How I Started a Boobquake

After an Iranian cleric declared that scantily clad women caused earthquakes, a science student called on women to show some skin yesterday. Jennifer McCreight on the aftershocks that followed.

You have successfully survived Boobquake. Congratulations!

Unless you’re a complete hermit (in which case I wonder why you’re reading this), you probably know what Boobquake is. What started as a tongue-in-cheek post on my blog exploded into a global viral phenomenon. It began Monday, April 19, when I had just read the quote by Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi. “Many women who do not dress modestly...lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," he said in a Friday sermon in Tehran.

I was amused and annoyed, but not surprised. Blaming natural disasters on sinful activities isn’t limited to Muslim clerics—just look at Pat Robertson’s comments on Haiti, or Jerry Falwell’s on Hurricane Katrina. But as a scientist and a feminist, I felt obligated to respond. I proposed on my blog that we try a bit of a science experiment to test Sedighi’s hypothesis: On Monday, April 26, women would dress as immodestly as they desired, and we would see if we really did increase the number of earthquakes. In a brilliant display of my intellectual sense of humor, I dubbed the event “Boobquake.” I hurriedly submitted the post and scampered off before I missed the beginning of House.

Some people accused me of planning Boobquake as a publicity stunt, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I never planned for it to go viral.

We now know that the earth didn’t rumble more than usual on the April 26. But the media certainly exploded.

The sheer number of people who participated is amazing—and a testament to the power of social media. On the day of the event, over 200,000 people said they were taking part. From April 19 to midday on April 27, my blog received 683,000 unique visitors: To put that in perspective, I used to get 1,000 visitors a day. So far my Twitter followers have increased from 1,000 to 3,653, my blog subscribers doubled to nearly 2,000, and I have 703 Facebook friend requests.

Watch the 6 Best Videos of Boobquake 2010The response has been largely positive. When I started getting emails from thankful skeptics, feminists, and Iranians, I knew I had accidentally done something important. The press and celebrity acknowledgement was definitely exciting, but knowing people appreciated what I was doing meant so much more. I think people are getting fed up with supernatural thinking getting a free pass, and enjoyed something that challenged it in a light-hearted manner. I’d like to think it was more than just a boob joke, since the scientific and skeptical thinking was originally my main message. If it was simply a joke without substance, I doubt it would have taken off.

Some people accused me of planning Boobquake as a publicity stunt, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I never imagined it going viral. And while this last week has been amazing, I admit there’s a little dread. As a scientist, I don’t want to forever be known only as “the Boobquake girl,” or have my academic achievements ignored. It’s a bit disheartening knowing that when I start my PhD in the fall, my research likely won’t be picked up by CNN—though you never know. Regardless, there are much worse things than to have Boobquake follow you around in life—I’ll wear my skeptical humor with pride!

It started small. My blog is fairly popular within atheist circles, but not huge (yes, there is a blogging niche for almost everything). When the story was picked up by the popular science blog Pharyngula, I rejoiced. That meant almost 10,000 hits for that day! A reader suggested I make a Facebook event for the experiment. I invited about 50 close friends, and tweeted that people should join.

Soon after that, the number of people RSVPing to the event grew exponentially. I quickly disabled my Facebook email notifications because I was literally getting one a minute: a friend request, a friendly message, or a bad joke on the wall (If I read “earthquake in my pants” one more time…). By Wednesday someone discovered the viral event, and the requests for interviews started pouring in.

News crews, most notably BBC, asked where this event was going to be held. Since, “Well, I was just planning on going to class in a low-cut shirt” didn’t cut it, I rushed to organize a real meeting in West Lafayette, Indiana (the “epicenter” of Boobquake, where I attend school at Purdue) and in Washington D.C. I was interviewed by CNN, BBC, CBC, ABC, FOX, WLFI (our local news affiliate), and that’s just naming a few. Articles about Boobquake appeared on every continent except Antarctica (well, at least I’m assuming a couple cold scientists and some penguins didn’t cover it). I couldn’t read most of the articles because they weren’t in English, but it didn’t really matter. I was receiving emails so quickly that I didn’t even have time to read any of the reports. Soon I couldn’t even read the emails, as hundreds would accumulate if I ever stepped away from the computer for an hour or more.

But something with a title like “Boobquake” couldn’t be limited to traditional media. People created official Boobquake songs, and popular webcomic artists created honorary Boobquake comics. Boobquake received support and commentary from people like Roger Ebert, Penn Jillette, Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy blog, “The Bloggess,” Bill Corbett of Mystery Science Theater and Philip DeFranco, the video blogger. But the cherry on top was a skit about Boobquake on the Colbert Report. A 22-year-old geeky liberal could dream of nothing more—it literally made me scream in shock and joy.

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I’m still flabbergasted.

Jennifer McCreight is a senior studying Genetics and Evolutionary Biology at Purdue University and will be attending the University of Washington for her PhD in the fall. She blogs about science, religion, feminism, and sex at her blog Blag Hag.