Sunday, November 10, 2013

American Nations goes viral

Over the past four days, I've had the novel and enjoyable experience of having my work go, as they say, "viral" on the interwebs. Between Thursday morning and this (Sunday) evening, the map and ideas laid out in my most recent book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, shot first around the country, and then the world, initially building speed organically on social media, then getting the attention of first the "new media," then a prominent blog at a major newspaper. Next thing I know I'm being interviewed by the BBC World Service's Newshour, pretty much the coolest place ever for a former foreign correspondent to find himself.

Here, as far as I can put together, is the anatomy of my viral experience.

I wrote the cover story of the new issue of Tufts Magazine, the alumni publication of the university I attended, on the regional differences in violence, as clarified through American Nations. As hoped, it generated a lot of discussion -- some angry responses, a lot of positive ones -- and I plugged the piece last week over at Washington Monthly, where I post regularly on the paradigm and its implications in current events, like this week's election in Virginia. Things carried on quietly enough for a week and -- apart from some nice praise from the alumni magazine media critics at UMagazinology -- nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

But by Thursday morning, something was clearly brewing. Facebook friends were having the piece posted on their timelines by people outside my network from all over the country. Strangers started tweeting about it. Its sales rank on Amazon -- "crack for authors", my agent calls it -- started surging. In mid-morning, the web 'zine-cum-group blog Boing Boing posted this short plug for not only the Tufts article and the book, but for Republic of Pirates as well. (Thanks, guys!) I started getting e-mails from radio stations requesting interviews.Prominent figures were Tweeting the article.

Then, early Friday afternoon, the Washington Post's widely-read GovBeat blog piled on with this piece, which soon seemed to be absolutely everywhere. The Post's The Fix, New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and Der Spiegel tweeted my AmNat map to their combined half million followers. On Saturday, National Public Radio emailed about an interview. By this afternoon I was  on the BBC World Service's Newshour (0:49) whilst the London Daily Mail and Mexico's El Diario were posting articles based on the Post piece. My e-mail inbox runneth over.

As for the book, Amazon ran out of paperbacks earlier today and looks on the verge of selling out on hardcovers as well. If something of the sort is happening at bricks-and-mortar stores, it would seem the book has found some new audiences. And I'll never again doubt the power of digital social networks to disseminate ideas. If only one could figure out how to predict what makes one go viral.

[Update, 11/11/13: The American Conservative's Rod Dreher writes this afternoon: "I’ve received that map, and the accompanying story, about fifty billion times in the past week."]

[Update, 11/12/13: An update on the continuing media frenzy here.]


  1. Glad this is happening for you. I reviewed your book back in July and enjoyed it a bunch. I had a viral video back in 2011 of a song I recorded at a bluegrass festival. ( that scared me to death. There's no predicting or ensuring that anything will capture people's imagination. Ideas are powerful and yours should receive even wider (and perhaps a more "popular" interpretation so more people can appreciate it more widely. Congratulations!

    1. It is a fascinating experience. Of course, I've wanted the ideas in the book to do exactly this, so I'm thrilled, but it is also strange how suddenly and explosively it can happen these days.

  2. Congratulations! Are you on Twitter?

  3. Hi Colin,

    I have been wondering why these ideas have not taken off since the early 90s -- Albion Seed just blew me away. Here is an article I wrote for Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine about the topic in 1999. About the only impact it had was a couple of Masters Theses at UNC and its use in bluegrass music curricula.

    When Fischer finished his first work, he promised a full modern analysis, but it never happened. In his introduction to Champlain's Dream, he seemed to be railing against the PC of the History community -- not surprising I guess. Your American Nations fills that hole very well! It is a fine piece of work!!

    This is very exciting.


    -Tom Barnwell

    1. Hi Tom,

      And thanks for your note. Yes, I too had long been waiting for the sort of follow-up to Albion's Seed you described. I'm glad you think it stands up as a good substitute.

      Fischer's latest turned out to be about New Zealand. Here's a review I did for the Washington Post: