A month ago, Slate faced a grave crisis. Due to unfortunate planning, our entire social media team was about to take the same Wednesday off. This meant they couldn’t be around to run Slate’s official Facebook page and Twitter feed. Someone else needed to step in. Volunteers were sought.
I raised my hand right away. What a plum opportunity, I reckoned. Learn the dark art of virality. Craft clickables and shareables. Peek into the grimy bowels of digital journalism. (I admit I was also thrilled by the possibility that I might bring disrepute upon the entire magazine via some sort of catastrophic retweet.)
I got a quick primer a few days before I took the wheel. Login info. Passwords. Admin privileges. I was asked, in so many words, not to use our Facebook page to distribute Nazi porno snuff defecation films.
At 9 a.m. on the appointed day, taking sleepy-eyed coffee sips at my desk in Slate’s New York office, I switched on an automated program that robo-posts to Twitter and Facebook. I’d been assured that (unless major news broke) I’d mostly just monitor this program, called SocialFlow, to confirm that our feeds were humming along. I could occasionally toss a few tweets of my own into the mix, and maybe retweet some people who said nice things about Slate articles. Whatever I did, the program would act as a failsafe. Even if I literally fell asleep on the job, it would ensure that our feeds—each with more than 1 million subscribers—were still full of content.
And then it began—immediate disaster! I couldn’t get SocialFlow to run. And I couldn’t reach anybody from the social media team (because they were all unreachable, which was why I was there in the first place). So instead of the program auto-posting a tweet once every five minutes, I’d have to manually post those tweets myself. I’d need to do this every five minutes all day long—like the characters in Lost entering a number sequence and pushing the button lest the hatch blow up.
I put down my coffee and grimly settled in. My life became a blur. Tweeting furiously. Hopping over to Facebook to post a story there. Clicking through our Twitter mentions for possible retweets. Fielding requests from Slate editors to promote their newest stories. I felt like Lucy Ricardo on the bonbon assembly line—except I couldn’t eat the tweets to make them go away.
A bit of historical context: When I worked at a big weekly print magazine in the late 1990s, we had no idea which stories people were reading or when they were reading them. We weren’t sure which articles folks glossed over before quickly flipping the page and which they got cozy with for a deep, tranquil read. We didn’t know if they were reading at breakfast, or at lunch, or before bed.
Now, we know exactly what you’re reading. Slate editors stare at Chartbeat all day long, watching our Web traffic ebb and flow. We can see, second by second, exactly how many of you are on the site. We know if you came directly to our homepage or if you arrived through a social media link. We know which story you’re reading right at this very instant (OK, you’re reading this one, obviously, but we would know even if you were reading a different one), and how long you’re taking to read it.
I had been instructed to keep an eye on Chartbeat to see if any stories suddenly spiked in traffic. That was a hint that the story had legs—people were into it, and so it merited an additional boost on Twitter and Facebook. I saw a piece from our excellent politics correspondent Jamelle Bouie doing well, so I threw it some Twitter love. I noticed a moving personal tale from the writer Rebecca Schuman drawing clicks, so I goosed it on Facebook. I sorted through Slate’s mentions and found some people saying non-horrible things, so I retweeted them. I checked back to see which stories we hadn’t promoted in a few hours, and shoved them back into the spotlight. I began to get the hang of it.
Eventually, I reached an actual social media editor (he was on a plane that had Wi-Fi) and, with his help, managed to start up SocialFlow. I then rose from my chair for the first time in four hours. My legs were jelly. My brain was gruel. This was the frazzliest work I’d ever done, and I include that one time I had to operate a deadly motorized edging tool during my high school landscaping job.
In the afternoon, with the automated program now doing the grunt work, I got more creative. I played with the language on tweets to see if they’d pop. I chucked a few oddball stories up on Facebook, to see if they’d surprise us with unforeseen traffic pizzazz. During the 3 p.m to 4 p.m. hour—traditionally a dead period, I learned—I’d been instructed to post one of my old articles that has reliably gotten a lot of Facebook traction. I figured this was a sop to me from the social media team. But lo, the story worked its magic again, immediately spurring likes and shares.
At the end of the day, I had my first and only brush with “viral lift.” Moneybox writer Alison Griswold cleverly wrote a post about a new, controversial phenomenon known as “hot desking.” I’m still not clear on what hot desking is. But, perhaps in part because the photo accompanying the story showed someone vaping (and I guess maybe people are intrigued/repulsed by vaping, and especially the thought of vaping at work? Though I don’t think this is actually what hot desking is?), the story exploded on Facebook and Twitter. I kept tweeting it in slightly different ways, over and over. It dominated Chartbeat—I could watch the numbers soar in real time. It was thrilling.
And then, just as I was congratulating myself on figuring it all out, my shift was over. I abandoned the fast-paced world of social media and slunk back to the comparatively snail-paced, contemplative life of the writer.
A few days later, I asked our social media team for a little feedback. How had I done?
Basically, the answer came back, I’d done OK. We suffered a small traffic dip in the morning when I got overwhelmed. But we recovered (greatly aided by the hot-desking bump) in the afternoon.
In total, I’d sent 158 tweets in 8 hours, for about 20 tweets per hour. That was a decent pace. But I got a little too trigger-happy on Facebook. Facebook interpreted that as spamming, so it buried some of our posts. Which hurt us.
Overall, our traffic came out just a teensy bit below average for a Wednesday. I’m not yet planning to quit my day job. But I am planning to hot desk all the time, once I determine what hot desking is.