By Adam Koszary, Museums and Special Collections Services

The tweet sent from The MERL account that went viral

look at this absolute unit.

Our tweet from the Museum of Rural English Life account was a simple enough command. It accompanied a black and white photo of an Exmoor Horn aged ram found in the archives of the museum, located on the University of Reading’s London Road campus.

But this tweet had a satisfying pay-off. One day on, our Twitter followers had increased by more than 50% – 16,000 and counting – and the tweet itself had surpassed 68,000 likes and 20,000 retweets.

This is not normal for The MERL twitter account, in case you haven’t guessed.

We’ve always had a collection of livestock portraiture at the MERL (we often just call them fat cow paintings ourselves.). It doesn’t take a social media genius to recognise they have social media potential – we posted another just a few days ago too – but it took until yesterday for one to break through.

Understanding how the tweet went viral is not rocket science. It’s a good photo, a cute animal and a relevant use of a meme. Throw in a few lucky retweets from influencers, and we were away.

The real core of the success, however, came after the tweet. After having gone semi-viral before on two other occasions (once with a dead mouse, once with a bit of library sass) I knew that for something to become truly viral it didn’t just need retweets, it needed to be talked about.

So, I talked to people. I encouraged puns, I played deadpan, I sassed a little bit and I got a bit creative. I was honestly a little worried about having time to eat my curry that evening, so I tweeted about that in the first person – figuring that the meta would fit the mood. I thought being self-aware was ‘in’ at the moment, and it turned out it is. The result was that the tweets got collected into a ‘Moment’ by Twitter and broadcast to the world, exposing not just the original tweet but a whole host of responses.

Tone is notoriously difficult (it’s been very well explored by Russel Dornan), and museums often struggle with the tension of trying to engage people while remaining respectable. I believe social media has pushed the envelope of what people consider respectable so far that people almost expect a few memes. The tone and language we used in the wake of our absolute unit tweet simply followed how people already talk on Twitter.

But apart from content and tone, we also had the angle. Imagine what would have happened if we had tweeted the image of the sheep and simply explained what it was: an Exmoor Horn aged ram. Some people may have found it cute, it could have done moderately well and there it would have ended. Memes, however, are the currency of the internet.

This particular meme invaded my subconscious through Scottish People Twitter, and it was the first thing I said when I saw that image of the ram on our catalogue: “what an absolute unit”. It should be fairly obvious to anyone that the museum doesn’t just make memes, and that the memes are simply one way of engaging people with our collections. And once they’re following, we can pummel them with our smock and wagon collections to our heart’s content.

The best plan with any meme is to milk it until people start getting annoyed. We followed up the original tweet by delving into the archives to add more to the story, and are bound to find more material to share as we go. After that, we fully expect the meme to die, and we’ll go back to a sort of business as usual and hope to do it again.

There is one thing we’ve definitely learned though. People love an absolute unit, and are in awe at the size of the lad.