Wait But Why: Making Nerdiness Viral - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Wait But Why: Making Nerdiness Viral

Wait But Why: Making Nerdiness Viral

By Lorena O'Neil


This website helps put the beginning of time and dinosaurs into perspective, while making fun of millennials, all with the help of stick figures and clever prose.

By Lorena O'Neil

Looking for a new procrastination tool that is entertaining and informative? Look no further.

Wait But Why is a blog that works as an adult science and social studies classroom. The website pairs cartoons, infographics, lists, and irreverent, conversational writing for a mix that looks like BuzzFeed meets Hyperbole and a Half meets Thought Catalog. The act of reading the posts is an experience in and of itself. You can easily curl up for 20 minutes digging into a single post with all of its drawings, data visualizations and captions. Don’t let the crude, seemingly haphazardly drawn stick-figure images and basic layout of the site fool you — it’s full of insights and skillful explanations of real-life situations. Sometimes the best way to make a complex idea click is with a really basic drawing, a super-simple pie chart or a stack of candies sized up against Earth. 

The website, which launched in July, has already had a few viral hits. One post that received a lot of attention was called “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy.” As a Generation Y-er, I can vouch that it is both extremely accurate and hilarious. It follows fictional Gen-Y stick figure “Lucy” through her “wildly ambitious” life, explaining why she’s delusional to think she’s as special as a shiny unicorn, and how she is tormented by the pressures of Facebook image crafting. In sum, the post illustrates how Happiness =  Reality – Expectations.

Tim Urban, the author and co-owner of Wait But Why, labels Lucy’s group “Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, or GYPSYs.” “A GYPSY is a unique brand of yuppie, one who thinks they are the main character of a very special story.” He points out that, obviously, all GYPSYs can’t be special. “Even right now, the GYPSYs reading this are thinking, ’Good point … but I actually am one of the few special ones’ — and this is the problem.”

Oops. Guilty as charged.

The GYPSY post went viral, syndicated on Huffington Post and posted all over social media sites. While many people who shared it commented on the accuracy of the Lucy story, others weren’t so pleased. An article on Medium called it the “worst essay ever written” and guessed the author was a baby boomer making fun of GYPSYs. Not so fast. 

Tim Urban is a 31-year-old Harvard graduate — putting him squarely in Generation Y and making the post seem much more self-deprecating. He started blogging at 23 as a procrastination technique. Urban co-owns two tutoring companies with Wait But Why co-owner Andrew Finn, who takes care of the business side of the blog as it begins to get syndication requests and is venturing into running advertising. It may be Urban’s tutoring experiences that make him so adept at unwinding complicated subjects for readers. In July he decided he wanted to start a blog that was “really high quality and really thought out.” He says, “If you do really good content, people will notice and people will share that with their friends. I kind of started it and had no expectation for it to get a ton of traction.” The site quickly grew from 300 email subscribers to 30,000. “I’m still scratching my head,” says Urban. “I’m thrilled that it happened and I’m scared that it happened.”

photo of Tim Urban

Get a look at Tim Urban, author and co-owner of Wait But Why.  He and co-owner Andrew Finn initially kept their identities a secret.

He had originally intended to post two articles a week but quickly dropped down to once a week on Tuesdays after all of the attention, for fear of “perishing.” In addition to the Generation Y post, one listing how to be insufferable on Facebook has become very popular, as well as a post with infographics showing how to put time in perspective. Urban describes the latter as him at his “most nerdy.”

“It’s usually me telling my sisters and my girlfriend these things and they don’t care. [Now] I’m like, ’Ha! I don’t need any of you. All of these other people care,’” he adds laughing.

Urban’s business partner, Finn, is thinking about how to move forward with monetizing, distributing and syndicating the blog while Urban focuses on the drawing and writing. Urban, an avid traveler, recently visited North Korea and wrote about his experience. Other recent posts include an explanation about how to wrap your head around numbers like trillion and quadrillion by using Sour Patch Kids, and a cartooned storyline on how Republicans are losing Independent votes because of ultra-conservatives. He depicts an Independent voting for Obama then fluctuating between the two parties before giving up after a ridiculous forum, at which a very conservative Republican says, ”And every cent of tax increase is equivalent to one million people being put to death in gas chambers.”

The posts aren’t for everyone — Urban has a specific sarcastic and hyperbolic tone that won’t be appreciated by all. However, the fans who do like it are commenting and sharing, and Urban says he is OK not pleasing everyone.

Urban’s main guideline? ”I’m not going to cater to anyone. I’m going to write a post that I wish someone would send me. Even if only one out of 100 people agree with me, there’s 300 million people in the U.S. That’s 3 million people. I just need to be weird and maybe 1 percent of people will get it.”


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories