Jacob Mulligan

August 14, 2012

From 0 to 750,000 page views. . . In four days

tl;dr: wtfnasa was not made to go viral, it was made to be a simple intro to CodeIgniter & a reaction to people’s anger over NASA’s $2.5 billion dollar Curiosity budget, I put ~zero thought into having ‘fuck’ in the title, it was built in about 10 hours (design, build, data entry, & launch) last Wednesday (8/8) & Thursday, it had 9 unique visitors as of Friday at noon & right now it has just over 110k. Reddit was 30% of total traffic

Take aways: it’s hard (impossible?) to plan virility. If you want people to Tweet about your project/blog/company, write the tweet/blog title for them. Luck has an uncomfortable amount of influence on virality.


A story about luck and the web.

I had seen the hash tag #wtfNASA on twitter during the days leading up to the Mars rover landing, people were using it to complain about the $2.5 billion being spent on the Mars landing. I disagreed, bought the domain (wtfnasa.com), and thought it’d be fun to turn the already trending hastag on it’s head and make #wtfnasa a sign of pride in our space program instead. This by all means just a side project.

Like many dev’s, I prefer to code with friends and it was the Wednesday after the Curiosity landing that I was getting nerdy with Ali (another Northeastern developer) when I got to thinking about the website again and decided to start designing it. By midnight I had a complete Photoshop mock up and some HTML. At around 2am on Thursday night the site was done; I was happy with the design, it looked good enough on my iPhone, and the database was loaded with 18 NASA spinoff’s. Promptly passed out and couldn’t wait until 12:10pm the next day (Friday) when BufferApp told me I should post it to Facebook & Twitter.

12:45PM on Friday: 35 minutes have gone by  since it was ‘launched’ and I just got back from lunch break, a couple of retweets and 120 unique visitors. Cool, people I don’t know are retweeting this! Close Google Analytics and back to work (emails don’t code themselves!)

3PM: Let’s search Twitter and see how this thing is coming along… There’s been a tweet like every minute for the past two hours about wtfnasa! Where the heck are these coming from?… TheNextWeb just covered wtfnasa! Oops, did I just make a strange yelling noise out loud in the office? Yup…

5:01PM: leaving the office and on the subway back to my apartment: 10k unique visitors so far today and 77 active visitors on the site when I left work. Is my server going to crash? I’m paying $7 for hosting this month, no way that will hold up. This subway ride couldn’t have take any longer. Deep breath, HostGator says I’m only at 22% capacity, we’re in the clear (for now). People are pissed that they keep seeing the same facts over and over again and Reddit’s telling me I spelt ‘original’ wrong #typicalInternet

9:13pm: Things are starting to slow down on the site, I doubled the number of spinoffs in the database to 36, and I can now spell originally. Maybe I’ll head over to a friend’s apartment to celebrate, let’s open up Facebook and see who’s around…


Is that the wtfnasa logo with the rocket ship? Since when does Mashable curse? HOLY SH*T Mashable just covered wtfnasa!!


The weekend continued like like this, I kept thinking that wtfnasa would slowly die down but every time the site hit a lull in traffic some new blog would start covering it. It was (is) the best roller coaster ride I’ve ever been on.

How is any of this relevant?

Enough usage milestones, how can you make a viral page is what you want to know, right? The problem is that I have almost no idea why wtfnasa went viral. Well, I actually do know that I did a couple things right:

  • The domain was very sharable (one blogger wrote to me that it was “story-worthy, just based on the title of the site alone”)
  • The site headline was sharable and turned into the headline for every blog post (I accidentally made it easy for bloggers to write a story about the site)
  • I (unconsciously) launched wtfnasa at what was perhaps the perfect time – a couple days earlier and it would have been cannibalized by Curosity tweets. A week later it may have become irrelevant,
  • The topic was something that everyone was excited and/or opinionated about,
  • I used an existing meme, the hashtag #wtfnasa existed before I built this (they were just using it for the wrong reasons)
  • The buttons may have been a little confusing, but (I think) they were enticing to push

I don’t think these things alone are enough to achieve this level of virality though. Other websites have had similar ‘viral components’ to them yet failed to launch (har har), why did wtfnasa make the leap from sharable to mysteriously viral? Here are the things that I don’t understand and/or got really luckly on, that contributed to this success:

  • How did this get beyond my circle of friends?
  • How did it get in the hands of a NextWeb writer almost immediately after I tweeted about it?
  • How come when I posted it to HackerNews and Reddit it got three and four upvotes, respectively, but when someone else posted it just a day later it got 87 and 490 upvotes?
  • Why did wtfnasa succeed in reddit/r/technology but completely flop in /r/nasa and /r/space
I hope that reading this has somehow benefitted you. Let me know if there’s anything you want me to elaborate on, you can find me on twitter or email me.

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