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I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it seems I stumbled on a theme this first week on Galaxy Brain: What it’s like at the center of a viral storm. The last newsletter explored the dark side of it. In this instance, it’s fun!
Close your eyes and take yourself back to a simpler time: The heady days of late March 2021. You may remember that a ship roughly the size of the Empire State Building got stuck in the Suez Canal. During its stay in the Suez, the Ever Given blocked billions of dollars worth of global shipping cargo every day and threatened to cause, among other catastrophes, yet another toilet paper shortage. It was a global logistics crisis and also quite funny.
For Tom Neill, the five-day fiasco was surreal. Bored in lockdown in London, Neill created a simple website: www.istheshipstillstuck.com. It was part joke and part act of service journalism. In the process, Neill inadvertently inserted himself into the center of one of the biggest news stories in the world. I caught up with Neill (who runs a fun Substack called Not Fun At Parties) and asked him to walk me through the chaos of manning the S.S. Is Ship Still Stuck through the choppy international waters of the internet.
How’d you get the idea for the site?
Honestly, I just googled the question and couldn’t quickly find the answer! I thought others would be doing that, too. So it seemed like an opportunity. And off we went on a five day adventure!
Did the site take off right away? What happened?
Nothing happened for the first five hours. I had 200 followers on Twitter and half definitely aren’t real. People don’t normally respond to anything I tweet. But when I tweeted the site people started liking it who I hadn’t spoken to for a while — I got like 9 or 10 likes, which was the height of my Twitter experience to that moment. I turned to my fiancé and said, ‘I think this will be big — 10 people have liked it!’ She responded telling me that was the saddest thing she’d ever heard [laughs].
Somebody posted it on Hacker News and it took off. I checked the server logs and saw the traffic and was like, ‘holy shit. this might cost me a lot of money to run this thing.’ Then the guy who runs the shipping company, Flexport, tweeted it and that caught a lot of attention.
I imagine at some point — when the traffic started getting big — that the whole thing changed from a joke and started to feel real. Did it get stressful?
For a while it was just fun. My fiancé and I were just sitting in the flat frantically refreshing the analytics page. And it was like, ‘Oh wow! Sarah Jessica Parker just followed me! This is so weird!’ Again, we were stuck in lockdown so it was fun to be obsessed by it.
But, see, it was a binary event [Yes, the ship is stuck or No, the ship isn’t stuck] until it wasn’t. That was most stressful moment. At 4:30 in the morning on the last day I was asleep and that’s when they started to free the ship. My phone started buzzing like crazy. I started investigating and was confused because people said it had been freed but also the ship was not moving and that seemed unlikely. Then, online there were people tagging me saying, ‘hurry up and figure this out!’ or ‘You had one job! Sort it out!’ So it’s 4:30 a.m. and this is a silly weekend thing that’s spun out of control and I’m tasked with getting to the bottom of something that’s not entirely black and white.
Gah! What did you do?
I got out of bed and started looking through live streams. I pulled up Snapchat maps but nobody used Snapchat for it in Egypt. So I found Egyptian Twitter accounts and translated them and they all posted the same video of the ship not really moving. I followed a few reporters at the New York Times who were tweeting that it had moved a bit but not completely. Then I came across the Suez Canal traffic agency. Meanwhile, I noticed there was a second site, similar to mine, and he had switched his text to ‘ship is unstuck.’ That was a big moment. I was stressing because I didn’t want to get beat on this but I didn’t want to be wrong either.
You’re basically describing what it’s like to be a journalist, here.
It was so odd. I was like, there are 3 million people watching me — I can’t get this wrong! I like have to put in real effort here! I messaged my team at work that I had to do this and told them, ‘cancel my meetings I have to watch 12 live streams of Egyptian TV.’ They were like, ‘this is ridiculous.’
It seems like, at one point, some journalists were using you as a resource, no?
