I cannot think of a story more apropros to what happens online when a topic goes viral, save the Jenny McCarthy autism vs. vaccines debate, than the Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco. To sum up what happened, in 2011 (according to the timestamp of Mike Dickison’s article I quoted below) there was an oil spill in Australia. Thousands of penguins were affected so online activists (or charitable people, if you prefer) put out a call for sweaters since that was a solution to resolve the problem, similar to what happened years earlier.
The end result is that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of unneeded sweaters will continue arriving at Skeinz. The organiser claimed, “the sweaters were a way for people to help, even if they weren’t going to be used.” Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes. It all seems like rather a poor use of thousands of hours of volunteer effort: the knitters would have made more of a difference supplying gloves and hats for the volunteer clean-up crew, or donating a few dollars to Greenpeace, or writing to their MP with their views on maritime safety or offshore oil drilling. Knitters didn’t sign up to make sweaters for sale; they made them for penguins. — SOURCE: The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco
Why did this happen? Forget the penguins for a moment. We already know why bad information goes viral. Reading comprehension isn’t the greatest and that is exacerbated by the way in which information gets shared online. There is no sense of time on the internet and it’s not common practice to read the time stamp on articles or find fact-based updates that refute earlier points. That, combined with the fact folks get paid for eyeballs on the page (e.g. free sites supported by advertising) — drama is a business. But here? The Great Penguin Fiasco wasn’t drama, it was the exact opposite of that. There was a desire to help, a need to do something when all other options failed, and it went viral.
Replace penguins with people getting upset about purple underwear. Fall 2011: Purple underwear is totally acceptable. Spring 2013: Can’t wear purple underwear because it’s a major faux pas. Spring 2014: Purple lipstick is a major faux pas. Or is it? Donatella Versace backpedaled when confronted with purple lipstick worn in this photo (dated 2011). Star Trek celebrities seen taking pictures in support of purple lipstick. Upsets the fanbase. Manufacturers called to stop making purple lipstick. An oversimplification at best, true, but non-issues tend to pop up just as easily as real tragedies do. Online, there is no difference between a cat picture and an oil spill.
The penguin sweaters are a physical manifestation of the word “viral”. Thousands upon thousands of penguin sweaters is a picture that’s seared into my brain whenever news (bad or good) is shared online. This is what viral communication can do. Every sweater is an action someone took to help, not knowing what the end result would be. This is impressive in its scope, considering one has to know how to knit and take the time to make these sweaters. Ironically, this has now evolved to a new call.
If you read the fine print, you find out the sweaters will actually be sold in the gift shop. I guess “knit sweaters for us to sell in our gift shop” is not the sort of thing that goes viral.
So, instead of knitting sweaters for the penguins, they’re asking volunteers to create free product. That is a much different tack on the volunteer effort. Think what you will of that, by the way. If the sweaters are being used to raise money for conservation efforts, is that necessarily a bad thing? A moral dilemma to be sure but… How many knitters read the fine print?
Lessons from the Great Penguin Fiasco? I feel they include the following:
- There are positive and negatives to group participation. (And those who seek to take advantage of that knowledge.)
- Group participation is not short-term, but can have long-term, lasting effects on what people believe about an event, fact, person, or organization.
- The facts don’t matter as much as the participation does. This is a great power that can be used for good or evil.
- The perception of value is determined by the frequency of shares, not by the content or the facts. That perception may have no basis in reality, financial or otherwise.
- Once a message emerges into the online community, it cannot be controlled. It will, however, evolve on its own based on commentary about the original message.
- Messages can be shaped, but once the facts have been twisted in favor of eyeballs (either positively or negatively) most of the originating message holder’s efforts will be focused on damage control because of the resurgent popularity now and in the future.
- Damage control for messaging is time-intensive and has no expiration date.
- Speaking before knowing all the facts impacts what other people think of you when they find out the truth now and in the future since the conversation is ongoing. “Well, why didn’t you go to the source?” “How come you didn’t read before responding?” You may have written an article five years ago, but no one cares, because folks are never allowed to change or grow from their mistakes on the internet. Why? Eyeballs on the page, yes, but also the perception of that person’s value based on what’s being said/isn’t.
- Read the fine print. Always.
And last, but certainly not least…
- The best way to help is to go to the source and work directly with the individuals involved. This may be a more time-consuming approach and a less popular one to take. However, if you truly want to be part of the solution, popularity (e.g. either broadcasting the signal or feeling like you’re part of something) shouldn’t matter.
My name is Monica and, thanks to an article on penguins, I was able to confirm that yes, I have finally made my peace with the internet. (Thank you, penguins — and Mike!) You may have a different approach to dealing with hot button topics online, and that’s okay. As always, I don’t seek to educate or instruct, but to share and empower. To me, encouraging you to critically think and use your beautiful brain is more powerful than dictating what you should believe.
Back to writing. Have a wonderful day!!!!
- Mood: May I never stop learning.
Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I over-caffeinated and repeating that today.
Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Chased my cats everywhere. They own me.
In My Ears: Bulletproof (Tiborg Remix) by La Roux
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Latest Artistic Project: National Craft Month
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What I’m Working On: Primarily tie-in games work and novels.