How Does an 8,000 Word Story Go Viral?

A recent Atlantic story set a daily traffic record, but most people read it in bits and pieces, while eagerly sharing.
Image: Alfred Lui/Flickr

"Did you see that story in the Atlantic?"

This question was all that filled my world on Tuesday, after the Atlantic posthumously published an 8,000-word, complex exploration of an author's relationship to the woman who was his family's slave. The story quickly exploded—even amid the endless breaking news cycle in Washington—setting online daily traffic records for the magazine, according to the senior director of communications. It sparked many a twitter essay, blog post, take, and counter-take as the online literati tried to tease apart the difficult and emotional narrative. If you haven't yet, you should really read it.


But as fascinated as I was by the story and its impact, I was also intrigued by a familiar trope and frenzy that takes place whenever a juicy, intelligent long read is published. People engage in a public demonstration of how well-read they are through the rapid consumption and sharing of the read-du-jour. It's such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it was parodied on Portlandia. But what I wanted to know was, how did all of these people with day jobs have time to read it?

I reached out to the Atlantic, friends on Twitter, and the CEO of Pocket—an app that downloads online content to your phone so you can read it later—to find the answer. And my suspicions were confirmed: it turns out a lot of people didn't read it, not it its entirety, until later that evening, or the next day. But they shared it anyway.

There have been studies that show the majority of links—59 percent—shared on social media have never been clicked, meaning people are sharing stories they haven't even glanced at. Further analysis has shown lots of people share stories after only skimming, or reading the first part of the story. Both of these seemed to have happened, to some extent, with the Atlantic's hit.

The traffic to this story helped smash the Atlantic's single day traffic records, with nearly 4.5 million unique visitors to the site on Tuesday and 4.8 million on Wednesday, according to Anna C. Bross, the magazine's senior director of communications. Bross told me the previous record was 3.3 million from a story in January. This week's story also kept traffic up later into the evening, as an audience in the Philippines—where the author's family was from—start their day and began to share and read the story.


Bross said the average reader was spending five minutes on the story—staggering by typical online reader habits, but not nearly enough to read the full piece. Unless, of course, you were reading it in bits and pieces. That was the explanation I got from a lot of people on Twitter:

My theory that people weren't finishing the story, or were reading it in fits and starts, was backed up by the data I got from Pocket. As of Thursday afternoon, 21,000 users had saved this story to the app, according to Nate Weiner, the CEO and Founder of Pocket. Most people saved it in the early afternoon, but didn't open it again until the evening, with the average time between saving the story and opening it being six hours.

"Another interesting behavior we're seeing with this article is that the average time between first open and eventual finish of the article was three hours," Weiner told me via email. "And looking at the number of opens, it appears that people are coming back to finish this article. For example, starting it either during the day or on their commute and then finishing it at night before bed."

It turns out our reading and sharing habits, particularly with long reads, aren't as linear as they might appear. Lots of people read part of the story, or skim it, before sharing it, only to finish reading it later. Others read chunks throughout the day as they had five minutes to spare, but shared early on when they had read enough to decide it was a "must read."

This isn't to say that nobody read the story in one go the second it was published, but it did soothe my FOMO a bit to know that just because the story was blowing up on my social feeds, doesn't mean I was the only person who hadn't yet read it.

Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.