A tennis racket, a frying pan and the lack of control over your viral content

A tennis racket, a frying pan and the lack of control over your viral content



Heidi Stephens is a freelance colleague of mine. She is a kindred content spirit and can often be found writing live blogs for The Guardian, covering television shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, The Great British Bake Off and Eurovision. In the last week she has been witness to the viral spread of a photograph, her photograph, which she shared on Twitter. This was not a deliberate content distribution play; it was not a planned tactical execution of a strategy that started out as a solitary Post-it note in a sea of luminous sticky bits of paper. It was just a photo and caption shared on Twitter. Of a frying pan.

Here is what happened next.

James: Can you tell us about the photo you shared on Twitter last week?

Heidi: Every Friday morning, at eight o’clock, I play tennis because I’m a freelancer and I can. I went off to my normal tennis match. When I got to the tennis court, I opened my tennis bag and found that my boyfriend, Pip, had taken out my tennis racket and put a frying pan in my tennis bag. Now, anybody who knows Pip will know this is a perfectly normal thing for him to do. He does this kind of stuff all the time. It was very funny. A couple of minutes later, he turned up with my racket, so it was no big deal.

Anyway, I took a picture of the pan in my bag and put it on Twitter, and then put my phone in the bag and carried on playing tennis, thinking nothing of it, really. I have about six-and-a-half thousand followers on Twitter, so I figured a few of them would find it quite amusing.

James: And you’ve got to that kind of level of following because of the nature of some of the work you do. You’re quite visible and active online.

Heidi: Yeah. A lot of them are people who found me via The Guardian. They’ve followed one of the blogs I’ve written and clicked on my Twitter profile off the back of that. I’ve been on Twitter for seven years. I guess I’ve built up a bit of a following over time.

James: Okay. Innocuous picture of frying pan as tennis racket. It sounds wonderfully daft. What happened next?

Heidi: Well, I finished my tennis game about an hour and a half later.

James: Did you win?

Heidi: No, actually, I didn’t.

James: Because you were using a frying pan?

Heidi: No, I wasn’t using a frying pan. I did have my racket. I finished my tennis game and then picked up my phone in the car on the way home and looked at it and was absolutely astonished how quickly it had spread.

It’s quite normal for something I tweet that’s kind of current or an observation about popular culture to get maybe 100 retweets. That happens reasonably regularly. I’ve never had more than 250. Within an hour, it had gone over 1,000 and was flying. That was kind of like, ‘Wow.’ This is all a bit of a new experience, really. Lots of people, lots of crying with laughter emojis and most people being quite positive and thinking it was very funny.

James: That was at its source distribution, through Twitter?

Heidi: In Twitter alone, yeah.

James: Then, how long did it take before it got picked up and took on a life of its own?

Heidi: I think it was later that day. I went on Facebook. That was the first time I knew that The LAD Bible had picked it up and put it on Instagram to their followers, of which there are millions. At that point, you suddenly realise that it’s no longer in your control. At any point, I could have deleted that tweet and nobody else would have been able to see it.

Suddenly, it had left Twitter and had moved into Instagram and Facebook. I’m not on Instagram; I don’t use it. Suddenly, it was out there and other people were seeing it outside of that. That was kind of a weird feeling because someone else owns my content, if you like, and is sharing it around.

It was a bit like having someone read my diary, in a weird kind of way. Looking back at it now, of course, you put something out in the public domain and you could only expect that to happen. I’d never experienced it before.

James: The LAD Bible was founded in 2012 and it’s typically lots of really punchy, short, digestible, and usually funny, stuff.

That pan in numbers:

From @HeidiStephens: 7,400 retweets and 10K likes. 1 million impressions

From The Lad Bible Facebook: 7,400 shares and 150K Likes/Reactions. 12K comments.

From The Lad Bible Instagram: 80K Likes, 2K comments.

What is it that has now taken you, or at least your content, down a slightly darker path?

Heidi: Well, it’s been really interesting. It’s been a learning curve, because I’ve never experienced this kind of moment where anything I’ve done has gone viral in any meaningful way.

I think the interesting thing has been that, even for something that silly, there has still been, in a very small way, some negativity around it. A number of people have accused me of making it up, setting it up for retweets, which is ridiculous. Who has got the time? I’d have taken a better picture.

