To go viral, go to all that trouble

It seems like the key to making a creative project that goes viral is hard to execute but conceptually pretty simple: do something that makes people think “I can’t believe you went to all that trouble.” E.g. TikTok videos where people spend 12 hours trying to bounce a ping pong ball into a cup from across the room, then get 40 million views. You could do that! But you probably won’t, because, I mean…can you imagine going to all that trouble? Some specific examples:

  • Alexey Guzey spent 130 hours fact-checking Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep”. (3300 likes on Twitter.)
  • My friend Ben spent 140 hours meticulously cutting out paper letters to tell the story of the history of typography. (1.5 million views on YouTube.)
  • My friend Matthew learned every single song on the piano and then performed them as a medley. (40,000 views on YouTube, then got to perform live with them!)
  • MrBeast counted to 100,000 in one video. (20 million views on YouTube.)

This is not to say that these people weren’t also demonstrating skill or exercising great judgment. It’s just that the virality is largely driven by the “can-you-imagine-going-to-all-that-trouble” factor. As Teller of the magician duo Penn & Teller puts it:

Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

Of course, for many people who do things like this, it doesn’t feel like trouble to them. They’re just doing what they enjoy—another reason to maximize pleasure.

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