Historians widely regard the Persepolis Parchment as the first recorded item in human history to go viral. Sometime around 450 BCE an anonymous author in one of the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire wrote a letter to his local satrap indicating he had overheard a plot that the Indian princes were planning to attack Persia and their initial weapon of choice would be poisoned honey, as it would weaken the populace and make the people easier to conquer.
The satrap forwarded the letter to the Imperial court. The satrap, knowing that Artaxerxes I was busy fighting the Greeks, dressed the letter up a bit in transmission. He spoke of booby-trapped beehives and “clouds of trained, weaponized honeybees, enough to blot out the sun.”
Artaxerxes I was sufficiently panicked and saw fit to have the letter copied and sent out across the Empire, along with orders to send necessary supplies to the borders. One hundred thousand troops armed with fly swatters, large floppy mesh-encircled hats, and pre-made sticky buns were soon marching towards the Indus River.
Of course no threat ever materialized. The author of the paper was never found. The unfortunate, credulous satrap disappeared from history, but it’s widely believed he spent the rest of his days removing barnacles from the bottom of Persian galleys. With his teeth. While they were still in the water.
The viral campaign then virtually disappeared from history until the arrival of the longest-lived and most successful one of all: the story of Prester John. In 1165 a letter that was part travelogue and part myth reached the Byzantine Emperor. It told of a great priest king from one of the Indias who was a Nestorian Christian and a descendent of one of the three Magi. The letter told tales of vast armies, resplendent palaces, world wonders, and a border on the earthly paradise.
This letter was translated, embellished, and passed all around the known word. For the next five hundred years Prester John occupied a central part of the European map of the world. One of the orders given to navigators during the Age of Discovery was to follow up on any reports of Prester John.*
These pioneering viral campaigns took months or years to really catch on. In the modern era with the internet, blogs, and YouTube a viral campaign is measured in days or even hours. Its lifespan is generally measured in days or weeks, with only the most powerful, such as the ever present “lolcat” holding peoples’ attention for more than a month or two.
As such, the viral campaign for awareness of H.J.Res.790 can be considered slow, in that it took more than a week to catch on.
It started with the fringe, anti-government blogs. A blogger identified as “Maximus” on washingtonsucks.blogspot.com posted H.J.Res.790 as the “Washington Time Waster of the Week,” the blog’s most popular weekly segment. It was quickly read by the half-dozen people who read the blog, including the blogger’s mother and uncle.
Three days later @JoeSmith6969 posted a link to it on his Twitter page. The tweet was read by nearly a dozen people. One of them re-tweeted. Within an hour it had been re-tweeted another seven hundred times.
By the following week several other blogs had picked up on the story and the mainstream blogs were starting to take notice. It eventually hit Drudge, HuffPo, and PuppiePost (the official blog of puppies.com).
Then it got picked up by Yahoo! News. H.J.Res.790 had finally gone mainstream.
The story had enough staying power that a couple days later it ended up getting blurbed on CNN and Fox News. It was then mentioned on several local news programs, meaning that most Americans who were 60 and over finally had access to news that people who regularly got their news on the internet had been aware of for a week or more.
The next night it Jay Leno mentioned it in his monologue. “Have you heard about this puppy thing?” the comedian asked his audience. “Yeah. It turns out that the government thinks that the best way to fix the country is by giving everyone a puppy.” That same night Colbert made puppies his “Alpha Dog of the Week” for “being so damn cute.”
The story then got thrown back in to the internet realm.
Over the next three days the major news outlets ran stories, but this time accompanied with polls. CNN’s was a simple, “Should the government give everyone a puppy?” Seventy-five percent answered “yes,” twenty percent answered “no,” and the rest answered, “not sure.” Of the “yes” votes, over 90% of the voters were referred from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/, but no one seemed to notice or find anything significant about that. The following day Yahoo! News and MSNBC.com ran similar polls with the yeses at 65% and 58%, respectively. Fox News then ran a poll, with responses of 10% “yes,” 9% “no,” 7% “not sure,” and 82% “Obama is a Communist, Aaaaahhh!” None of those responses were from voters directed from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/.
The next day the BBC ran a story about the stories and included a poll that asked, "Have Americans Lost their Bloody Minds?" 99% of respondents answered, "Yes." None of those came from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/, either.
Congress and the White House ignored the clamor for puppies and hoped the story would die down. In early April the Congressfolk parted for the spring recess, filled with the bonhomie of blissful bipartisanship.
At a Kansas Town Hall Meeting during the recess someone stood up and asked Representative Jerry Moran, “Where is my puppy?” to the accompaniment of cheers from the audience. This question -- and Moran’s obvious puzzlement at being asked -- were recorded and posted to YouTube under the title, “Get a Brain, Moran.”
Another video appeared on YouTube the next day. In it someone stood up at another Town Hall Meeting and asked New Mexico’s Harry Teague, “Why do you hate cats so much?” The video, which included Teague’s response, “One doesn’t have to choose between cats and dogs. It’s just that we decided puppies are less divisive and we think everyone can agree,” was posted under the title, “Taking Stupid Questions Seriously, LOL.”
* * *
Alan Grayson and John Boehner found themselves once again sitting across from each other at the very first Beenie Weenie Wednesday after Congress resumed.
“You know what all this means, right?” Boehner asked Grayson.
The Democrat nodded. “It seems we’ve created a monster. A monster made of puppies.”
“We have to put a stop to this.”
“It would mean political suicide.”
“Wait. Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Grayson nodded helplessly. “We have to give the American people a puppy.”
*For the record, Prester John was real. Erm, the stories of Prester John were real. No, wait. There really was a legend of Prester John and it really did hold a grip on the European imagination for five hundred years.