Another Thought On Viral Hoaxes

Wednesday, December 04, 2013 - 11:23 AM

Over at his tumblr Just North Of Something Important, writer Michael Barthel has a smart response to my post from yesterday where I said I don't feel very outraged about living in a world of peak hoax. 

Here's Barthel, reprinted with permission:

John Herrman’s right that a lot of the stuff you find on UpWorthy or other buzzy sites right now (“This Recently Married Man Just Realized Marriage Is Not For Him. You Have To Read What He Wrote.”) is just a new way of distributing the content you used to find in e-mail chain letters. But maybe the form of distribution matters. If the “Diane in 7A” hoax is a piece of culture, it’s a piece of corporate culture, produced by an entertainment industry professional (the hoaxer is a reality TV producer) and then distributed by BuzzFeed, a massive media company. When chain letters come to you through your relatives or co-workers, their intent is to amuse you and maybe strengthen your relationship. (Or annoy you, depending on your family.) When they come to you through a media company, the intent is to make money. Culture that serves a social function is judged by different standards than culture with a profit motive.

I don’t care if an e-mail story my Grandma sends me is true because she just wants to virtually hang out with me. You wouldn’t fact-check a story you got told at a bar. I care if a story a media company sells me is true because verifying information is one of their two jobs. We don’t need a media company to repackage tweets for us because this is the internet and we can all just read the stupid tweets ourselves. There’s no value added by distributing content on the internet because you’re just pointing to something everyone else can see. Like I said about horse_ebooks, on the internet, our reception of a piece of culture has a lot to do with how we perceive its intentionality. The intentionality of my Grandma forwarding me something fake is to say hi. The intentionality of media companies, I assume, is to tell me things that are true. I don’t need them to access culture online, because I can do that on my own; I need them to tell me what’s true. For a media company to be reporting a hoax as if it’s true feels like I got duped at the airport into hiring a tour guide who’s bringing me to sights I could see perfectly fine on my own—and then telling me inaccurate stories on top of it. I feel like an understanding has been violated.

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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