Did a Swedish Stunt Just Uncover Some Useful Truths About Tech Blogs?

August 15, 2012

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Until recently, I'd wager that you had never heard of Swedish design group Day4 – but they sure leave a lasting first impression.

For reasons unknown, they woke up one morning last week and decided to quietly upload a fabricated image of a uniquely designed screw to the internet – a screw that could only be turned by a proprietary screwdriver. Alongside the graphic was a cryptic sentence that implied that Apple was considering using these new screws on future hardware, an assertion suggesting that they were looking to further limit consumers' ability to perform repairs or upgrades themselves.

It was a total lie, but it was masterful in the way that it tickled the unique combination of obsession and paranoia that defines many tech bloggers.

And it worked.

While some tech blogs took a complete pass on the rumor, a good many did not. Here are a fewAnd some more.

As I see it, the lessons learned from the Day4 stunt are fruit from a poisonous tree… But hey, it's pretty fascinating fruit. So, while I'm not at all comfortable with the ethics of this stunt, the fruits are just sitting there, ripe for analysis.

In “outing” their stunt yesterday, Day4 avoids taking the easy way out. After having a bit of fun showing how the online community fell for their fake rumor, they proceeded to provide some analysis that, if accurate, provides an interesting window into how news spreads online.

Day4 posits that in treating their false rumor with appropriate skepticism, the tech blogs who first covered the Apple screw rumors actually drove down the “truth level” of the rumor. In other words, these journalists, by taking care to insert the right caveats into their coverage, ended up making the rumor seem less credible. That's a heartening lesson – and I'm not really surprised, as I continue to believe that as a group, the best tech blogs are doing a number of things very right, and in the process are increasing their audience and their influence.

However, Day4 also warns that the skepticism injected by tech bloggers was largely ignored by blog commenters and those who talked about the rumor on social media.  The online echo chamber was far less nuanced and consequently, far more critical of Apple. This is where my optimism turns to worry.  Because if Day4 is right in its post-mortem analysis, we as communicators have to look very carefully at a specific question:

 Does the expertise and credibility of a journalistic tech blogger who has covered a rumor with appropriate skepticism outweigh the less nuanced noise emanating from the large groups of commenters on the blogs and other social media platforms?

My gut says that the answer is yes – that in the end analysis, sentiment around a topic is driven primarily by facts as presented by the curators of the information – the bloggers. After all, the commenters who visit a particular blog usually do so because they find the blogger's writing and analysis to be smart and worth their time. And so, while data shows that commenters do indeed fill the blogosphere with opinions generally more harsh than nuanced, I'd venture to guess that overall sentiment on a topic is still driven by the original posts written by tech bloggers.

Clearly, this is a topic in need of further study, but I think I speak for The Internet in requesting that future research in this area be carried out in a more scrupulous fashion. Day4 admits that its prank was far from harmless, but excused its actions by saying that Apple's reputation is more than strong enough to absorb a blow of this kind. That's likely true, but the stunt surely harmed the company's brand image in some measurable way.  (Anyway, as any MIT student will tell you – a hack is only clever the first time around.)

ONE MORE THING:

Take a minute to read Day4's description of the mechanics of the fake. Could it be any easier or more straightforward?

 One afternoon we sketched out a screw in our 3D program, a very strange screw where the head was neither a star, tracks, pentalobe or whatever, but a unique form, also very impractical. We rendered the image, put it in an email, sent it to ourselves, took a picture of the screen with the mail and anonymously uploaded the image to the forum Reddit.

Another lesson to tuck away, especially as it supports our belief that aggressive 24/7 monitoring of the online space is the foundation upon which any reputation-enhancing communications program is built. In this case, there was likely very little that Apple might have done differently but, if you imagine any kind of rumor spreading online that impacts a brand you work with, it's easy to see why it's critical to identify brewing issues at the embryonic stage.

Image credit: Day4; annotations in yellow added by the author.