Reflections on Going Viral

“Going Viral” was not something I heard of growing up. Either was “car” or “Television” (I’m really old). But in modern life, the phrase has come to represent a post, image, video or news story that gains a rapid influx of national or world-wide attention. This phenomenon wasn’t even possible until recently in human history. Abraham Lincoln had to wait days to learn he had won the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Lincoln is known for many acts of courage. But living an entire life without once exploding on TikTok is perhaps his finest achievement.

Members of my immediate family have “gone viral” three times in the last four years. Once it was me and twice our daughter Brennan. After sharing the basic facts of these three strange moments in time, I will offer some observations on what viraling (I invented this word. Maybe it will go viral!) is like and how it affects one’s life.

The incident involving me starts while I was sitting in a Democratic Senate Caucus meeting shortly after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. I was reading the news on my phone while there was some heated discussion about something that didn’t directly affect me, such as renaming Pittsburgh “Eagles Suckville” or something like that.

I saw a story about President Trump meeting with a bunch of Sheriffs and being told by one from Texas that his state senator was trying to eliminate Civil Asset Forfeiture. Without getting into details, Civil Asset Forfeiture is one of the more truly evil policies reigning injustice down on mostly poor communities. Like the senator in Texas, I was working to eliminate this scourge as well. Trump, hearing about this senator’s efforts, said “Tell me his name. We’ll ruin his career”.

I immediately felt anger welling up inside of me. What a bully! And I was certain that Trump knew literally nothing about what Civil Asset Forfeiture was. I pasted the story on my twitter feed and using my pudgy fingers, just blurted out “Why don’t you try to ruin MY career, you fascist, loofa-faced shitgibbon!”. I don’t know what that phrase means exactly. I’m a fan of just combining words to make interesting sounds. But it didn’t matter. I was just blowing off steam. I expected the usual 30–50 likes from my followers, and I moved on to other things without giving it another thought.

An hour later, my Chief-of-Staff texted me that several newspapers had called my office wanting to talk about my tweet. “Oh shit” I thought. “What have I done now?” This was apparently going to be a thing now. I got back on my Twitter feed, and saw that “likes” were coming in at the rate of hundreds per minute. The number of people following me shot up from a little over 7,000 to over 45,000 within 24 hours.

By the next morning, I was getting phone calls from TV shows and newspapers from all over the country. Thousands of people were writing to me on Twitter, Facebook and my senate Email account.

Soon, I was getting numerous packages in the mail each day, containing T-shirts people had made up with my famous phrase on it. Someone sent me a bunch of balls with “Fascist Loofa-Faced Shitgibbon” embossed on them, thanking me for having the “balls to stand up to Trump”. I assume the balls were supposed to represent testicles, except purple ones the size of baseballs.

I got a large stuffed gibbon. My wife, Jen, panicked that someone was going to send me a real gibbonI I don’t think there’s actually such a thing as a shit gibbon. But let’s be clear, Jen wasn’t interested in welcoming any variety of gibbon into our family.

Brennan’s first viral moment happened when she was just 15 years old. She had been named after my hero Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, so she had big shoes to fill. But this was. challenge she took on with gusto from her earliest days

The Hillary-Trump election was coming to a heated conclusion, and we had been invited to attend a Hillary Town Hall in Haverford. Brennan immediately announced that she wanted to ask Hillary a question. I knew that we would be sitting in the VIP section near the front of the audience, so I thought she had a good chance of being recognized. I told her to think of the question she wanted to ask. She went upstairs and came down a half-hour later with a question about Trump’s habit of body-shaming women she wrote entirely on her own. I gave her one piece of advice: “Too long. Cut it by a third”, which she did.

At the Town Hall, Hillary finished speaking and it was time for questions. I knew that people were usually shy about being the first to raise their hands. But after the first question is asked, the flood-gates open. So when the first moment of awkwardness set in, Jen pushed Brennan’s elbow, sending her arm sky-ward. The Moderator, actress Elizabeth Banks called on Brennan who asked her question and got a huge round of applause.

After the event ended, reporters swarmed Brennan. She gave interviews to everyone from the New York Times to CNN. That night, she was the lead story on most of the network newscasts. It was very heady stuff and Brennan was thrilled….until the next day.

