Viral web moments explained

How photo blogs get popular faster than you can say ’Awkward Family Photos’
Sonya Bell
Photos from Rich Kids of Instagram

There’s a secret ingredient to the runaway success of viral photo blogs – and it’s not having the cutest kittens on the Internet.

Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, the longtime friends behind the popular Awkward Family Photos blog, are the first to admit they can’t take credit for its viral moment.  All they did, back in May 2009, was set up a basic WordPress page and post a few of their own awkward family photos, with an invitation for others to do the same.

“Truthfully, Doug and I had no experience on the Internet. I don’t even know if I had set up a Facebook page at that point. We were very, very new and naive,” Bender says.

Within a week, book publishers were descending on them (well, on their inboxes).

The springboard wasn’t Facebook likes or Twitter retweets. A friend of Bender’s, who works at a radio station that is part of the Clear Channel network in the United States, posted a link to Awkward Family Photos on the station’s website, which was then picked by stations across the country. It catapulted the blog from three or four hits a day to more than a million.

“As you can imagine, the site was not built in any way, shape or form to handle traffic, so it was crashing. I’d like to say that it was an exciting time, and it was exciting, but it was very stressful,” Bender says. “I don’t think we understood just how much work we were going to be doing at that time.”

Hitting it big in the found-content blogosphere is part great idea, part promotion. Even the Internet – the supposed great democratizer – is not a level playing field.

Take, for example, This is Why You’re Fat. The home of gross-out creations such as the Meat Cake wasn’t started by a pair of undergrads with the munchies. It was the brainchild of then-social media power couple, Richard Blakeley, who was working for Gawker and his girlfriend, Jessica Amason, who was working for the AOL blog Urlesque. They, too, ended up with a book deal.

The trick can also be who notices you. Dannielle Owens-Reid remembers the traffic on her self-explanatory photo blog Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber skyrocketing after a celebrity blog and pop star Sky Ferreira tweeted it.

Dog Shaming, where owners submit pictures and captions of dogs caught behaving badly, blew up on Tumblr in August. The first picture was posted by Vancouver woman Pascale Lemire and immediately picked up by none other than Tumblr’s editorial director, Chris Mohney. (He transferred the blog back to Lemire when he couldn’t keep up with all the submissions).

The power of this viral elite’s influence means that often, the question isn’t “Why is this a craze?” but rather, “Who made it a craze?”

The mainstream media also plays a role: the revolving cast of characters who run Rich Kids of Instagram (they prefer to remain anonymous, the only clue to their identity being a mailing address at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) cite the pickup from The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Washington Post as traffic drivers.

“The amount of attention was a tidal wave and little sleep was had. When something like this enters the zeitgeist it’s bound to be a bit overwhelming,” one RKOI creator said by email.

Viral moments can forever change the lives of the blog’s creator. Rich Kids of Instagram is in discussions about a TV series. After creating Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber, Owens-Reid competed on MTV’s Twitter Jockey and secured a gig running social media for Lady Gaga on the Monster Ball Tour, travelling all over the U.S. And between a YouTube show, a board game and even a museum exhibit, Awkward Family Photos is now a full-time job for Bender and Chernack.

You might think the best part of your blog going viral would be the book deal. Lemire signed one based on Dog Shaming within eight days. But there’s something even better, she laughs. The photo that started it all – and went on to be blazed across CNN and MSNBC – shows her dachshund, Beau, tearing up her fiancé Mike’s boxer shorts.

“I think for me the highlight is knowing how many people have actually seen my fiancé’s underwear.”