Also, people have taken the opportunity to read into, or to make judgments about me or my relationship, off the back of it. People have genuinely suggested that my partner, Pip, who is the nicest man you’ll ever meet, was making a ‘get back in the kitchen’ kind of gesture, that he put a frying pan in my tennis bag to remind me I should be at home cooking his breakfast. Actually, Pip cooks breakfast every morning, but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s the kind of people assuming that they can make judgments about me because of a picture I’ve posted. That definitely doesn’t sit completely comfortably with me. Again, it makes me wonder how much worse things could have been had I posted something else or had I positioned it and framed the context differently. It would have been very easy for me to position it as, ‘There’s a frying pan in my tennis bag. Boyfriend wants me to get back in the kitchen.’ In my world, that would have been quite funny. In the world of anyone that knew Pip, they would’ve known that was a joke. Of course, as that spread, it would have been really uncomfortable for him.

I guess there’s an element of relief on my part that it was something so kind of innocuous and benign, that there wasn’t anything in there that was embarrassing to me or my family. There wasn’t anything in there that was remotely controversial or, in some way, derogatory, or could be taken out of context. There was nothing in there that made me or my partner look bad, but that could very easily have been the case. I guess there’s part of me that’s sort of… I can watch this viral spread go, with a vaguely interested eye, rather than a slight feeling of panic.

James: I’ve taken a skim of some of the comments. You see the interactions that those comments in themselves get. The majority are innocuous; some put their own spin on the captioning: ‘That didn’t pan out the way she expected…’

Heidi: Haha, love a pun.

James: But even then it’s heavily gender-loaded. That comment got 5K likes. And then you have the likes of, ‘It’s his kind of way to say that you belong in the kitchen’, which got 3,000 likes off others endorsing that particular comment.

Heidi: Wow.

James: Through to the cynical and hyper-suspicious, ‘Cheap effort to gain likes, 100 quid from LAD Bible.’

Heidi: Yeah. Which, by the way, if The LAD Bible is supposed to…

James: Has there been any contact from them?

Heidi: No, I’ve had nothing from The LAD Bible.

Heidi: It was my daughter that told me, ‘Shouldn’t you get some money from The LAD Bible?’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t even know that was a thing. I don’t want money for it. That wasn’t why I put it online. I put it online because I thought my followers, of which there are more than most but not a huge number, would find it amusing.

Again, it was a tiny fraction of the response which was negative. I haven’t read any of the stuff on Instagram or on Facebook because I’ve had a busy weekend.

James: How does Pip feel about it all?

Heidi: Pip’s slightly bemused by it, I think, because he’s not active on social. He doesn’t use any social networks at all, but he does read my Twitter. He’s been quite entertained by the response to something that, in his world, is quite normal behaviour.

Pip will take my tennis balls out of the cans and put satsumas in there. He’ll leave little notes around the house. He’s one of those people that, in his idea, little funny things to do, as long as they’re not in any way going to spoil my day, are kind of cute and charming.

I think, from him, it was a daft thing to do. I think he’s been really surprised that so many people were kind of engaged with it or amused by it or annoyed by it or whatever. It’s not something you expect, really.

James: It’s probably a bit naff to refer to it as a journey per se, but this piece of content in itself has been on a journey. It started off as a funny picture of a frying pan in a tennis bag. It then evolved into, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. My frying pan has gone viral’, which is a daft notion in and of itself.

Heidi: Yes.

James: Then, it has escalated even further still to the kind of comments reserved for the ignorant underbelly of the internet. It’s just that where it goes next or how out of control it is, is kind of fascinating, really.

Heidi: It’s been really interesting to sit back and watch that happen. You hear about stuff going viral, some of it very positive, and some of it genuinely ruins people’s lives. It was nice to be able to take a breath and go, ‘It’s fine’, but actually then just watch it happen. That’s not something you see every day.

I feel like it’s the kind of tweet that’s never going to die now. I think it will always be driving slow and steady engagement over time. As you say, chances are it will crop back up here and there. I think my poor boyfriend, bless him, is going to meet people over the years and they’re going to be like, ‘You’re the frying pan guy.’

James: That makes you Frying Pan Lady.

Heidi: That makes me Frying Pan Lady. The irony is, the reason it ended up in my bag in the first place is I’d asked if he’d put it in the recycling because I bought a new one. On the way to the recycling, it ended up in my tennis bag. Now it’s gone. It went with the recycling yesterday. It was like the last hurrah of my frying pan. Before it went in the bin, it had its moment in the sun.

James: Now it has a digital legacy forever.

This interview first appeared on the Content + Alt + Delte podcast.
Listen to the interview here.

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