So I accidentally-on-purpose made spinach go viral and scientists aren't happy...
It taught me a lot about social media, while also disrupting this newsletter launch.
I started this newsletter a couple of weeks ago, with a nice series plan in place outlying all the ideas I had and things I wanted to write. Then those plans were thwarted by a sentient salad leaf, and I have had no choice but to start with spinach.
NB: I promise after this point that I will never talk about spinach again in this newsletter.
If you’re getting this newsletter, you’re getting it because you undoubtedly found me on Twitter, seeing as that’s the only place I’ve shared the link so far. If you found me on Twitter, you probably saw what happened last week.
To cut an exceedingly dull story down to a mildly boring one: I wrote an article about a study in 2016 where scientists used nanobionic technology to turn spinach into a sensor for detecting specific substances in groundwater. If the plants’ roots find this chemical, the leaves emit a signal picked up by an infrared camera which is then sent to scientists via an email alert.
Effectively: Scientists have taught spinach to send emails.
I shared the story from my work Twitter (go follow @euronewsliving), and by 11pm last Monday evening I noticed there were a few tweets chuckling about the headline. Bored of watching Archer or Superstore or whichever sitcom I’m binging at the moment, I decided to turn it into a Twitter Moment before bed, and cheekily sent the moment to the English-language Moments Team at Twitter HQ (an email I shouldn’t really have, but managed to find).
I woke up the next morning and opened Twitter (genuinely something I do before saying good morning to my husband), to see a message from one of my best friend’s sharing the following tweet:
We’d hit the big time. Twitter decided to feature us, and my notifications (and my work notifications) haven’t quite recovered since. One tweet from us has nine million impressions, and legends like Mara Wilson and Margaret Atwood joining in with the trend was a surreal delight.
The whole experience has taught me a lot.
Firstly, it showed the power of Twitter’s Moments function. But I promised this wasn’t going to be a newsletter about technical dullness, so I’m not going to say any more on that. There are a lot of Clubhouse rooms with names like 🤩 Let’s go viral⚡🌻 Social media monthly 📈 📲 Learn to monetise 💸 who are better-placed to help with that side of social media.
Secondly, I realised quite how aggressive the science community can be. A few people who work for the journal that published the original paper were fur-i-ous about the trend. They were angry that “thousands [ahem: millions] of people won’t look beyond the clickbait headline and think spinach has hotmail.” They were cross that the study is from 2016. They were pissed off that people were taking it as a joke.
What they didn’t see though, were the huge numbers of readers who were sharing the article on social media with comments like '“okay, the headline is a joke - but the science here is really cool?!”
I could talk all day about clickbait, and what is or isn’t clickbait, but I’ll save that for another time. What I will say is that there’s a difference between a self-aware joke and something which is deliberately misleading.
One person in the publisher’s comms team tweeted that she felt sorry for me as I was most likely underpaid and stressed, which is why I chose that headline. Much as I love public patronising speculation about my salary and mental wellbeing, we chose that headline as a team because we know what works. We know how to sell a heavy science-based story to a non-specialist readership. And, clearly, we know how to do it well.
Much as I would like to take sole credit for this entire affair, every headline we craft at my main work (shout out again to Euronews Living + Travel) is a joint effort.
We forensically consider the SEO potential, and we know what we’re doing. So when someone emailed me on Wednesday to ask if I realised that I had “accidentally gone viral”, I wasn’t overly impressed that they thought I didn’t know and that the entire event was random blind luck.
As I write this, we’ve worked as a team today to try to engineer similar success with another bizarre article (fingers crossed we get some success there too). There’s a method to this madness.
But I digress…
Thirdly, this whole spinach-related experience showed me (from start-to-finish) the true joy and potential of Twitter. Which is exactly why this newsletter was started. It showed how, in these relentlessly bleak times, we are all craving a wholesome shared joke.
I loved seeing so many of my favourite comedy accounts making spinach-based jokes, without needing to share the headline or the article or the context. It’s a space where we can create in-jokes almost immediately, with a healthy dose of call-back humour too.
This community is global too. Mara Wilson (yes, that’s the second time I’ve mentioned her, this is my newsletter and I will mention my childhood hero as many times as I like) sharing a pretty subtle reference to the trend in New York, while an Australian journalist laughed about it a few hours later in Sydney is exactly why Twitter can be such a joyful and genuinely fun place.
The spinach story works particularly well for this, because there’s no butt of the joke. Nobody is (really) mocking the scientists, the article wasn’t being mocked, and nor was I - it was just a genuinely fun and weird moment we could all enjoy, devoid of politics and hurt feelings. If spinach has an issue, they have my email address.
Last week also saw the sheer delight of Handforth Parish Council, which - though there was a clearer villain in the tale - was even more enjoyable for its quotability and watching the internet rally behind Jackie Weaver.
We love weird, funny, escapist stuff (hello cat lawyer) - and we especially enjoy building our own archive of jokes to throwback to on Twitter.
It was a thrill to play a small part in that ever-moving game on a platform I love and loathe in equal measures.
I now just hope this becomes a career highlight, rather than the career highlight for me.