The way I saw Twitter began to change around 3 p.m. on Oct. 24, when I saw a dumb libertarian meme pop up on my Twitter timeline. “When someone praises socialism,” it said over a funny-looking picture of an owl, rolling its eyes as if to say, the caption suggested, “bruhhhhh … ”
I follow a healthy number of people on the “irony left,” and this corner of Twitter is endlessly amused by the ham-fisted attempts by dark money–funded groups like Turning Point USA and Students for Liberty to use internet culture to counteract the growing excitement about socialism among millennials. After People’s Policy Project founder Matt Bruenig retweeted the owl meme, I opened the replies to see how the libertarians were getting owned this time.
Sure enough, lefty twitter users were there, trolling that the owl actually looked like socialism had driven it into a state of sexual ecstasy (understandable). The best of these was “Dr. Owl” helpfully piping up: “Owl expert here! (Ornithologist) That owl is in fact orgasming.” I screencapped the exchange and sent off a fateful tweet.
I only had about 300 followers, but instantly my friend Ian retweeted it. Ian is a comrade who is also into baseball, and, as Game 1 of the World Series was happening, many of his followers were online to see it.
“Your baseball friends are all sharing my owl tweet,” I DMed Ian.
“They love socialism and they love nutting,” Ian replied.
Within a few minutes, the owl tweet soared past my previously most popular tweet (100 likes for telling Ja Rule to join the Democratic Socialists of America). Two hours later, notorious lefty jokester @KrangTNelson retweeted it. “ADH out here doing numbers,” my friends in a group chat said as the retweet count hit four digits. The notifications were rolling in heavily now. My phone got glitchy until I turned off push notifications. I scrolled dazedly through the endless stream of shares, likes, and replies.
The next day, I woke from fitful sleep to discover that the tweet was still going, past 20,000 retweets, and was getting noticed. A BuzzFeed reporter had called up some real ornithologists to fact-check my tweet. “Dr. Owl” (you may want to sit down for this) turned out to not be an owl expert after all, and the owl in the picture was likely not orgasming. Soon Mic and Snopes had similarly debunked the image, and a handful of brave souls began swooping into my mentions wielding this sword of truth—which made the whole thing even funnier. (Thankfully Daily Dot leaped to my tweet’s defense.) I would feel bad about spreading “fake news” if the question of owl o-faces was not so entirely harmless. Nonetheless, the libertarians felt vindicated and celebrated “#owlgate” with a T-shirt contest for the best libertarian owl meme. In the biz this is what we call a “self-own.”
Going viral lets you watch Twitter from an angle most people never see. Turns out there were really only about a half-dozen jokes that worked for this meme, and everyone on the internet was making a version of one of them. There were the “I’m crying” posts replete with emojis, the annoyingly dated “this is why the internet,” coy queries about how anyone would know what an owl’s o-face looked like, and the irony Twitter favorite “this website is free.” There was something both terrifying and wholesome about watching people tag their friends, and those friends tag other friends.
So why did my tweet go viral? I credit its digestibility (the single screenshot didn’t require additional clicks to get the joke) combined with the layered nature of the humor. The concept of an owl orgasm is inherently funny for just about anyone, but the context made it even better for those who chuckle at right-wing groups using meme culture poorly.
After a couple of days, the tweet had passed 40,000 retweets and 130,000 likes. My screencap got ripped off (only fair) and shared on Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit to the tune of tens of thousands more shares, likes, and upvotes. I saw comments come in from a dozen languages as different time zones picked it up. I saw the fights in the replies. I mostly stayed out of the fray and kept my DMs closed to harassers and bots. Colleagues joked that I was famous, and a couple exes I hadn’t talked to in a while reached out saying they’d seen it. By Oct. 28, the spread leveled off, and I muted the thread to avoid the annoying trickle of notifications.
All this happened at a moment when I was also getting a much smaller amount of attention for things I actually cared about. The same morning BuzzFeed wrote about my tweet, the Phoenix New Times profiled a Medicare-for-all canvassing campaign I’d helped organize, and later that week, a short story I’d written about health care and climate change was announced as a runner-up in a British science-fiction contest. Knowing that my lewd owl tweet would touch exponentially more people than either of those works put a sour twist on the whole affair.
A week later I tried again. I wrote a funny (I thought) tweet about squeaky bicycles and asked my friends to share it during the World Series game. It didn’t go anywhere. After all that, I still only have about 500 followers. Lots of funny people can produce a steady stream of semiviral tweets, but the kind of lightning my horny owl rode in on doesn’t strike twice. That’s OK. I’m happy as a lurker.
Sometimes I think about Dr. Owl, aka @USdotard, whose joke I accidentally made famous. Dr. Owl is still out there tweeting a mix of lefty politics and pictures of owls—an admirable commitment to the bit. Maybe one day, when our society has gotten over its semitoxic obsession with high-frequency social media, Dr. Owl and I will meet, no longer irony-poisoned, and reminisce about the good jokes from these bad days.
“Do you remember sex-owl?” Dr. Owl will say. “That owl sure loved socialism.”
“It did indeed, doc,” I’ll say. “It did indeed.”
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.