Writing a Viral Article Turned Me Into a Stats Junkie

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

I published Three Life Lessons From a Dying Man on Christmas Eve. Three weeks later, it went supernova. Over the last 2 days, it’s been viewed more than 25,000 times, read by 18,000 people, and shared on websites that I’ve never even heard of (bloglovin.com, anyone?).

I wish I could give you some sort of breakdown of what made it so successful, but I’d be lying if I said that I knew for sure. It’s not broken up into sections. There are no subheaders or text breaks, and it’s written as one long block of text with the listicle part right at the end.

All I can tell you is that it’s honest. I knew Hank’s story meant something, and I wrote about it. That’s all. I didn’t spend hours formatting, fussing over details. It’s probably one of the articles that I edited the least. I wrote it way back in May, so I don’t know what writing process I was using.

What I do know is that Hank would be ecstatic that this many people have heard his name, and that he meant so much to me after all these years. He would also make fun of me for it.

Watching this article go viral has been a treat, and I feel tremendously lucky. However, the last 48 hours turned me into some sort of stats-gobbling gremlin. I’ve been checking them first thing in the morning. Mainlining those sweet green dots on the toilet. My attention span has been splintered as I stare at pointless graphs in the grocery store.

Earlier today, one of my students caught me looking at my stats. “Mr. Nichols, why do you keep looking at random charts?” He asked. I sheepishly closed out the medium window on my computer and asked if he’d finished his assignment.

Then I used SelfControl to block myself from going on medium for 8 hours.

When I got home from school, I sat in front of my little meditation altar and lit a candle, trying to calm myself down. One question repeated itself over and over again in my head:

What remains?

What kind of writers Do we want to be? Do we want to be timely? Or timeless?

I’m guessing the latter. Unfortunately, we live in a world where pointless data follows us around and fragments our limited attention, telling us that what matters is how our writing is doing right now.

Last weekend, in my favorite book store, I saw seven copies of Fire and Fury sitting there with $5 stickers on them collecting dust.

Remember that mess? That barely-fact-checked expensive hardcover piece of garbage? As I sat there looking at all those unbought copies selling for a pittance, I couldn’t believe that I had considered buying it when it first came out. What was I going to do, highlight as I read along? Lovingly reread it every year? No! I would have read it and discarded it, as it was meant to be used. It wouldn’t have added one good piece of lasting wisdom to my life.

Fire and fury is timely, not timeless. It sold a few million copies in a giant cash-grab, then faded away.

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Image Credit Rakuten Intelligence

That’s Michael Wolff’s legacy. 1.7 million copies sold, then poof! His work vanishes into thin air.

I can’t tell what made Three Life Lessons from a Dying Man go viral. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because it touches on aging and death.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that this article will somehow be timeless on medium. I know that’s not how algorithms work.

However, I’m much prouder of it than anything timely I’ve ever written. It’s about something large that all humans struggle with, not something tiny that fades away.

Why do we read things like AN ALGORITHM HAS BEEN TWEAKED AND IT’S HARDER TO MAKE MONEY AAAAH, or You’ll Never Guess Which Pop Culture Icon’s Cat Has Rabies! They’re here today, gone tomorrow.

I can’t even explain why my article got curated in the first place, but I can say that I feel validated. I feel proud of myself for not trying to get attention by writing outrage-producing clickbait.

What remains?

7x top writer, educator, and serial vagabond. If you like what you’ve read, sign up for The Well-Lived Life! https://thewelllivedlife.substack.com/

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