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Six-minute read

My friend Eric went viral this week.

That’s not a euphemism for some sort of dread disease. His Millennials to Snake People Chrome plugin became fodder for the Viral Internet Journalism Industrial Complex.

In reality, it’s actually pretty cool to suddenly see something you made referred to and linked all over the place. I was minorly internet famous because of UX from hell, a piece I did about bad UX on news sites. But it was but a mere fraction of the scale of his plugin fame.

His creation is a Chrome plugin that converts “millennials” and variations of the term into “snake people” on any web site. Eric has a droll and quirky sense of humor. You can see it at his novelty site literallytheindianocean.io.

I installed it as an unsigned plugin on my machine straight from his GitHub repo a while ago. When he put it on the Chrome store, it got 17 installs. Although it did catch the attention of someone who made a Twitter bot based on it.

All in all it seemed like a nice little joke shared by friends.

The first indication that something was about to happen was when a friend common to Eric and I retweeted Owen Williams, a tech reporter for The Next Web.

Best chrome extension ever - changes “Millennials” to “snake people” 😂

I tweeted back to my friend and asked, “You know @ericwbailey made that?” He didn’t. It wasn’t long before other people I follow – non-mutual friends – were tweeting about it.

Within a couple hours I was seeing it pop up on my Twitter feed with links to various publications – Buzzfeed, Slate, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Dot, etc. A Google search shows literally dozens of sites that wrote about it.

It reached such viral heights that Vox founder and media darling Ezra Klein was using it to make a joke.

According to a friend who studied such things, getting something to go viral takes little effort, at least in a brute force way. The trick is to get an influential person or two with a lot of followers to tweet about it or post it to Facebook.

It’s hard to trace the origins of the Snake People viral phenomenon. Someone like Williams and his 10,000 tech-interested followers could certainly be the instigator. In the case of my own viral boomlet, the director of Harvard’s Nieman Lab tweeting about my story seemed to be the “off to the races” moment.

To me, though, the mechanics of virality are less interesting than the why. Namely that it was much less about my friend’s wish or efforts for his plugin to go viral – as far as I know he wasn’t pimping it around all that much – and totally about online publishers’ absolute necessity for their items to go viral.

Eric created a near spot-on “thing” to go viral. It’s funny, a little bit weird, cleverly executed and quick enough to sum up in a single tweet or headline.1 It makes for a nice ongoing joke for a couple days.

Here’s a sampling:

  • The Verge: Millennials to Snake People is a Cloud to Butt whose time has come
  • CNET: Here’s all you need to see that millenials are really snake people
  • BuzzFeed: This Perfect Chrome Extension Replaces “millennials” With “Snake People”
  • Mashable: Brilliant Chrome extension replaces ‘millennials’ with ‘snake people’
  • Slate: You Don’t Have to Be a millennial to Laugh at This Chrome Extension That Turns millennial Into Snake Person
  • Huffington Post: Millennials Are Snake People, Chrome Extension Reveals

When stories “go big” they have to really “go big.” That’s why my friend’s simple and clever plugin was suddenly brilliant, perfect and awesome, according to various writers. Although by now the Internet has found a new best thing ever. Sorry, Eric.

Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Verge, Business Insider, Vox and even old-line media jump on and overhype things like “snake people” because they operate financially much like Crazy Eddie’s Discount Mattress Outlet. Prices for online ads are low and falling – much lower than comparable print ads. Clickthrough rates on such ads are an abysmal .06 percent.

The internet model exists to move as much inventory as possible as fast as possible. Virality means high hit counts and low time on site, meaning that people read the headline and a paragraph or two — if that. 2

So basically my friend’s plugin went into the internet aggregation sausage making machine and links came out the other end. (See what I did there.)

And they all wrote roughly the same story. A couple reporters made an effort to interview him, Slate threw in a little think-piecing, but tonally and content-wise most were largely interchangeable.

I don’t begrudge Eric for his moment of fame at all. It was nicely earned. It was fun to watch. And I enjoyed repeatedly texting and Slacking him links to all the internet orgs breathlessly writing about his plugin, something that he seemed to find simultaneously exciting but slightly mortifying.

But seeing it in action is a reminder of how much of journalism exists to simply feed the machine. It’s like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. The more you feed it, the more success you get, and the more it has to be fed.

I did notice a certain irony in the whole situation, too. And it’s actual irony, not Morriestian irony. My friend wrote his plugin as reductio ad absurdum to play on the media’s ongoing fixation with millennials.

Only because of the media’s fixation3 with millennials did his plugin mocking it become a thing.

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? A little too ironic. You know, I really do think …

  1. According to The Law of Curated Humor any example cited by a news organization as “funny” won’t be. An SNL recap is a prime example of this rule in action. That means that the excerpts and screenshot examples featured in articles about Millennials to Snake People aren’t nearly as funny as installing the plugin and using it. It’s the surprise that makes it work.
  2. This short time on site means, of course, that they aren’t actually looking at the ads. Technology has also disrupted advertising by being able to measure its effectiveness, or lack thereof, which are why rates are so low.
  3. Running the Millenials to Snake People extension while reading story about the Millennials to Snake People extension results in wonderful tautological passages such as: >The extension also changes “snake person generation” to “snake person generation” and turns “Serpent Society” into “Serpent Society.” And, the best part, “parseltongues” becomes “Parseltongues” (a fictional Harry Potter language).