank and a few thousand more followers on Twitter. But I’m back at my desk on my lunch break from IT. I’d describe going viral like performing your one-hit song for millions of people: While it’s a pretty awesome four minutes, be ready to watch them all file for the exits when you’re done. So I beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Looney Tunes cinematic universe.