If a Social Media Stunt was Alone in a Forest, Would Anyone Hear it?

I love social media. When done well, it can deepen existing relationships, forge new ones, and entertain and delight. But does anyone else feel like it’s starting to turn on itself?

Mashable recently reported on the “Top Social Hoaxes of 2013” and recounted many stunts pulled by professionals meant to look like real time, real life, organically unfolding situations that suspended the belief of its watching public. My favorite, “Diane in Seat 7A” was story told through Twitter by “The Bachelor” producer Elan Gale. If you missed it (read: if you were in a temporary coma or somewhere without any internet signal), Elan live tweeted a “feud” between himself and a boisterous, obnoxious woman seated in 7A who was clearly angry about being stuck on a plane on Thanksgiving day. After exchanging increasingly nasty notes suggesting certain body parts be sucked, it culminated with Diane slapping Elan in the face at the gate.

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The coaster note from Elan to Diane in 7A

I was captivated. Was sucked in ’til the very end. Even afterwards, when rumors surfaced on Twitter that the story was a hoax, I didn’t want to believe it wasn’t true. It was a GREAT story with all the elements: mystery, suspense, an underdog, a twist and sweet resolution. As it turns out, it was a hoax. Elan ended it, after more rumors started flying about that Diane had cancer, and was dying, and this was why she was so upset yadda yadda, with a photo of an empty chair, and this: “I conclude by saying hopefully a few people got a few laughs over a slow Thanksgiving weekend.”

WHAT. I’d been had! I’m a storyteller myself, and a smart lady. So how could this be?! Don’t ask me why I was so disturbed to find out… (GASP!)… the Internet lies. The backlash against Elan – and other social tricksters – shows that for some reason, people expect what they read to be true. They trust their personal news source, be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other social channel, because it feels like this news is coming from a friend. At the very least, a friend of a friend.

Then there’s the recently viral video by Canadian airline WestJet, where they staged a kiosk featuring Santa at one of their departure gates, asking passengers what they really wanted for Christmas. Then, while the passengers flew en route to their destination, WestJet employees frantically shopped to fulfill the passengers wishes, delivering them to a waiting, unsuspecting group via baggage claim. Instead of their checked luggage, passengers instead retrieved wrapped packages addressed to them personally off the carousel… their teary reactions all captured on video and then beautifully edited together in a way that would make even the Grinch bawl his eyes out.

This got me thinking. Social is media after all. In both cases, I can assume the authors’ intentions were true – in that, they were seeking attention for themselves through the giving of emotions to others. If a great story delivers laughs, or tears, that turns audiences into fans, followers and customers… is this a bad thing? Should we feel duped when we discover a great story was a hoax, or a heartwarming story was a PR stunt? My jury is still out on that one. But it does make me wonder… would great storytellers still try as hard if they thought no one was listening?

I sincerely hope we never find out.

4 responses to “If a Social Media Stunt was Alone in a Forest, Would Anyone Hear it?

  1. There’s nothing wrong with a heartwarming story being a planned communication designed to sell a product; that’s the essence of advertising. But if WestJet hadn’t really done what it did, that would be a hoax.

    I love to read (or watch) good fiction. I love to read or watch good nonfiction. I just kinda like to know going in which it is. Elan Gale belongs with James Frey and Herman Rosenblatt.

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    • Greg definitely has a point. Was the WestJet event planned? Absolutely! There is no way they could have fulfilled the wishes without serious planning and working with strategic partners (Best Buy and Under Armour for example). However, it being planned is far from being a hoax. These were real people who received real gifts in fulfillment of a stated wish (although some didn’t get exactly what they wanted; see the report on ClickZ for more info: http://bit.ly/1lfr4Z5). Elan Gale’s attempt at social humor was along the lines of Orson Wells War of the Worlds radio broadcast – without the courtesy of letting us know it was fiction up front. To quote Shane Adams of AMC Theatres, that’s “NOT COOL, COOKIE”!!

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  2. Thanks Kerwyn for your comment!I guess at the end of the day, I’m a sucker for a great story, but don’t want to be a sucker for falling for something I didn’t expect. Is that hypocritical? Maybe. Anyone else operate under the “entertain me but only on my terms” philosophy?

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