Back in the days before social networks, us Gen Xers used to do most of the stuff that we do today on Facebook and Twitter using email. Pictures of cats existed before the era of the social networks; email was social without the like buttons.

Every so often I would send a joke of my own creation into the ether. I had a rule of thumb that was if one of my jokes came back to me from another source, then it would have been deemed properly funny. It never happened.

Wind forward a decade or so, and last week I had my first experience of a joke of my own creation coming back to me. I went viral, with a silly little joke about the annoying phrase “reach out” that is increasingly heard in offices the length and breadth of the land when people usually mean “talk to”.

A week after posting this daft flowchart, it has been reposted on tittle-tattle site The Poke, continues to be shared by hundreds on LinkedIn, and has been viewed some 120,000 times on Twitter. Whilst it’s hardly Kim Kardashian’s bottom, compared to the few hundred views I generally get of one of my blog posts (on a good day), it’s a big leap. What can we learn?

We can look at the structure of the joke. I’d actually tweeted the same joke the day before in text form, and it barely raised a like. Putting things into image form does seem to have a greater impact than text alone. I had this explained to me once by one of the two neuroscientists that I know, Dr Jack Lewis, but all I can remember is that it’s because they are easier to cognitively process.

Using an image form that’s not usually associated with intentional jokes (the flowchart) also obviously adds something to the humour. And then the joke itself is incomplete; you have to know The Four Tops released a single called “(Reach out) I’ll be there” to get it, which I guess leads to a sense of wry smugness for those who do. Which in turn makes it a decidedly Gen-X joke and for all of the Millennial hype we owned the Internet when it was just email.

But so what? A reverse engineering of something that was successful to try to create rules or best practice for further viral domination? Well, probably not. Serendipity struck, and I’m not going to now shift my professional life to try to amplify and recreate such viral success to find a new source of income. But what has come out of it?

Well, I’ve made some new connections. People who got in touch to say hello. That’s good.

I’ve given some people a smile, and possibly a day of hearing The Four Tops whenever someone utters that banal phrase.

I’ve created a sense of solidarity, if only fleetingly, amongst people for whom that sort of language grates.

And more than that, well. The serendipitous success will probably lead to some more serendipitous things along the line. And I’ll just try to put to the back of my mind that for all the vaguely serious stuff about which I write, the one thing to go viral in the past four years is a joke referencing a pop song from 1967. I’ve got my finger on the pulse, me.

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