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The life cycle of a viral superstar

It’s painfully obvious how social media has changed the world both for the better and worse. On a podcast I listened to a while back they were talking about Trump and his less than stellar past in regards to women, minorities, and business ventures. The point of the conversation was that in every presidential election going forward, there won’t be a candidate that doesn’t have some sort of online fingerprint. Something crazy or offensive that they’ve said or done is going to be available. So the best thing that anyone can do is just embrace those things.

I was recently at a meet and greet event for Beto O’Rourke, a US Congressman from El Paso who hopes to unseat Ted Cruz in the next Senate race. The day before, he’d been in Dallas at a bar in front of a large crowd, and he’d said the F word several times – on Facebook Live. He spent the first 10 minutes of the Houston visit, addressing this and using it to segue into his goals if he’s elected to the Senate. This is the mark of a good politician, or celebrity, or anyone with a PR team who is used to being in the limelight. But viral social media sensations aren’t that. They’re everyday people like you and me, unequipped to deal with the canon shot of fame that is “going viral”.

Because of this there is a formula for what will happen whenever someone goes viral. There is a standard life cycle to every story. These are the four stages that pretty much every case follows:


Stage One:

A star is born. I look at this as the caterpillar that is just beginning to emerge from their cocoon. Someone is in the right place at the right time and out there for the world to see. Ken Bone asking a question at a town hall debate, capturing America’s heart in his red pull over sweater; Gary from Chicago – the unwitting participant in a hilarious Oscar skit; and Dr David Dao getting dragged off of a plane with blood pouring out of his mouth and his belly out for the world to see are some of the more recent sensations I can remember. I can’t tell you why exactly a story goes viral but it’s usually one of a couple of things: either the person looks or acts out of congruence with how we think someone should look or act (Gary with his wife’s cell phone and purse and that weird look on his face), they have a funny name or quote (Ken Bone? You can’t script that) or something just absolutely wild is happening that we haven’t seen before (United doctor).


Stage Two:

Monetizing this new found fame. This is full on butterfly mode. Our viral hero has emerged from their cocoon completely and they’ve got their wings on full display. Now, the goal is to complete stage two before stage three happens, which it will. It always does. Two days after the town hall, Ken Bone was slinging merch like he was born to do this and giving out Uber promo codes left and right. Sometimes you just don’t have time – as Gary from Chicago found out the hard way when his sordid past was discovered pretty much the next day. And the doctor? His pay day is coming.


Stage Three:

Past is on display. This is where things turn in a hurry for a viral superstar. Someone does some investigative work and digs up their entire past. The butterfly has flown a little too close to a bird. They eat butterflies right? You get what I’m saying. Ken Bone? Well it turns out he has a pretty creepy Reddit past – a fact people discovered when he did a Reddit AMA and forgot, or just didn’t think it was important, to change his handle. Everyone discovered that he has seen Jennifer Lawrence’s butthole, referred to pregnant women as sexy submarines (when I was pregnant someone could call me anything they wanted, and if they put sexy in front of it I was flattered), and pseudo-defended George Zimmerman. Not good! Gary from Indiana? Yeah… he’d just gotten out of prison for rape three days before he was kissing Nicole Kidman’s hand and having Denzel officiate his “wedding”. Really bad! And most recently, David Dao, our poor doctor from the United flight. He had his medical license suspended for trading Vicodin for gay sex in shady motels back in 2002. We had to have seen this coming. And reporters will dig up the dirty past of every viral star. It’s what they do.


Stage Four:

Vanish into obscurity. Our butterfly has escaped the bird but now it’s stuck in an old spider web, praying for death. After everyone discovered Ken Bone was a super creep he just completely vanished. No one has talked about him since October. His twitter account still has about 200K followers but I imagine a lot of those people just didn’t realize he was still here – tweeting these super original jokes:

David Dao will probably fade away as well, in the next week or so. No one will talk about him until an airline does something else egregious. Then in about two years we’ll see an article titled “Man who was dragged off of United Airlines flight settles for $1 million.” He’ll never be able to fade away though. Which is why the butterfly isn’t dead, it’s just trapped. The internet never forgets.

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