Freelance Philadelphia journalist Jason N. Peters, 26, was waiting for some deli meats at the Acme on Oregon Avenue Thursday when he noticed a “kerfuffle” in the cheese section.
“The cheese had been cascading and people were kind of bustling around and I took a picture,” he said.
Peters posted the photo on his small media startup’s Twitter account with the caption, “BREAKING: the cheese shelf has collapsed at the Acme on Oregon Ave.”
Peters would later learn the shelf hadn’t collapsed, the cheese section was simply being reorganized.
By then, it had become the Philly Plain Dealer’s most viral tweet with thousands of retweets full of insanely gouda cheese puns and more than 36,000 likes. Not grate, said online users, wanting to know the muenster responsible for the strewn packs of cheese. Were any injuries in-curd?
Okay, but what was it about this supermarket dispatch that drew more attention than any serious story Philly Plain Dealer has ever tweeted?
Brian Creech, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University who studies the culture of journalism, boiled the post down to three things: Peters constructed a joke that people could build on, people still go to the internet to “kick back,” and Twitter is designed for virality.
“Small weird stuff like that is the bread and butter of the internet,” he said.
For starters, “news tone” is easy to make fun of, said Creech. The juxtaposition of a “breaking news” alert and something as low stakes as a cheese catastrophe is funny, especially when so many recent news stories have featured empty shelves due to supply chain shortages. How can there be a shortage when the cheese shelves are so plentiful that they’re falling in South Philly?
Then there’s the obvious: Cheese puns are still fun, they’re easy to “yes, and.” And despite the negativity floating around the internet, plenty of people are looking for a mental break.
“[People] want something digestible, fun, easy,” said Peters. “They want it to come naturally and the cheese tweet didn’t have any links, it wasn’t promoting anything. That’s the kind of stuff people enjoy.”
And there is some research that has found people are more likely to share videos and news stories that inspire positive or negative emotions, as opposed to a post that simply feels neutral.
But the real catalyst to the cheese tweet’s virality is the many Philly media reporters and Twitter personalities who engaged with the post in its initial hours, bringing new eyes from their respective networks.
So does virality help a small outlet? It depends, and Creech said even legacy organizations who want to promote their serious reporting struggle to balance the fun and the informative on social media.
“It can be a little bewildering to see that the things that circulate are the more fun or less serious things,” said Creech.
Peters, who launched the Philly Plain Dealer in February 2021, isn’t too upset that the silly post garnered more attention than other journalism the outlet produces.
He calls the small outlet an “island of misfit articles” where “free-thinking, indie” freelancers can find a home for their news and non-news stories.
“It’s gonna bring eyes to these other talented young writers on the Plain Dealer, it’s gonna bring eyes to the journalism I do, so if it takes a cheese tweet to get people to pay attention, then so be it,” said Peters about the scores of new followers the Philly Plain Dealer got after the post.