That hoax isn’t funny anymore: Elan Gale and the problem of reality online

December 3, 2013

Here is a bit of non-news that, in the viral click-based economy, acquired a life far larger than it deserved: On a delayed Thanksgiving day flight, two high-strung, attention-seeking passengers — ABC producer Elan Gale and middle-aged squeaky wheel “Diane” — got into an argument.

Gale live-tweeted it. Buzzfeed jumped on the tweets. The story appeared on ABC, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle and E! Online. Essayists penned lengthy think pieces. Gale, otherwise known (or not) for his work on “The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette,” saw his Twitter following balloon by 140,000 people.

Then, late Monday night, he dropped a little bomb on all his new fans: Diane was fake. The whole fight was a hoax. Not only did one random man with a Twitter account convince major mainstream media outlets to cover an argument on a plane — one of hundreds of such arguments that, undoubtedly, occur everyday — but he convinced them to cover an argument on a plane that didn’t even happen.

 

 

If this plot line sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s not so different from Jimmy Kimmel’s stunt in September, in which he staged a wildly popular YouTube video of a girl twerking a bit too hard and setting herself on fire. Or the Comedy Central video fake a few months earlier, which involved a pig “saving” a goat from a petting zoo pond.

Just two weeks ago, comedian Kyle Ayers created a similar Internet stir when he live-tweeted a couple breaking up on his Brooklyn rooftop. The alleged couple’s amazingly pithy, tweet-length lines — “I’m not talking about love on a roof in Brooklyn” — inspired a wave of media coverage and, more recently, a pretty amazing short film.

Real? Fake? No one but Ayers and his subjects (“subjects”) know.

We’ll leave aside the question of whether such hoaxes, perpetrated by amateur or actual comedians, are even comedic — it certainly seems like Gale, at least, is laughing at us, and not the other way around. (He’s certainly laughing at women, a bit of nastiness that others have unpacked already.) It’s more interesting that these viral hoaxes have fast become a trope of modern comedy. And that, even worse, they’re so easy to imitate. Both Ayers’s and Gale’s respective 15 minutes, spaced just weeks apart, follow the exact same formula: contemptible stock characters, a shallow interpersonal conflict, and retweetable soundbites that invite not just our amusement — but our derision.

In some ways, it all smacks distantly of a phenomenon that Gawker boss Nick Denton calls “viral engineering,” a “media technique” designed to find the lowest common denominator of human interest and attention — and then manipulate it. But clearly, the technique no longer belongs only to media organizations: Besides Gawker’s resident viral engineer, Neetzan Zimmerman, there are marketers, political groups, and yes, comedians, all vying for a few seconds of undivided Internet fame.

There’s a world of difference, of course, between a self-promoting troll like Gale and, say, a politically tinged Web site aimed at making its agenda viral. But they both deal in the same techniques, and they both pose the same problems: If human attention is so formulaic online, then the people with the formula can steer us toward anything — even, as in “Diane’s” case, things that aren’t true.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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