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Zach Wahls, Or, How the Internet Rewards Sincerity

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 1 2011

By now, if you haven't been living under a rock, you've seen or been told about this video:

The speaker's name is Zach Wahls; he's addressing the Iowa House of Representatives on the issue of marriage equality, and representing his parents, who are both women. Posted in February, the video had been passed around several times before yesterday; it had appeared not twice but three times on the home page of Reddit, for example. But then MoveOn.org featured the video on this page, with the headline, "Two Lesbians Raised A Baby and This Is What They Got," and the urging to "share this now" on Twitter, Facebook, or by email.

Over 500,000 people shared the page on Facebook alone, MoveOn Media editor-in-chief Angie Akers told me today, contributing to 6 million pageviews for the video since it was promoted to their front page Wednesday morning. On YouTube, the video's analytics show 4.4 million views and a massive upward traffic spike yesterday, after its appearance on MoveOn.org and reappearance on Reddit.

The result is certainly Wahls' doing: At 19, in a calm, articulate way, he explained his personal experience with an emotionally charged and, for some, divisive topic. But it's also the result of a carefully calibrated progressive viral video hit-making machine at MoveOn.org, Akers told me.

"I do think that it's really appealing when you find somebody who is even-tempered and clearheaded about things and they speak to something that has been maybe obfuscated and really twisted around by so many entities in the media and they just kind of cut right through that," Akers said.

"They show you something that totally pushes all that rhetoric aside and just rings true. And that's one of the elements that we find to be really appealing to people, is to just kind of cut through the bullshit," she said, and laughed. I don't think she expected me to quote her as cursing — but she meant what she said, and the Internet rewards sincerity.

That's one thing Akers has found after working with a group of 70 volunteers that find and promote videos like the one of Wahls' speech.

"The volunteers submit what they find important or what matters to them," Akers said. "We ask them to submit things that they think are A., very shareable and B., very advantageous to the cause."

Using an internal content-management system, they vote on what their peers have submitted, with the best stuff floating to the top for Akers and a team of editors to promote on the MoveOn.org front page. She didn't have exact statistics, but said that the email signups driven by the video have been a huge boon.

The Wahls video is the highest-grossing one the MoveOn Media volunteers have promoted so far, in terms of pageviews generated, she said — but that list also includes a page carrying a quote from this video from Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren on fair taxation, and this quote from Taylor Mali on pay for teachers.

All of these videos are recordings of one person getting up in front of a crowd and telling their story, something which, as I've noted, is familiar to organizers because it sits at the core of long-standing community organizing principles. But the same moments that are compelling in person are compelling on YouTube, months later, and reach millions of people instead of dozens or hundreds.

For Wahls' part, the same community that surely brought him to MoveOn's attention — Reddit — is helping him maintain his own voice in this conversation. Yesterday, he took to the link-sharing site to participate in an Ask Me Anything thread — a Reddit custom in which one Redditor promises to hang out on the thread and answer questions from others as they come.

"Hey everybody," he wrote. "I'm actually a long time redditor, and it's been my distinct honor to watch you guys put me on the front page three times now, especially considering that none of my own posts have ever gotten anywhere near the front page."

In response to a question about the speech itself, he said:

I did practice beforehand. If you look carefully, you can actually see me set down my notes and start the timer on my ipod. That being said, what actually came out of my mouth was only about 70% of what was on the paper in front of me. More than "memorized," I knew what I wanted to say and had a couple lines locked away. The last line about the sexuality of my parents, for example, I knew was going to be my last line.

Now he's a Reddit hero.

"Shoot, I'm a lesbian and I'll marry him," one user wrote.

"I second this," another replied. "These genes must be passed on."

"Ladies," intoned a third, "it is our duty."

Turns out the Internet can sometimes be for more than cat videos — who knew?

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