I’m welcoming 50 new readers this week, because I wrote a tweet that went viral:
I sent this tweet on Monday a few minutes before bed, thinking it might get at most a dozen likes. When I woke up it had 150 likes and counting. As I write this, I’m still getting notifications every few minutes.
This is my first direct experience of virality. It’s been thought-provoking, especially since it coincides with the spread of COVID-19. A few things have been on my mind:
1. Network diffusion is unintuitive.
Why did this particular tweet strike such a chord? Maybe it’s a bit more interesting than my average tweet, but it’s not 1000 times more interesting.
The people I know who are most concerned about COVID-19 are the ones who are most active on Twitter, and it’s no wonder. They’re the people who know most intimately how hard it is to predict how fast something will spread through a network and take on a life of its own. If you haven’t yet, you should read Kevin Simler’s masterful interactive essay about network diffusion, Going Critical.
2. The scale of the internet is wacky.
One of my favorite bands, Vulpeck, recently performed at Madison Square Garden, which seats about 20,000 people. Here’s a screenshot of what that looked like from the stage:
So far my tweet has been seen by about 200,000 people—enough to fill that arena ten times. Another crazy way to put it: my tweet has been seen by twice as many people as have been confirmed to be infected by COVID-19 in the whole world. (Let’s hope it stays that way, although my money is on the virus.)
My brain can’t quite grasp these claims directly, so I’m just taking them as reminders that my actions can have wider ripple effects than I can imagine.
3. I’m not the only who’s a bit exhausted by the culture of Total Work.
When people talk about work-life balance, they’re mainly referring to finding balance between your job and the rest of your life. But if you’re like me, you feel a restlessness that extends beyond your job. You’re itching to be constantly improving at one game or another, whether it’s your side hustle, your workout routine, your Goodreads reading challenge, or your performance on social media. You might not spend 80 hours a week in the office, but that doesn’t mean the work stops when you leave.
It’s not that work is unenjoyable. I love my job, and I derive all kinds of satisfaction from the other games I play in my ‘spare’ time. The trouble is that it’s all so darn effortful, so purposeful. I wrote that tweet to remind myself that I can and occasionally should opt out of Total Work.
The point is emphatically not to rest up so I can be more productive when I put my nose back to the grindstone. The point is that nobody owns me, and if I feel like resting then I should.
In grade 10 I read Steven Millhauser’s novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. I reread it this month, because even after twelve years I found myself thinking back to it often. It’s a hypnotic, dreamlike story set in late 19th-century New York City: Martin begins as a bellboy in a hotel, and rises up the ranks to manage, then own, then build hotels of his own. If you’re looking for a novel and you’re the type of person who likes, say, Thinking In Systems, Martin Dressler might be a good one to chew on.
How Homes Work, by Pamela Hobart: Homes that are too small or too large can cause trouble for their occupants in non-obvious ways.
How Fast Should You Be When Learning?, by Scott Young: Be slow and methodical when you know what you’re aiming for, and be fast and experimental when you don’t.
Improvisational Productivity, by Daniel Gross: If you think too much about a task before you’re ready to fully execute it, then by the time you are ready, the fun part will be over and all that will be left is drudgery.
You Can Probably Write a Book, by Sasha Chapin:
Necessity is magical. When I signed that contract, another person arose in me. He was a lot like my usual self, but there was one major difference: he could just sit down, at any time of day, anywhere, in any physical condition, and bleed thousands of words out of his hands at will.
Does owning a car hurt your health?, by Alex Hutchinson: Yes. In Beijing, a limited number of new car permits are given out each year by a lottery system. This makes for a great natural experiment. A study found that among people aged 50 or over, those who won this lottery weighed on average 10kg (22lb) more, after five years, than those who didn’t.
How to invest in index funds, for Canadians, by me: A step by step guide to investing in TD’s e-series mutual funds, using their self-directed investment accounts. I wrote this because several of my friends had told me they knew about passive investing and why they should be doing it, but they didn’t know which buttons to press to make it happen.
Open Transclude for Networked Writing, by Toby Shorin: A UX pattern for “transcluding” text from one web page to another, with a reference implementation if you want to give it a try on your blog.
Why you should care about typography, by Ben Barrett-Forrest: A short and entertaining talk by one of my best friends. Ben got his own taste of virality when we were students together at McMaster. For a class project, he made an incredible stop-motion video about the history of typography, which has now been viewed over 1.5 million times:
If you want to learn more about typography and graphic design, check out his instructional decks of playing cards.
I’m making good progress on the piano and having lots of fun:
As a huge fan of Tame Impala’s 2015 album Currents, I’m sad to say that I’m disappointed in their new album, The Slow Rush. Frankly, it’s a bit boring. But I love the song Breathe Deeper, especially the B part.
Several friends and I are currently obsessed with the song Aphrodite, by Beatenberg and TRESOR, a collaboration of South African artists.
Three other songs have been on repeat for me this past month:
To listen to all five songs I’ve mentioned here, give this playlist a spin.
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