What happens when a million people see your tweet in one weekend

Over the weekend, 2017’s signature emotion of existential dread, which engulfs me every morning as I open Twitter, went viral after I articulated it with a Princess Bride meme:

https://twitter.com/KuraFire/status/850577572165337089

As of this writing well over a million people have “seen” that tweet. I deliberately did not mute notifications for it, as I was curious to see how this virality would affect my experience of Twitter, and also because muting specific tweets is still quite a new feature. Previously, having a tweet “go viral” could wreck havoc on your mentions or notifications tab—unless you had special celebrity or VIP features.

It may surprise you, but I’m quite pleased to report that it was an entirely mundane, almost dreadfully boring outcome.

Let’s start with the analytics report on that tweet:

  • Impressions: 1,445,526
  • Total engagements: 315,712
  • Media engagements: 265,546
  • Likes: 25,317
  • Retweets: 11,211

(How closely “Impressions” comes to “people who really saw this” is something I’ll let marketers worry about.)

There are 62 replies. Twitter doesn’t tell you how many people quoted the tweet (“RT’d with added comment”), but I think that number’s another 50 or more.

In terms of new followers directly from the tweet, that number is a comfortable 7. But out of some 1380 people who clicked through to my profile, another 100 or so followed me (I apologize in advance for boring them with far less funny jokes moving forward). That’s a 7.2% follow ratio for my bio, basically, which is probably low.

On Web Twitter, notifications get batched together via an impressive and complex algorithm I dub “Fuckit, we’ll just combine these dozens of updates into one”. Variability aside, it works really nicely—as long as you don’t keep the Notifications page open for too long. That tracks results coming in live, which at its busiest hours was… a lot. On iPhone Twitter (I didn’t try iPad) it batches them as well, but with some more pronounced side effects. A batch of “14” users on iOS may represent closer to 140 actual notifications; it seems iOS cuts off batches at much smaller numbers, for no doubt very understandable performance reasons. Muting a new user makes the app go through all your recent notifications to see if it needs to remove anything, and that took noticeably longer even with all the batching.

Two things I was mindful of, and which I want to share before I conclude:

First, this tweet was popular but very non-controversial. It sparked almost zero debate or disagreement, which kept notification activity to a minimum. Secondly, I’m not a widely-known public figure, and my profile photo shows me as a fairly inoffensive white guy. If a national journalist, politician or celebrity figure had made this tweet—especially one who’s not a white man—then I suspect it would have led to more debate, perhaps even some pushback.

As it was, Twitter’s product design absolutely aced this experience. I don’t have Push Notifications turned on for Likes or RT’s, but I undoubtedly would’ve turned those off the moment this picked up steam. On iOS and Web, having a sudden influx of more than 36,000 notifications in less than a 48-hour window (an average of one every 5 seconds) was handled so well that I was able to use Twitter like nothing out of the ordinary was going on. And that’s how it should be!

I’m still not fully sold on Twitter’s new @-replies design (mostly how the Notifications page is a lot less readable), but this (probably one-time) experience of a tweet going viral shows to me that Twitter is doing a lot of things right, and transparently so. That deserves public appreciation, especially in this era of our collective eagerness to highlight every little public misstep a company makes. So well done, Twitter team. You made this exceptional situation appropriately mundane.