My Story Went Viral: What I Wish I’d Known First
May 31, 2022 § 13 Comments
By Diane Forman
I never expected my story to go viral. Over two million views on a widely read commercial site. 11.5K likes and emojis on Facebook. Over 2.2K comments. The piece was syndicated and posted on Yahoo, Singapore News and elsewhere. A friend saw it as a top trending news story on her phone. A viral piece and huge readership—just what I’d been striving for as a writer!
I was completely unprepared for the aftermath.
It had taken me several years to gather the courage to write about my daughter’s estrangement, and this was well after we were reconciled. Reconciling took a great deal of time, space, personal change and effort to break long-established patterns. I wrote the story as a commercial rather than literary piece, citing not only my own experience, but research on estrangement and shame. I ended with hope because fortunately, our story had a happy ending.
I pitched the piece for Mother’s Day, a difficult holiday for many, with a personal goal of offering hope to those suffering from estrangement. I’d spent several Mother’s Days alone and would have loved to read an aspirational story of reconciliation on that day.
My story was accepted for publication rather quickly, and the editor was responsive and compassionate about the content. But when the proof arrived prior to publication, I was taken aback by the title, which shouted “clickbait!” Having mostly written for literary magazines, I’d seldom had a title chosen for me. Certain my daughter would balk, I e-mailed the editor and expressed concern. According to him and his team, readers decide whether or not to click on a story in under a second— they were sure the title was a win. Against my intuition and better judgment, I agreed. I’d never had a story run with the promise of so many readers, with so many potential likes and tweets.
The story ran on Mother’s Day, in a subsection of the main site. My bio linked my website, and within hours I had dozens of kind emails:
Your love and insight were inspiring…
Your words were a balm for my broken heart…
I thought I was the only one who had ever gone through this…
Thank you for your story of hope. I read it over and over again.
Over the next day I received over 150 messages from both grieving mothers and estranged daughters. There was some criticism, but most comments were appreciative and thankful. A few asked for writing support or wanted to join one of my writing groups, an unexpected perk. Several people wrote tomes of their own painful experiences. Some asked for the names of therapists, or provided their phone numbers and asked me to call them, or pleaded for help in reconciling with their own estranged children. In no way was I prepared for those questions. I am a writer and teacher, not a therapist.
But then the story appeared on the publication’s main site and its Facebook page, and things got ugly.
I was already concerned about the title, including the words “Perfect Mother.” Any cursory reading of my piece would indicate I never believed I was. But readers bashed me for calling myself perfect. They labeled me dysfunctional or mentally ill. Some said I was entitled, a terrible mother, and it was no wonder my daughter left. Some called me a narcissist or pathetic or mewling. The amount of vitriol was astonishing. At first I didn’t let the comments bother me, but after a while, I had to stop reading. Over the next days, I was so overwhelmed by hundreds of messages from my website, from both desperate parents and bitter haters, that I had to temporarily shut down my site.
This was a very tender spot of my actual life that strangers on the internet were trashing.
Many publications, commercial and literary, can continue to repost our pieces on social media for more clicks, and I couldn’t bear more insults. I contacted the editor, asking if he would consider changing the title of my story and removing personal information from my bio. Fortunately, he agreed.
When I decided to publish this piece, I knew people would wonder about my daughter’s side of the story, which was a fair question. I anticipated some criticism of my acknowledged codependent parenting. But I never imagined that my personal story would go viral, and that thousands of strangers would assault my character and call me names for writing a piece I believed was honest, loving and hopeful.
Would I place a story like this again in this type of publication, even with a wonderful editor? While I can’t control a reader’s response, I will better trust my instincts and intuition. I’ll think more carefully about the potential readership. I will never again consent to a title that makes me uncomfortable. Despite the number of people who thanked me, felt less alone in their own situations, and reached out in numerous ways—fulfilling my goal—I’d consider all angles before doing it again. I was and am proud of the piece, and know my words were comforting and affirming to many, but the hateful comments didn’t just bounce off. Our stories are pieces of our hearts, and we have to think carefully about how, when, where and even if we want them in the world.
Diane Forman has published in Boston Globe Connections, Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, WBUR Cognoscenti, and elsewhere. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at dianeforman.com. Twitter: @WriterForman