Timing made the HOPA hoax a win

Yesterday, the story of a young go-getter who quit her job via a series of dry-erase board messages due her boss’s sexual harassment burned up the internets.  The girl was dubbed “HOPA” (after her boss’s mistaken acronym for “hot piece of ass”) or “Jenny DryErase” by supportive Facebook followers and commenters.

Today, the story was revealed to be false.  Yet it is still an excellent career move for an aspiring actress and an aspiring comedy website – and illustrates the value of timing in capturing the short attention span of folks online.

The original post, on comedy site The Chive, was set up to go viral for a couple reasons.  First, the act of quitting a job and metaphorically burning the place on your way out Jerry Maguire-style isn’t completely out of left field; even doing it through a variety of emailed photos isn’t even that out there.  It’s her signs and her emotive facial expressions that makes the user laugh.  Second, and more important, the girl’s story works equally well if it’s true or not.  So it wasn’t unbelievable, and investing in the story didn’t mean believing it was true – creating a low barrier of entry.  The stage is set.

But as with all comedy, timing is everything.  The Chive struck gold by releasing the pictures on the same day that an airline steward became an international folk hero for leaving his job down the escape chute, a beer in each hand.  profanity-laced goodbye to his own job, so quitting was in the news.  They couldn’t control the news cycle, but it worked to their favor.

What they did right on their own, however, was debunk the story of HOPA girl the day after attention peaked.  Announcing the hoax in a month, or even in a week, would have meant reaching people well after they had forgotten the Jenny DryErase post and moved onto the next Hitler/Downfall parody.   In other words, it would have been irrelevant, and there would be no lasting benefit.

The real HOPA girl, actress Elyse Porterfield, has her name everywhere; people who might be in a position to help her career know now that she can pull off a pretty good photo shoot. The Chive has the added web traffic and the street cred with that comes with manipulating web audiences into taking a hoax viral.  Advertisers like sites that can, occasionally, draw big numbers for a few days.

The tactic of a fake viral picture isn’t really translatable to campaigns, which have to be somewhat transparent in their messaging.  But it is important to understand how fast online communications work.  Windows of opportunity aren’t open wide and they aren’t open for long.

You might want to enable these cookies…

An enterprising Rhode Island School of Design student figured out how to bake cookies that make webcams do tricks:

Augmented reality is a pretty neat trick, using markers picked up by webcams (or cameras on mobile devices) to display images that others can’t see.  This has been around for a while, but it usually required some type of narcotic substance; now it can be harnessed through technology without ingesting hallucinogens.

With smartphones becoming a hub of political activist activity, the next question is: how does the next “revolutionary” campaign use this technology?

The easiest way will be to turn lawn signs and other advertisements into instant sources of new information.  The typical lawn sign is pretty simple: it has a name and, maybe, a slogan but little else.  Augmented reality would allow passers by to point their iPhone or other mobile device and instantly have access to a much broader range of text and information.

But for many campaign operatives, the more fun part might be finding a way to piggyback messages about an opponent onto his or her own signs – the messaging equivalent of Bugs Bunny drawing a mustache on a wanted poster of Yosemite Sam.

Location, location, location

The 2012 Presidential race is still a couple years away, but the early contenders are already beefing up their online efforts.  That makes it a good time to start asking what the 2012 online campaigns will look like.  The National Wildlife Federation is doing some cool things with location-based technology, and the contenders to the Oval Office would be wise to take notice.

Between social networks based on where you’re at (Foursquare, Gowalla) and the GPS-enabled smartphones that make these applications portable, location data will be important eventually to the campaign that invests the intellectual resources in it.

E-commerce dawned in the late 1990s, and in 2000 John McCain became the first candidate to raise significant amounts of money online.  In 2004, the internet offered a way to link people with common interests; the Howard Dean campaign (and later the Bush Campaign) responded with programs that helped activists find each other and organize local events.  In 2008, MySpace and Facebook allowed people to easily share content with friends; the Obama campaign’s online efforts were based around that same concept of virality. Successful campaigns change to reflect internet trends.

A campaign might use any number of location-based tactics.  Activists could be alerted to events in their area.  A campaign could offer contests for volunteers using Foursquare to check in at  headquarters or to recruit friends to attend rallies and other activities (not the least of which is voting).  Advocates could request campaign materials (like lawn signs) or instantly share stories through smart phone applications.

There’s no guarantee that the first campaign to take advantage of this technology will win, of course – McCain, Dean, and more recently Ron Paul  all proved that success online doesn’t always translate to the ballot box.  But for those looking for emerging technologies to gain an advantage, this is one place to be.

(Get it?  Place to be?  Location?  Aw, shut up.)

Twit-story: The Library of Congress vs. Google Replay

The Library of Congress will collect and store the full volume of Twitter for “scholarly and research purposes.” Twitter is psyched because it’s another demonstration of legitimacy:

It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research. It’s very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history. It should be noted that there are some specifics regarding this arrangement. Only after a six-month delay can the Tweets will be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.

As evidenced by events like the Iranian election protests, Twitter users can act as documentarians of history as it happens.  The Library of Congress’s recognition of this is another sign that Twitter has grown up a bit; the timing couldn’t be better, coming just a couple days after they announced their advertising model.

For the vast majority of Twitter’s data, this announcement is really a non-story – after all, there’s nothing stopping anyone from visiting Twitter and accessing all public tweets.  What about accounts that have been deleted, though?  And what about the accounts that get deleted after the Library of Congress makes an official historical record of them?

Buried in Twitter’s blog post is a much “friendlier” strategy for making Tweets a part of history: Google’s Replay service, which allows users to revisit moments in history and watch events unfold through Twitter and other online media.