Yes! It was hilarious but also a bit troubling — like, this is not how it’s supposed to work! I’m supposed to be looking at you! My favorite was when a journalist would tweet something and other people would like to the site to refute their reporting. I’m sitting here thinking ‘Wow you all have way too much faith in a random domain on the internet.’
Did you ever screw up?
I don’t think so. I was like 5-10 minutes late on a couple things. But always got it right.
As the ship got properly unstuck — early afternoon U.K. time — I saw tweets from a news site saying ship was re-stuck. Like, the bow or stern — I don’t know which part it was…honestly I’m not very into ships — had blown back into the bank. That was the only time I almost messed up.
How did you figure out they were wrong?
I came across a YouTube livestream. It was in Arabic but some wonderful guy named Ahmed was translating everything for the 4 or 5 westerners in the chat. As those chats tend to go it was like tons of horrible racist and sexist comments and people like all-caps typing ‘I LOVE MANCHESTER UNITED’ and then this lovely man helping me out.
How many people ended up coming to the site?
The hosting company I was working with said at its peak 7,500 people were coming per second. Just ridiculous. There were two peaks — when people first heard about it and then when it was getting unstuck. There were at least 3 million people during the unstuck period. I got told by hosting company that the site got 70 million hits in total. I’m still getting between 1,000 and 2,000 people a day, even now.
What did you do when the ship was finally unstuck?
By then I was getting slightly carried away. I contacted a bunch of people who work for the influencer site Cameo. I wanted to try and arrange a bunch of minor celebs talking about the ship on the site. I thought it would be funny to have like tributes from d-listers. Nobody got back to me. But least I could finally go get some sleep. Maybe it was for the best. I’d been on a ridiculous adrenaline rush.
I feel like you must’ve been kind of sad it was over.
Yeah! I’ve had this lingering sadness the last two weeks. This is pathetic to say but it was really so fun. And I had a bit of power. I linked to some books on the site that I liked and it really drove book sales. That was fun. So it felt like a shame to just go back to the day job like nothing had happened. Picking myself up was hard for a few weeks, which is strange to say.
I don’t think it’s pathetic at all. I think it’s a poignant reality of the internet. It directs this huge pool of attention onto you so quickly and you’re at the center of the world and then, in an instant, it disappears. That’s hard.
What happened to me is the good side of going viral. But it was a big comedown. I want to cling onto it in some way but I know I can’t. It seems clear that, no matter what I do, I don’t think 70 million people will ever again pay attention to something I make. That part sucks.
Since you’ve been thinking about the ship more than most of us have — why do you think this story resonated so much with people online?
The consensus my friends and I came to is that it was this fairly major event that was entirely apolitical but also entirely international. It was a big deal but also really, really funny. It wasn’t complex at all — no a subprime mortgage crisis with credit default swaps that nobody understands. A ship got stuck in a canal. Everyone understood it. It was meaningful and hilarious.
And why do you think the site resonated?
I think it was so popular because it gave people an answer but also — it was the punchline to the whole joke.
Oh I love that.
As long as the answer was ‘Yes, it’s still stuck’ then the site was inherently funny. And the site delivered the punchline rather bluntly.
What will you do with the site now?
I dunno. I’ll definitely keep it. This afternoon I actually changed a piece of it because it turns out Egypt is holding the ship still, so I updated the site with that link.
I feel like the site should just track the ship as it continues on, since it’s now this famous piece of history.
It’s currently set to show the ship’s location so by default the site will do that. It will tell the story of that ship as it continues its life’s journey. If you want to know what it’s up to, it’ll be right there on the site.
There’s something kind of beautiful about that.
Yeah. The Ever Given lives on.
What I’m Reading Now:
A 2019 piece about mass shootings and the limits of journalism. (Side note: I’ve been thinking about this as it pertains to fatigue around disinformation and if you have thoughts on this, send em my way.)
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I’ll be back tomorrow with a quick piece that has some exciting information you will need for next Monday. What a week! I love you all.