Lessons From a Minor Twitter Meme

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch a Twitter meme blossom right before my eyes. On Friday afternoon, in response to a fellow Catholic who had asked “Can someone give me the link to the Catholic Rules For Twitter? I never read it and apparently missed the rule that joking isn’t allowed,” I replied with a tongue-in-cheek rule marked with the hashtag #CatholicRulesForTwitter. I tweeted a few more and then saw more appearing from a few of my followers. Over the next few hours more and more tweets began appearing — most of them very funny!

(Sam Lucero was kind enough to blog about the origins of the meme on his blog; you can read the full story there.)

Watching this viral communication unfold in real time was fascinating. As I’ve reflected on why and how it caught on, I’ve come to a few conclusions that might help anyone wishing to spread the Gospel online:

  1. You have to nurture the message early on. If I had just tweeted one rule and left it at that, it probably wouldn’t have caught on. By offering a few examples, and then retweeting the rules that other people were posting, it encouraged others to join in and add their own rules.
  2. You never know where support will come from. Early on a couple of the rules took digs at the USCCB‘s notoriously strict guidelines for using their copyrighted material (including the New American Bible). Unaware that these rules were jokes, the USCCB actually tweeted a clarification that it’s OK to retweet their tweets! Once they caught on, though, they appreciated the joke and even pointed their followers to the hashtag. It was at that point, I think, that the meme really took off.
  3. You never know how the message will grow. Within a few hours#TECRulesForTwitter and #LutheranRulesForTwitter had appeared, building on the original joke and expanding it into a whole new, unintended audience.

The bottom line: Once you put it out there, you don’t control it. I say this all the time when I talk to people about social media, but it bears repeating: you cannot maintain control of what you put online, and this can be a good thing! By allowing other to manipulate, expand, and re-broadcast your message it reaches a wider audience than you originally expected or intended. You may not be able to plan for a viral message, but you can sure set the stage and allow it to flourish when it happens.

Bonus Item: Use your powers for good. Once the meme took off, I thought it would be cool to make it work for good. To that end we set up a #CatholicRulesForTwitter store where folks can buy shirts and mugs featuring an awesome #CatholicRulesForTwitter logo graciously donated by Jackson Alves. All proceeds go to benefit Catholic Relief Services!

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Author:Jonathan F. Sullivan

Jonathan F. Sullivan is the director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @sullijo; he also blogs on catechetical topics at www.JonathanFSullivan.com.