As with most announcements, the difference lies in the semantics.  Google Replay would pinpoint specific times and issues – in other words, it would gravitate toward tweets which were sent with the idea that they were for public consumption.  The idea of Twitter turning over a hard drive full of information to a government office may be no different in practice or outcome, but it sounds a lot creepier.  Suddenly, you may find yourself perusing your own Twitter feed to see if you have anything to worry about.  A better announcement might have been a joint release by Twitter, Google, and the Library of Congress discussing a way to incorporate publicly broadcast real-time updates into research.  It might have looked like a tool on the Library’s website, powered by Google.

The nature of Twitter makes this a minor issue, but it isn’t the only place that history is recorded in real time.   Facebook and Google Buzz have both incorporated elements to mimic Twitter’s free-flowing stream-of-consciousness format.  That means they’re just as potentially attractive to the Library of Congress as part of the “historical record” – even though their data is decidedly more sensitive.

The Road Behind

Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead as a vision of where online communications would head in the next 10-15 years.  And he wrote it in 1995 – in fact, when it was released as an audiobook you could actually get it on cassette.

Some of Gates’s predictions, which sounded far-fetched a decade and a half ago, have come to fruition.  Shopping online, for instance, is now accepted as a secure and dependable way to do business.  Services like Yelp make it easy to check out what others think of restaurants.  Movies and video entertainment are available on-demand, and the TV screen is becoming indistinguishable from the computer screen.

This came to mind today not only because I recently re-read the book, but also because Wired reports that one of Gates’s predictions is coming closer to fruition: a personal device Gates calls the “wallet PC.”

Gates’s concept of the “wallet PC” is a truly personal computer, but goes beyond most smartphones – essentially, a credit card, phone, netbook, driver’s license, and GPS all rolled into one.  Services like PayPal and Square, combined with increasingly sophisticated phones and, perhaps most importantly, faster wireless connections, make shopping in the real world look more and more like shopping online – literally exchanging money by pointing and clicking.

One piece of irony of The Road Ahead is that Microsoft was not the driver for the realization of many of Gates’s predictions – and in fact, many Microsoft competitors made advancements that he foresaw.  Apple’s iPhone paved the way for “wallet PCs”; Gates’s often-stated idea that information would become the currency of the 21st century is today embodied by Google’s mission.  That these developments were made by others doesn’t make Gates any less visionary.


This week, Google announced a partnership with Dish Network to launch a TV search service.  It’s not the first time Google has found its way into the living room – they’ve been working with TiVo to figure out what shows you watch and serve you ads when you pause a live show and measure ad performance.

Google is wise to move into TV advertising.  It may sound like they’re taking a step back; that they’re an internet company going back to traditional media.  But the line between various entertainment channels gets blurrier every day.  Online video and television video are no longer all that different.  If Google wants to be the gatekeeper for all the world’s information (and you can be sure they do), they have to watch your remote control as closely as they do your laptop keyboard.

We should have been ready – Jim Carrey predicted all this 14 years ago…

Internet schminternet

Ironically, Newsweek’s online archive is the best place to find this article from 1995 decrying the hype around the internet (which was emailed to me by a business associate).  Almost 15 years ago, Clifford Stoll claimed it was ludicrous to expect the online world to provide news, information, and social interaction.  “Baloney,” Stoll says.  “Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth [is] no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

Stoll’s arguments make sense if you remember the internet in 1995.  Back then, the online experience started with a screeching modem, and downloading a file took minutes rather than seconds.  And sending money was dicey to say the least, which made e-commerce a non-starter:

We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts.  Stores will become obsolete.  So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?  Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

Today, there are probably major malls that don’t do as much business during the Christmas season as the internet does in the blink of an eye, thanks to secure online payment systems.  It turns out, people don’t need salespeople when they have hordes of consumer sites and online reviews to get unvarnished information from.

But the shift has been more than technological.  There is a cultural acceptance of the online world that didn’t exist 15 years ago.  Further, the online world has self-organized in a way that Stoll and others did not anticipate.  For instance, Stoll bemoaned the Usenet bulletin boards, claiming that because everyone had a voice, everyone would get drowned out.  A similar criticism could have been made ten years later as blogs became more prevalent.  As society has become more comfortable online, they have found the sources of information they trust the most.  Anyone can have a blog, but not everyone will have a well-respected or popular blog.

Stoll was right about one very important thing, and that is the role of the internet in personal relationships.  “What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact.” Stoll concluded.  “Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another.”  In 1995, internet enthusiasts envisioned a way to connect with people from around the world – “Play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam,” was the promise Jim Carrey made in The Cable Guy – and maybe Stoll was right to dismiss that idea.  As the internet evolved, though, it became a tool to maintain connections that would have otherwise frayed.  Facebook can make every day a twenty-first century high school reunion.

It’s hard to predict how technology will change in 15 years.  It’s hard to predict how people will change, too.

All activism must not be neutral

As the net neutrality argument heats up, pro-regulation groups are bashing AT&T’s efforts to mobilize their employees against the measure.  When AT&T sent an email detailing the issue and inviting workers to post comments opposing net neutrality, Free Press, a liberal media reform group, called them the a-word – “AstroTurf.”

Free Press, of course, admits to doing the same thing – but argues that their email messages to subscribers driving traffic to online comment forms are somehow different.  Their activists, apparently, REALLY oppose net neutrality; AT&T’s employees acting through fear of losing their jobs.

AT&T workers should be fearful of losing their jobs – regulating AT&T’s internet will have an impact on its bottom line.  Free Press has a flimsy argument if you think about it – but it certainly wasn’t made to evoke thought.