The Twitter Invoice

Step 1: Go viral. Step 2: Quick, self-promote while you’re hot! Step 3: Profit?

User holds his phone as a tweet goes viral.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Recently in my online travels, I crossed paths with that rare thing, a genuinely good viral tweet. For the purposes of this anecdote, it doesn’t matter which viral tweet it was, but suffice it to say it’s one you may have seen too, either in your own timeline or in one of the online news outlets that plucked it from Twitter to write about. In fact, I considered doing the same thing. I went so far as to click over to the tweeter’s profile, where I saw that his bio asked that anyone who wanted to use his tweet message him first. So I did: I complimented his superior tweet and floated the possibility of embedding it in a story. He thanked me. Then he asked if I could pay him for it.

I didn’t pay him for it, and I didn’t end up writing the story. But there was no harm in asking—I don’t expect everyone to know how journalism works, especially when the “journalism” in question revolves around embedding tweets. But it did crystallize something about our current Twitter economy for me: Users are increasingly frustrated there’s not more, or really any, money in going viral.

There may be no clearer demonstration of this frustration than the relatively new phenomenon wherein, after achieving Twitter virality, someone responds to his or her own original tweet with a slightly dazed reply remarking upon what happened. If you haven’t had the pleasure of noticing these yet, or if you’re one of those “well-adjusted” people who doesn’t spend all your time on Twitter, I’ll explain. Let’s take a tweet that hit it big a few months ago as an example: One February evening, Twitter user @TEEJUS__ fired off a tweet about how, as an Uber driver, he has found success in creating 11 Spotify playlists that cover just about every type of rider, with categories ranging from “white dudes who look like [they] like rap” to “basic 20-30s.” Since it was posted, the tweet has amassed more than 260,000 likes and 57,000 retweets. A few hours after the original, @TEEJUS___ followed up with a threaded tweet reacting to his newfound virality. First came the shock:

And not long after that came the belated attempt to see if thousands of likes and retweets would translate to any actual cold, hard cash:

And there you have it: the post-virality self-reply, or the Twitter invoice. Now you can look for it after every viral tweet you see. Each time you encounter it, you get to see how a particular person dealt with the Twitter equivalent of winning the lottery or getting caught on the Jumbotron.

Sometimes, this journey plays out over multiple tweets. Last year, after Twitter user @cami2222 posted a series of pictures of a cat “sitting like people” that would go on to earn about 38,000 likes, she periodically updated the thread with dispatches from her viral journey:

More often than not, though, the tweeter starts to hear the siren song of profit. This is the United States of America, after all, and we realize a moment of attention can be a powerful thing. This moment of surprise–cum–attempt to capitalize is like the 2018 social media version of “You just won the Super Bowl. What are you going to do next?” Except, on Twitter, there’s no Walt Disney Company to swoop in on someone’s viral moment of glory and give him or her the reward of endorsement dollars, so the person is left scrambling to see what, if any, benefit can be squeezed out of 280 characters of fame. Granted, it is possible to make money going viral—there are a small number of people who have managed to parlay Twitter fame into jobs or money (a process that is just about as fair and equitable as the rest of society), and Twitter is also home to an entire shady ecosystem for profiting off of mostly stolen content. But for the writer of a one-off tweet that does boffo numbers, well, better take advantage of your moment while you can.

Some people feel a little guilty about passing their virtual baskets around for donations but end up doing it anyway, like a Twitter user who goes by @NINACOLADA did after her tweet about eating Tide Pods vs. eating the Mona Lisa (Twitter is a weird place, OK?) racked up more than 123,000 likes:

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the more unapologetic money grab. A Twitter user called @aDopamineFiend hit it big this week with a tweet featuring a Prince Harry clip, and right under it he invited users to sign up for Robinhood, a stock and cryptocurrency-trading app, using his referral code.

This species of reply tweet has become such a certifiable Thing that it’s even become a bit of a cliché, the kind of thing that Extremely Online people joke about.

Straight up asking for money is one way to go, but there are many avenues of potential profit. Promoting one’s other content is another common route, because Twitter is a largely a place for users who, in between slinging bons mots for free, also work or aspire to work in creative fields. Why not try to direct some of those eyeballs toward a book, TV show, Soundcloud page, or other artistic endeavor? In this economy, everyone’s got a side hustle.

This is what Twitter user @BLCKSMTHdesign did when his tweet about making a boyfriend out of a box of wine cleared 103,000 likes: He replied to his original tweet with a link to the latest episode of his web series. Why not, right?

Whether that plug resulted in any noticeable uptick in viewership is anybody’s guess. On the giant town square of social media where people from completely different worlds meet by chance and/or algorithms, there’s no guarantee that the audience for a morsel of viral content will overlap with the audience for the passion project of its author. Another Twitter user, Nicky Drayden, presumably figured it would be a shame if her picture of a funny sign (38,000 likes and counting) didn’t lead to any promo for her books. Her original viral tweet was book-related, it’s true, but what are the chances that any significant percentage of the people who saw it also happen to be interested in near-future thrillers, her genre of choice?

Consider also the example of Twitter user @samga, who got 145,000 likes on a picture of a bad tattoo. Her attempt to direct her new fans toward charities that support indigenous Australians and refugees was admirable, but it also seems slightly unlikely that the people who got a quick laugh from her picture (which, it must be noted, may not have even belonged to her originally) were moved enough to part with some of their own hard-earned money.

I don’t blame anyone for giving the self-reply thing a shot. I am someone who writes stories about viral tweets for my job, so I’m also implicated in this bizarre economy. But the trend of “invoicing” reinforces something we’ve always known about Twitter, which is that it’s a crapshoot. Users put their time and effort into it, and Twitter helps them think they’re earning likes and retweets, but the only entity that’s really earning anything is Twitter itself, through turning our engagement into ad dollars (or at least attempting to). For most of us, it’s a game that never ends, where no one ever wins. Anyway, while you’re here, please like and share this and follow me on Twitter @heathertwit.