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What does it take to create a viral tweet?

Peter Crouch and a giraffe

If there was an obvious answer to this question then someone could no doubt make a fortune. Recent developments haven’t made this any clearer – as news broke this week that a tweet posted by a 16-year-old boy from Nevada has become the UK’s most retweeted of 2017… and it was about chicken nuggets.

You might be wondering what clever words or pithy phrases Carter Wilkerson used to attract such attention. Well, the content of the tweet read “Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” To which Wendys replied “18 MILLION.” Carter then took a screenshot of the tweet exchange and posted it as a new tweet with the title “HELP ME PLEASE. A MAN NEEDS HIS NUGGS.” And that’s pretty much it. That’s all it took to create the most retweeted tweet of 2017.

If that makes Twitter sound rather easy it’s worth noting the tweets which Carter out-retweeted. Others in the top 10 included tributes to the Manchester Arena victims and the late Bradley Lowery. The popularity of these tweets is more understandable – both are emotional and heartfelt tweets, it’s easy to see why people want to show their support. But what was it about Carter’s tweet that made it so popular?

There are some who have pointed out that the fact that a tweet begging for fast food could overtake one so poignant is a sign of how dumbed down society has become – or perhaps that Twitter is entirely full of kids. However, it’s interesting to note that the tweet spread in popularity via a variety of means, including former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, popstrel Zara Larsson and a lot of corporate Twitter users trying to get a piece of the viral action. It also had a number of components that could account for its success, some of which are transferrable even if you’re not a 16-year-old with a thing for fast food:

Importantly, it also tapped into this shared sense of community that is Twitter at its best. And Carter – unusually – has used his newfound fame to engineer donations to charities and set up a website selling T-shirts for charitable causes (bearing the slogan #nuggsforcarter of course). Not only did he get a year’s supply of nuggets, Wendy’s also donated $100,000 to the cause. So perhaps the success of the tweet isn’t such a damning reflection on our society as some would have us believe. It doesn’t solve the puzzle of how to go viral though. But then neither does the third most retweeted tweet of all time – a message from Louis Tomlinson of One Direction to bandmate Harry Styles: “Always in my heart @Harry_Styles . Yours sincerely, Louis.” The mystery continues.

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