NU Professor’s Joke Tweet Goes Viral But Also Sparks Backlash

Earlier this month, Viorica Marian, a Northwestern University linguistics professor, tweeted out a joke to her small group of followers – mostly other academics.

Within hours, the tweet went viral. At one point it was getting 120 views per minute.

But then the backlash began, including threats and an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education which suggested she was making light of challenges students faced.

Marian says she doesn’t plan to stop using Twitter anytime soon.

“I actually think it will make me more likely to tweet more and to write more and to participate in the public discourse more, to share my opinion more and not to be as scared about it as I was before. I actually think it made me braver,” she said.

Below, an edited Q&A with Marian about her viral experience.

So you tweet this joke – I certainly thought it was funny. What happened next? How quickly did it go viral?

Within hours. I was very surprised because my followers were all colleagues at various universities … I was new to Twitter. I tweeted for the first time very recently as part of the OpEd Project. At one point there would be 120 likes a minute as we were trending online.

How many people have viewed your tweet at this point?

As we are speaking now there have been 26,835,124 views. So, close to 27 million on Twitter alone. But then if you go to some of the other platforms it actually has more comments – on Instagram for example. It was picked up by some of the meme accounts that just share funny memes and have millions of followers. So it is hard to say at this point. I would say about 27 million on Twitter and about the same combined across the other platforms.

What was the reaction of your students? Were any of them offended?

Oh no, the students absolutely loved it.

I’ve never met anyone who had something go viral to this extent. Do you make any money when you get that many views? Are you able to monetize this in any way?

I probably could. I haven’t looked into it. What I have tried to do with this increased visibility is to direct the conversation to topics that are important to me. In this case, in the article I wrote in the Chicago Tribune, toward who has a voice and who participates in this online discussion. Why some people opt out more than others and who fills the vacuum that is left.

You mentioned that you’ve only recently started to use Twitter. What is your experience of social media? Do you use it a lot? Have you ever had anything else go viral?

I have written pieces for the likes of The Hill and Latino USA, but they are opinion pieces, not tweets. I wrote a piece on bilingualism for Latino USA and that one was shared 3,800 (times) on Facebook. But it was nothing like this – it was not millions. They are articles, they are more content-driven. I’ve written articles for The Hill as part of this OpEd Project to increase the number of voices of women and underrepresented groups in public discourse, because the majority of OpEds are, to this day, written 80 percent by white men.

Tell me a little more about the OpEd Project.

It’s a national project, part of the Public Voices program. It has groups around the country, either affiliated with universities or other organizations where faculty, usually women or members of minority groups, are paired with journalists or mentors who have expertise in writing for popular media. Up until two months ago I was writing exclusively research articles … and never really trying to connect my research and my voice to the wider audience, which this project does.

You note that you are a scientist and you’ve written hundreds of articles and spent countless hours in the lab – but that all of that work combined hasn’t been seen by anything like as many people as this one tweet? How does that make you feel?

I hope that at least a small percentage will start looking at the content behind my psycho-linguistics work and become interested in psycho-linguistics. We don’t have necessarily an intellectually very curious press right now. It’s all about gun fights, 140-characters and short quips. So it’s a skill I will try and work on more to try to find ways to translate complex ideas in more accessible ways.

I am somewhat wary of social media because the conversation can often go downhill very quickly.

You say that. My neighbor says that. She said to me this morning that “seeing what happened to you I don’t even want to tweet.” And that’s why more tactful people opt out and who ends up filling the space and shaping the conversation?

Backlash – a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education said that your tweet trivialized the challenges students face. Were you surprised that some people took offense?

What was interesting about The Chronicle is that they published maybe eight or nine tweets and only one of those tweets was favorable to the original tweet – all of the other ones were negative. They sort of selectively picked out of thousands of comments (most of which were favorable) seven or eight comments to change the way they presented the issue – which was unfortunate. And when you get those high numbers (of views) some crazy seeps in as well. So you do end up getting a very small percentage of reactions that can be threats … I got a lot of religious messages.

What kinds of things were people saying?

I don’t want to go into details because I also have children … but I almost think that when you go on social media and you go public, unless someone tell you to drop dead then you haven’t done your job. But there was a lot of name-calling and a lot of professional threats as well. It’s not from anyone I would normally engage with, it’s just random people sending all sorts of messages and unsolicited pictures of all kinds.

What do you take away from this experience? What have you learned?

It’s unlikely that anything else I write will have as many views as this and if this is the worst, then from here on I feel like I can speak my mind, say what I have to say and contribute to the conversation. And I wish more people would do that

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