impossible is hard, sometimes mean

by smb on April 5, 2009

Now that April 1st has passed, there are the obligatory round ups of best and worst Fool’s Day pranks.

I thought that two pranks, however, were particularly interesting.

First was the trick by Slideshare. This one was a multi-part prank.  First, the company artificially increased the number of views on individual user slide shows.  Then, they sent an email to users congratulating them on the increased traffic and encouraging them to tweet about their success (with the addition of a searchable hashtag).  The result was the Internet equivalent of telling a friend in high school to show up to a dance in a formal, while everyone else was wearing jeans.

The much of the mixed public reaction to the prank was surprisingly negative.  Many people commented on the particularly cruel flavor of the joke.

The second stunt, by online brokerage Zecco, inflated the value of some user’s brokerage accounts.  Sadly, some folks believed the faux numbers and promptly began to spend the money.  As with Slideshare, many were also outraged by this prank.

To be sure, both jokes were conducted in poor taste but I think that I am more disturbed by the Slideshare prank.  Zecco tricked people because of their greed but Slideshare mocked their user’s personal faith  in what they do; their belief that their work is important and worthwhile.

Slideshare preyed on (and played with) the hope of their users.  The same hope that causes one to post their work to a site like slideshare to begin with: the optimistic faith that others will find what you have to say useful, artful and valuable.  Slideshare fanned that ember of hope and then encouraged their users to make a public declaration – one designed to embarrass those who were less cynical, less web2.0 jaded, or perhaps less net-savvy.   Slideshare didn’t just cause their users to do something silly that might cause them to laugh at themselves in the privacy of their homes or offices.  They created a coliseum where the tricked were left to wander into the center of the arena to be mocked and ridiculed.  This prank preyed on the best motivations of Slideshare’s users and the worst inclinations of the Internet.

I don’t find it stupid or ignorent for people to want to share their success.  It was only made so by a company that decided to mock their own users and make sport of them for the whole of cyberspace to catalogue.

I think the Zecco users who tried to spend their mysteriously acquired riches are slightly more culpeable.   The stories of bank errors, strange accounting and data mishaps are so commonplace it’s hard to imagine someone (particuarly an internet user) seeing their account increase dramatically without even a pang of caution.

it’s one thing to attempt things that seem impossible, but it’s another to believe impossible things are simply handed to you.

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