I arrived at work at 10:00 AM after a workout. My entire staff followed me into my office. Is this the “intervention” I’ve been expecting for so long? My Chief-of-Staff said “Don’t get on Twitter”, which I took to mean “get on Twitter NOW!” When I saw my feed I was stunned. Tens of thousands of hate messages directed at me, and more troubling, my daughter.

It seems that right-wing conspiracy monger Alex Jones and others had decided that Brennan was actually a “paid crisis actress” who was hired by the Clinton campaign to pretend she was just an innocent girl asking a question. There were dozens of conspiracy videos on-line, some showing Brennan rising to ask the question in super-slow motion, analyzing every frame like the Kennedy assassination. Fox News’ Meghan Kelly did a whole segment (complete with copious eye-rolling) about the hoax my daughter was perpetrating on the world. Finally, she had to go on national television (The Michael Smerconish show on CNN) to defend her honor.

The final Leach viral moment occurred last week. I am not at liberty to discuss the situation in detail. But some of you may have seen a picture which was all over the internet of two young women in dresses carrying the electoral votes through the capitol on the day of the violent insurrection. One of them (with the white headband) was Brennan, now 19 and working for the US Senate as she takes a gap year from Northwestern University. Somehow, going to college in her parents’ kitchen on ZOOM didn’t seem very appealing to her.

Once again, Brennan was contacted by virtually every news and talk show in the nation. Sadly, she couldn’t accept any of those offers. If you saw the movie “Fight Club”, you know that the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The US Senate is kind of like that. Hundreds of memes or variations on the famous photo were created. Dozens of celebrities retweeted and commented on Brennan’s picture. Some even remembered her previous jaunt across the national stage more than four years earlier, which I can only imagine fed into the “crisis actress” theories of the more unhinged among us.

Our family’s viral experiences have taught me a few things about the whole gestalt of going viral. To wit:

= You Cannot Plan to go Viral — Once I experienced the expansion of my social-media reach that comes with a viral moment, I was tempted to make it happen again. I tried a few times to say or do things that I thought might catch on. It never worked on a large scale. And the Shit-Gibbon was something I never would have predicted would have garnered any attention. Both of Brennan’s moments were also surprises. It has to be organic.

= Once you go Viral, you Just have to Ride the Pony — Once you’ve broken the blood-brain barrier and your tweet, post, speech or twerk goes viral, there is going to be an arc to it. It’s going to seem irrational and overwhelming, You are going to be getting presents, mentions, followers, attention, beyond what you could have imagined or think you deserve. Just drink it all in. You can’t stop it, and it’s all part of the ride.

= The Pony Gets Tired Quickly — There is a viral shelf-life, and it’s pretty short. You will be all anyone talks about for a day, three days, a week. And then suddenly, it’s over. That can be a bit of a let down and just as much of an adjustment as when you first hit big. Be prepared for it and accept it.

= The Shelf Life is Longer than the Half Life — While you will shortly be yesterday’s news, there will always be a tail of recognition. I still meet people who, when I introduce myself, point at me knowingly and say “Shit-Gibbon”. Brennan has the same experience as “The Plant” from her Hillary question.

= Going Viral Brings out the Crazy — Anytime your name or face becomes a subject of wider public discussion, there will be haters, psychos, nut-jobs, wack-a-doos and weirdos. And that’s just MY family! People are jealous of your attention or disagree with what you’ve done or whatever, and they will call you names and make up stories about you. But this too passes quickly. Try not to become overly close with these people.

= You Will Always Have a Great Story to Tell — For the rest of your life, when you are meeting new people, or there is a lull in some conversation, you are the guy who said “Shit-Gibbon” or who carried the electoral votes, or was taken to the sky by the runaway balloon, or ate the whole moose. Whatever led to your viral moment will be part of your life for the rest of it. So enjoy that.

Now go say something crazy so that Kim Kardashian can retweet it and someone can send you a live gibbon!

Long-time state House and Senate member, author of PA’s Medical Marijuana law, also creator of “shit-gibbon!” Comedian, professor, father of 2 awesome children!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store