The Story Behind the Most Viral Photo Ever
Brian Ries on how the most viral image ever came to be.
You've probably seen it by now.
Michelle Obama, wearing a red-and-white patterned dress, stands with her back to the camera. Her arms are wrapped around her husband, whose face is relaxed, his eyes closed, the hints of a smile lingering on the edges of his lips. “Four more years,” reads the text accompanying the photograph, which was posted on the Obama campaign’s Facebook and Twitter accounts around 11:15 p.m. on election night—just as it became clear the president had won a second term.
That photo, taken by a campaign photographer just a few days into the job in mid-August, has broken all sorts of Internet records. With more than 816,000 retweets as of Sunday, it’s the most shared picture in the history of Twitter, beating out entries from Justin Bieber and the fast-food chain Wendy’s. It's also the most-liked photograph ever to be shared on Facebook, amassing almost 4.5 million “likes” since Election Day. And it’s sure to be the photo most everyone with an Internet connection will remember seeing as they heard that Barack Obama—for better or for worse—would reside for four more years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The photographer, Scout Tufankjian, says it captures the Obamas’ “deep love and respect for one another.”
But, perhaps surprisingly for a campaign with a deep love for data, where even the subject lines of emails were formulated based on intense rounds of numbers-backed analysis, the selection of the “four more years” photograph was a decision made on the fly. It was chosen by a 31-year-old digital operative who had been up since 4 in the morning. She was completely exhausted.
Laura Olin grew up outside Washington, D.C., where she was one of those kids who just fell into politics, studied politics at school, and then went off to graduate school to study even more politics. After two years working at Blue State Digital, the D.C.-based tech consultancy that’s served as a farm team for Barack Obama the past five years, Olin joined the Obama campaign in March 2011—“before anything actually had started,” she says.
As the first digital staffer there, she started out doing everything—editing emails, the blog, and the social-media work. Eventually she was joined by three others—Abby Aronofsky, Jessi Langsen, and Alex Wall—who together oversaw the Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and Spotify accounts for Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the first lady.
“All of our decisions were made in-house,” says Olin, who led the new social-media team, in her first extensive interview since Obama’s victory. “We weren't getting direct directives from the White House.” As things came up, or when they knew something big was going to happen, the digital staffers would work to spread the messages in the voices established for each of the accounts. “Joe Biden did lots of veterans stuff, a lot of, you know, middle-class families, blue-collar workers, first responders, stuff like that,” Olin explains of the Facebook posts and tweets they would send. “Michelle Obama was a lot about education, obviously women, health, and nutrition.”
The medium mattered, too. With Tumblr, for example—where Obama’s blog has been called “the best campaign Tumblr the world will probably ever see”—the campaign targeted younger people who “don't care about Social Security.” Whereas on Facebook, Olin says, they could target a post to users over the age of 55 who had “liked” Barack Obama's page and, because of their age, were presumably interested in Social Security. “We would take advantage of that a lot,” Olin says. “It was picking and choosing where we thought people would respond best.”
But being that close to the megaphone, where millions of people—and a ravenous press—await your every tweet, post, or pin, one must have an astute sense of caution and careful footing. You’re one grammatical error away from a news cycle’s relentless mockery.
“It was kind of terrifying, actually. My team ran the Barack Obama Twitter handle, which I think was probably most susceptible to really embarrassing and silly mistakes. We didn’t ever really have one, which I still can’t believe WE pulled off.” Olin credits a rigorous process of choosing people who not only “knew their social-media shit,” but who were also diligent and fanatical about fact-checking and accuracy. It got to be exhausting, she says. “But I’m really proud that we avoided a really embarrassing ‘Amercia’ situation,” referring to the iPhone app produced by the Romney campaign that invited users tp snap a photo of themselves in Romney’s “Amercia”—leading to days and days of mockery.
Obama’s team had their own close calls, too, but nothing that got published, Olin says. As for her team’s reaction to ‘Amercia’ gaffe? “There were definitely dances being danced. It was a good day.”
Of course, no day would be as momentous, or as exhausting for the young digital staffers at Obama’s Chicago headquarters, as Election Day.
After months of hard-fought 14-16 hour days—and six- or seven-day weeks—Obama’s digital team gathered at campaign headquarters starting at 4 a.m. on Nov. 6. Staffers prepared themselves for what many believed was going to be a long night, with the election perhaps remaining undecided until late in the evening—or worse.
“Weeks of planning went into that,” Olin explained, detailing the “dry runs” the campaign underwent in the weeks before Election Day to make sure they had the entire process down pat. Half the team would be focusing on pre-planned strategy, the others dealing with breaking developments. So when they would get reports of voting irregularities or polling place changes in key states, for example, they could launch a series of targeted Facebook posts or tweets encouraging people to stay in line or find their new polling place.
No one expected a result before 2 a.m. And no one had planned what their victory messaging would be. "I'm kinda superstitious," Olin explains. "I refused to think about victory stuff, just because you know, 'the wrath from high atop the thing,' as The West Wing goes." But avoiding the "wrath," of course, meant the young staffers who sat with their fingers on the proverbial triggers lacked a plan for when they got the word from bosses that it was time to start thinking about a victory approach.
Laura Olin describes the process that led to the now famous photograph.
"One of my team members, Jessi Langsen, remembered that there was an amazing photo of the president and first lady hugging at the president's very last campaign rally in Des Moines, and it's this really beautiful photo at night of them. They're kind of on the side of the photograph, and the only thing is that Michelle was facing forward and the president was facing away from the camera. So my boss Teddy Goff made the very good point that we should see the president's face."
A good point indeed. That's when she remembered the campaign photographer had taken a series of great hug photographs at another Iowa rally earlier in the summer. "I went to our photo editor and I was like, 'Remember when Michelle was wearing that checkered dress in Iowa?' And she was like, 'Yes!'"
Goff approved, the team wrote a couple of captions, and "four more years" was chosen as the winner. CNN called Iowa at 11:10 p.m. ET. The Obama tweet was posted six minutes later. The last remaining staffers then ran off to the victory party at McCormick Place to catch the president's speech.
It wouldn't be until the next morning when they realized just how well it had been received.
None of us looked at how the posts were doing until I opened my laptop the next morning. It had, at that point, about 3 million likes," Olin says of the Facebook post. She suspected that might be a new record. "I think it was just a combination of the moment,” she says now, “and just kinda lucking into a photo that people loved that I think showed the emotion and the relief. Plus, she says, everyone loves the president and his first lady together.
Like her counterparts at the campaign, Tufankjian, the photographer, had no idea of the photograph’s popularity until well after its first million likes.
“I had no idea the response was going to be like this," she admitted to Boston.com. "My friend emailed me on election night to tell me and I didn’t believe her. I said, ‘No way, that’s crazy,’ and I looked it up and was like, ‘Wow.’ I had no idea about the Facebook thing until the next day. The whole thing is incredible.”
It’s been two weeks since Barack Obama was reelected President of the United States, and Olin is still in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters, camped out with a small skeleton crew working on what the campaign is calling "the wind-down." They’re focused on Congressional lame-duck initiatives and “just making sure people know the president's all in to prevent middle-class tax hikes.” She'll be there until January. After that? "I know that I'm moving to Brooklyn and getting a dog, so, those are two things on the list."
Asked if she had any words of wisdom for her defeated counterparts at the Romney campaign, Olin says Republicans need to get better at communicating on social media.
"If I were them I would get better at talking to people like people," she says. "I'm sure there are people, young Republicans, out there that get it."
The Republican Party, Olin says, "needs to be brave enough to just let people who know their shit do what they do." But, she adds, it’s "totally fine if they don't."