On going viral

Let’s clear something up at the outset.

I haven’t gone viral. I am not responsible for something going viral.

But my Twitter feed has been in meltdown over the past 24 hours, and one of my tweets (to a Professor Robert E Kelly in South Korea) seems to imply that I was somehow responsible for his BBC World News interview (with guest stars) going nuclear.

In truth, it was clear this would go viral regardless. In the right context, clips like this can be re-published without significant risk of copyright infringement. By the time I saw Kelly’s response, it was well on the way. And at the time of writing it has been viewed several tens of millions of times.

Nevertheless, I felt we (the BBC) had a responsibility to seek his consent before adding our own wind to the storm. He and his wife were – understandably – reticent. A colleague of mine, Antony Dore, spoke to them both and managed to persuade them, no doubt helped by the fact the ship (the fleet?) had already sailed. Despite broadcasting the original live interview, I think it’s fair to say we were not amongst the first ships out of port. And in this case, we got it right. We did not require consent, but courtesy is free and having successful relationships with our contributors is critical to what we do.

I had to mute notifications on my Twitter feed. Various of my tweets have been seen hundreds of thousands of times; the one above has made over half a million ‘impressions’. Engagements with my tweets, or (more likely) others I was mentioned in, have run into the tens of thousands. Given the subsequent chaos, Kelly’s curiosity about whether this is the “kinda thing that goes ‘viral’ and gets weird” is just sublime.

I dread to think how it feels to be on the receiving end of that, to be at the heart of the story, to see so much ill-considered social media invective amongst the joy it brought many others. As I see it, Professor Kelly’s children are a credit to him, and while he and his wife must be mortified about what happened, there was something strikingly normal about the whole scenario. My favourite moment was the grand entrance of the baby-on-wheels. Confident, and fast!

My own children are aged four and one, similar to his. I sure could see this playing out in my home, though as my wife takes client calls by Skype it would be my special responsibility to prevent it. Should the worst happen (it won’t), I can’t really imagine it playing out any more calmly. I will take this clip as a warning.

Kelly now has 18,000 more Twitter followers than Friday morning (up 800%). Bizarrely, I now have 400 more followers. Another colleague, Bryony Hopkins, who requested the interview in the first place, also had to mute her Twitter notifications. She witnessed people watching the clip on the tube on her way home from work. And a random neighbour mentioned the clip to me this morning – my walk-on role in the whole saga unknown to him.

One point of irritation to me… there was a widespread assumption that the woman who eventually restored order was a nanny. It was not an assumption I shared, and we soon learned it was the mortified mother. But why did so many of us jump to this conclusion? I won’t spell it out, but perhaps she fitted a stereotype of some kind. The BBC’s Helier Cheung has given this some further analysis here.

Finally, lost in the fray, South Korea lost her president on Friday, impeached by Parliament and confirmed by a court, due to a corruption scandal. Pusan National University’s Professor Robert Kelly is something of an expert on the wider issues. Let’s hear him out. The interviewer: James Menendez.