At the risk of thinking myself you-know-what, here’s what I’ve been wondering since Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough Jr. delivered his “You’re not special” speech on June 1: Would the address have gone viral on the Web if I hadn’t posted it on my humble community website?
The public school teacher with the famous name (yes, his dad is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian) delivered his speech before a typical commencement crowd, a few hundred graduating seniors and their families. Eyewitness press coverage was limited, with initial stories making little note of McCullough’s speech and no mention of the term “special,” which appears six times among the transcript’s 1,800 or so words.
I didn’t attend Wellesley High’s commencement even though I purport to share with followers of The Swellesley Report, my 6-year-old blog/website, “More than you really want to know about Wellesley, Mass.” I already had 8th and 5th grade graduation ceremonies on my agenda, and wasn’t masochistic enough to hit a high school graduation too without having any kids in the Class of 2012.
But as a part-time community journalist, I was interested in how the ceremony went, recognizing that this class persevered through construction of the town’s shiny new high school right next door to the historic old one where they took most of their classes for the past four years. The day after commencement, a friend mentioned to me that McCullough gave a good speech.
I didn’t think much more about it until two days later when a reader emailed me, offering a scanned version of her daughter’s copy of the talk, simply labeled “June 1st Special.” I passed on that offer, not wanting to transcribe it, but was intrigued enough to email McCullough to ask for a copy. He replied within an hour on June 5, and I slapped it onto our website, plucking the phrase “You’re not special” to include in the headline.
That’s when the fun started.
The first pick-up of our post came within a few hours by Boston-blog Universal Hub, run by my old friend Adam Gaffin. Over the next couple of days, our post of the speech got picked up by a mix of new and traditional news outfits including the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post and The Drudge Report, and began circulating wildly on Facebook. Publications in the UK, Germany and Australia linked back to us.
Emails started flowing in from friends, who were surprised to find themselves being directed to The Swellesley Report from news sites such as the New York Daily News. I also got peppered with requests from big name publications such as The Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor looking for permission to republish the speech – not that it was mine to grant.
Seeing the story picked up by local news organizations such as the Globe, Herald and MyFoxBoston wasn’t too surprising, since anytime anything the least bit controversial seeps out of our oft-described “liberal” and “swanky” town a procession of news vans and copters rush in.
As the story gained momentum it was hard keep my eyes off the Google program I use to track website traffic trends. Repeat visitors typically dominate our traffic, but new visitors have inundated the site since the speech went up. Overall, I had more traffic on the site in June than in the entire previous five months, with things only now returning to normal. It all left me wishing that my advertisers paid per click rather than a flat rate.
By the weekend of June 9-11 the Web server supporting our site was virtually screaming for mercy, forcing my tech support to turn off the commenting system, which was being overloaded by a mix of “Amen, brother” messages and smackdowns of anyone who questioned McCullough’s message. Meanwhile, the local access cable channel (Wellesley Media) posted its video of the commencement address on YouTube, which sparked a whole new wave of awareness.
Wellesley Media then followed up with a contest inviting people to send in brief videos about why they ARE special, and this week named five finalists.
The most unbelievable thing to me from all of this came from a comment McCullough made during a CBS This Morning interview, as he acknowledged difficulty in understanding why his speech grabbed worldwide attention. “I thought I was speaking to just the 400 whatever it was graduates… I live a very cloistered life. Very recently somebody had to explain to me what a blog was.”
Well, now he knows.
Bob Brown is a professional business journalist living in Wellesley.