I was sitting at the kitchen table reading something on my laptop, when I heard the buzzing sound and then a gentle bump, bump, bump, as a bee repeatedly hit the window while trying to escape. I’ve always been one of those people who does the wrong thing in these situations and starts flapping about, my fear of getting stung causing me to behave in exactly the way that gets you stung.
But this time I stayed calm and collected, opened the kitchen window and gently ushered the little creature out into the sunshine. I pottered out into the garden after him, taking my coffee, and checking up on the pots I’ve recently planted up with a mixture of lavender, daisies, poppies and herbs. All bee-friendly plants, and yes, there was another one happily darting in and out of the flowers.
Back inside I casually tweeted about the fact that when I see a bee now my immediate reaction is not, “Oh no I might get stung!” but more, “What can I do to help?” Within seconds the tweet started going mad, replies and retweets stacking up in their hundreds, then thousands, and then tens of thousands. Literally everyone, it seems, currently feels the same, and I was inundated with stories of people saving exhausted bees with sugar water, photos of bees being spoon-fed, images of bee houses, bee baths, bee-friendly plants, you name it. After 48 hours of non-stop activity, it was my most popular tweet ever by an absolutely huge margin.
Well, I thought – not for the first time – thank goodness it was a nice tweet that went viral and not some clumsy remark or accidental insult. It developed into one of those heartwarming threads where people come together to share similar concerns, swapping ideas and solutions. And it reminded me again how unpredictable social media can be. Those of us who use it some of the time to talk about our work – promoting events, or new projects – can fall into the trap of thinking we know what we’re doing. That a campaign or a new piece of information, where we agonise over the wording and the timing of an announcement, means we can control our message, can ensure that everyone sees it and reacts just as we want.
In fact, the way in which people respond is a constant surprise. A carefully constructed message can land with a dull thud, attracting almost no interest, and then the most throwaway joke, idly tweeted as it pops into your head, strikes a chord and becomes massively popular.
It’s a bit like having a hit single. All the effort that sometimes goes into trying to craft an obvious smash – rewriting the chorus, adding more backing vocals, editing it down to three minutes, making an expensive video, splurging money on a promotional campaign – can get you absolutely nowhere if the public decides it’s just not interested. And then at other times, a song you’ve given up on, that already seems dead, can take on a life of its own, being discovered by people who decide it’s exactly what they want from you, creating a demand that you never saw coming. Yes I am talking about “Missing”.
That song was a hit almost behind our backs. It took off while we were already doing something else. Instead of us forcing it upon people, it was the audience themselves who forced us to respond, until it was re-released and became a hit all over the world, taking everyone involved by complete surprise.
There is no telling what people will like. Everything is more unpredictable than we like to think. In retrospect you can identify the qualities that lead to success, but if it were easy to do so in advance, no one would ever release a flop. No one would fail. I like this fact really; I like how unknowable the world is.
A few days after my bee tweet, I’m doing a literary event in Dublin and I’m asked about it onstage during my talk. It may actually become one of the things I am famous for. I used to think that on my gravestone it would inevitably read, “Like the deserts miss the rain”, but perhaps now it will say, “Here lies the woman who did that funny tweet about bees that you all liked that day.”
This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance