Going Viral
Leah Thomas

Going Viral




Virality just might be the word of 2020, speaking not only to the global pandemic but also to the transmogrification of social media into a modern-day agora, in which any given message, when multiplied, can radically change the cultural conversation.

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On the morning of May 28, 2020, I went viral online. I posted a graphic on Instagram that I’d created, with the repeating words “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter,” followed by my definition of intersectional environmentalism and a pledge I’d created. I’d just woken up, furloughed from my job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was overwhelmed by the news surrounding the George Floyd protests. I wanted to find a way to be vulnerable with my friends, coworkers, and followers and to convince them that social justice was also an environmental issue. I didn’t know it would lead to a sudden increase of over 100 thousand new followers and an extension of my social media reach to over one million.


I was afraid because I’m usually one of only a few Black faces in environmental spaces, but the message felt right—so I posted it. In the moment, it didn’t feel very profound. I was just posting something on social media, like I’d done since I first joined Facebook back in middle school. I didn’t have much to lose in a world that felt like it was falling apart from three different traumatic events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the climate crisis.


While I remember that day so vividly (because my phone suddenly rang with thousands of notifications only a matter of hours after the post), it’s still hard to wrap my head around the  “why” behind the sudden virality. Was it the day I posted, the colors I chose in the graphic, or was a simple thought in my head enough to change the world? The last possibility felt the most frightening because it came with a certain level of responsibility: If this post could be an actual movement rather than a moment, would I be called on to lead it?


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A post shared by Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah)

Just a few weeks prior to that, I’d posted a silly childhood home video on TikTok that had also gone viral. In the clip, costumed characters in a theme park try to play with my hair, but I fend them off with both hands. It’s a funny, wholesome, and relatable moment for people with curly hair. It had a simple message: “Don’t touch my hair.” While I was surprised that it amassed over 400 thousand views in a little over three weeks, it was easier to understand why my home video was hilarious than why so many people in the environmental community suddenly knew my name after an Instagram post. Not only that, it was hard to understand that this idea of mine had become an academic philosophy and framework: Intersectional environmentalism was suddenly legitimized via Instagram.


Having a sudden increase in followers in the matter of a few hours, days, or even months is a beautiful and uncomfortable experience, and I think virality is similar. While it’s amazing to observe the ways different messages can suddenly make a major splash online, in person, in academia, and in our conversations, it’s a bit startling at the same time. Communication has evolved to a point where two people can share an inside joke or philosophical debate from opposite sides of the world in a matter of seconds. Virality can help spread meaningful messages that the world needs to hear—whether that’s a hilarious video, newsworthy information, or in my case, a call for a new intersectional environmental justice movement.


I’ve been meditating on the “why” behind virality since my TikTok home video and intersectional environmentalism Instagram post. I’ve tried to analyze why and how the Instagram post spread the way that it did: Was it the Sierra Club’s repost or was it all the comments from strangers who stumbled across the post through the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag? The thing is: There’s no perfect answer.

We are each participants in an online ecosystem, and we have the potential to make a greener, safer, and more equitable future for everyone through our social media clicks.

Leah Thomas

There have been other Black, Indigenous, and people of color who have had similar messages for decades. There are other posts with better wording, better graphics, and more detail that exist online. The “why” is a combination of timing, comprehensibility, and shareability: It was a moment at which the environmental sphere decided to collectively act to amplify a message online. While I am proud of myself for taking action, I think the resonance of my message is a mostly external factor that emerged when people united, both in person and online, and gave my message a wider platform. I am so thankful and amazed by this privilege I’ve been granted by the online community.


My experience showed me so vividly the power of collective action that environmentalists can wield if we support diverse voices in the climate movement. This instance of personal virality made it apparent to me that there are ideas around the world that are worth uncovering and amplifying because they can determine the fate of the future. These messages can be shared from person to person and cause a ripple effect. Imagine all the untapped thoughts that are just waiting for that perfect moment to be transmitted across social media around the world. Imagine the new philosophies, frameworks, and climate solutions that are currently just ideas in someone’s head waiting to be posted.


During the time of COVID-19 and heightened social and environmental awareness, this cascade of knowledge has the potential to lead to swift action that can ensure a better future for both people and the planet. Social media can be used as a tool to spread health information, critique unjust systems, and empower audiences to participate in the change they want to see in the world. While social media has its drawbacks, this potential is meaningful—and so are social media’s users: Us.


This experience has made me realize how powerful our individual actions are and how they can lead to systemic change. We are each participants in an online ecosystem, and we have the potential to make a greener, safer, and more equitable future for everyone through our social media clicks. So, when scrolling through your social media feed, share and amplify the messages you believe the world needs to hear. Who knows—maybe it’ll surge like a waterfall and change the hearts and minds of enough people to positively alter the future. That’s an incredible responsibility. I hope we use it wisely.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

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