On Wednesday morning, thousands of Minnesotans logged on to Facebook to some disturbing (or maybe exciting) news from a WCCO story that popped up on their feed: Our unseasonably warm, November weather was over, and a snow storm was headed our way Monday with the potential to dump 14 inches of snow on parts of the state.
There was just one problem: The story was from last year.
Somehow, a story from 2014 about the season’s first major snow storm had been shared thousands of times by Facebook users in Minnesota and beyond, going viral.
By the end of the day, the story had been viewed more than a quarter of a million times, making it not only the top post of the day or even the month, but just a few hundred clicks away from being the most viewed story on WCCO.com in 2015. It beat out most major news stories of the year, including the arrest of a person of interest in Minnesota’s infamous Jacob Wetterling cold case, the discovery of the body of missing boy Barway Collins, the story of a Minnesota dentist who had illegally poached a beloved lion in Africa, and several other bizarre stories that went viral nationwide.
So how did this happen? How had so many Minnesotans been duped into thinking the snow was on its way? Was this some sort of elaborate hoax? Who was behind it?
Actually, nobody. At least not anyone in particular.
It seems to have started with one of Facebook’s new features that reminds you of a “memory” of one of your posts on this day in the past few years. A few of our viewers were reminded of the day last year when they shared our article from 2014 about the coming snow storm.
A few others saw their friends share the story, but perhaps misunderstood that it was a “memory.” Or maybe someone shared the post without a few words of context, even further confusing things.
Eventually, a few people shared the story thinking it was recent, and a few of their friends shared it from there, and things began to compound.
But it wasn’t until one user, with nearly a thousand followers (and likely thousands of friends) shared the story, with the caption “I’m not ready. I’ve been enjoying this weather.” As of Thursday afternoon, that post (likely the “patient zero” of the whole situation) had been shared over 2,000 times.
From there, the post was completely out of our control. Even after the web producers at WCCO.com noticed what was going on and made a note of the date at the top of the post, hundreds more were still sharing the story. Even now, the post is being shared roughly every 10 minutes.
So what can we learn from the strange, unintentional, social media experiment? A few things, I think:
1. Minnesotans like to talk about the weather. A lot.
Any lifelong Minnesotan already knew this. Even though the story isn’t true (at least not this year), quite a few of WCCO’s most viewed web stories of the year are about weather — tornadoes, thunderstorms, wind gusts and (perhaps especially) snow seem to always capture our attention.
2. A lot of Facebook users don’t click through to the story before sharing, though some still do.
This is probably no surprise to many. Even after WCCO web producers added an editor’s note at the top of the story specifying the date, hundreds more still shared the story, thinking the storm was on its way. Still, it’s clear many did read the story, as evidenced by the massive amount of traffic the site received.
3. It’s hard to predict when, how and why something will go viral.
Sometimes you can tell right from the start if a story will take off online. Other times, it’s somewhat of a surprise. But one thing is for sure: You really can’t figure out some kind of “secret recipe,” to get a story or video passed around. Sometimes, it just happens — whether you want it to or not.