Virality and Truth

This post is an expanded excerpt from our case study regarding our recent work with comedian Jon Mick.

Nobody knows you’re a dog

The Internet has changed the way information is published, but not the way we interpret the printed word: twenty or more years ago, publishing was expensive, so the things that were published went through some kind of vetting process. They were, for the most part, trustworthy. Now that publishing is free and immediate, anything can get on the Internet, but we haven’t shed our willingness to believe the printed word.

You really think someone would do that, just go on the internet and tell lies? (from the television show Arthur)

The idea that someone would just go onto the Internet and tell lies has entered the arena of meme itself, but time and again web users are caught in the trap: whether it’s balloon boy, real hoverboards or our feud with “former” client Jon Mick, there are plenty of people who cannot see past the web’s lie-filled fog.

During the course of our performance/marketing campaign with Jon, we challenged ourselves to draw a distinction between what we were doing and viral Internet pranks. We wanted the audience to be engaged by the narrative, not feel cheated or stupid when they realized that what they were seeing was fictitious. It’s a challenge we didn’t always meet.

Tell me something I already know

In many instances, it was a case of confirmation bias, or taking a headline at face value. We received plenty of angry communications regarding the “fact” we charged $75,000 for what was a rather simple website to execute. When the Mickstarter launched, despite the steps we took to ensure no one would actually try and donate money, Jon still received emails from fans and old friends offering to help out. One person was very upset when he found out it was a joke and informed Jon over the phone that he’s not “Andy fucking Kaufman.”

Nevertheless, the negative responses we got to the project were instructive. We learned lessons we’re already applying to other work. One of the most important was this: no one reads on the Internet. Or, that is, no one reads the way people who write for the Internet would like them to.

TL;DR

It’s hard to fault anyone: this is a visual medium, one seemingly created for short attention spans. Twitter, one of the web’s only text-heavy mediums with any kind of critical mass, restricts character count to the point that, when it launched, it seemed like an ironic joke on the MTV generation.

But the truth is, if you can get someone to read your headline, or even your whole tweet, you’re already doing well. Past that, it’ll sometimes feel impossible. Even Google’s algorithm allegedly puts more emphasis on not only headlines, but earlier parts of paragraphs.

When it came to our project with Jon—and the Mickstarter especially—not everyone read as far as we would have liked them to. Instead of seeing the outrageous support levels (it started at $5000), the convoluted donation mechanism (which asked contributors to fill their PIN number into the form, then mail their ATM card to Jon), and the not-very-well hidden shady nature of the site itself (the site was ostensibly run on the “yournameherestarter.pw” platform, a URL we bought and filled with the US Department of Justice’s takedown notice), friends, fans and casual observers saw only a naive artist who needed help to pay the outrageous bill of a predatory web design agency. If a person is instantly affected by the site’s opening photo of a pathetic Jon Mick, pockets turned inside out and a tear in his eye—or, worse, if they only see a post about it on social media and don’t even click through the the site itself—it’s tough to disabuse them of the idea that this plea for money couldn’t possibly be real.

confirmation bias?

How to talk to the Internet

So, what do you do if no one wants to read what you’ve put on the Internet? Well, people want to read it, just not that much of it. So it behooves social marketers to pack the important info into the headline, to make sure the good stuff is up front. Subtlety can work if your intended audience is sophisticated enough (and, for us, this was the Jon Mick project’s saving grace: the audience who did get it vastly outnumbered those who didn’t) but if your audience is more general, if your audience is everybody, it’s important to get to the point.

Otherwise you risk not being noticed or, perhaps worse, being misinterpreted.

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