Meeja: March 2009 Archives

Conning teh interwebs

31 March 2009

Idiot Forever is a work of genius and it's only a few posts in. In search of teh lulz, a late teen in the US* wrote today about how he conned the Sun into running a story about a love cheat being caught by Google Street View through poor taste in hub caps. Apparently he did so by pretending at one stage to be 'top media lawyer' Mark Stephens (are there any un-top media lawyers?), not realising that there was a top media lawyer called Mark Stephens.

If you're already confused, stop now. It only gets worse from here.

It's a striking coincidence when you consider that late last week top media lawyer Mark Stephens (the real one, it seems) wrote a column for the Times about how his firm received instructions from an irate wife who had spotted her errant husband's hubcaps on a familiar Range Rover parked outside a ladyfriend's house at a time "when he said that he was away on a business trip".

Ah yes, blinged-up hubcaps, Range Rover and "business trip". These are the ones that spin backwards aren't they? The mark of a true businessman. But I digress.

On the assumption that the house doesn't have a calendar as a giant garden feature, we have to assume that someone is making at least part of this story up. Street View pics can be as old as a year going by the one that shows my street. But I reckon we can be pretty sure that Idiot Forever didn't conjure up the name of Mark Stephens out of his head or with the help of a random name generator, unless it's a name generator called Google.

By the way, the picture that Idiot Forever offers up isn't from Street View but the satellite imagery used for Google Maps. Try finding a hubcap in a picture taken from 50 miles or so straight up. That's part of the charm of this part of the hoax: he's conning his own readers several times over while they lap up the schadenfreude over the way a tabloid got taken.

The open question is whether it's Mr Idiot Forever who emailed the story to the Sun who then contacted Mark Stephens who then bunged the anecdote into his column or Stephens thought an anecdote about Street View might liven up the column a bit and was then hijacked by Mr Idiot Forever in an attempt to claim a hoax, thereby hoaxing the Intertubes. Or there really is an irate wife with a photographic memory and an incredibly accurate diary of her husband's movements on any given day.

The more this story rolls on, I'm inclined to believe the last one.

* None of these things may be true. She may be in her late fifties and living in Barnsley. But the bit about the lulz is right, I think.

** I posted a couple of comments at Idiot Forever which are still in moderation, despite being posted ahead of a couple of others that are now online. Rather than lose them to the ether here is number one:

"Striking coincidence how you picked the name Mark Stephens just days after media lawyer Mark Stephens (OK, I’m assuming they got the real one) wrote about his firm having received instructions about a case involving Street View and a Range Rover in the Times. I think that would be the Times of London in your neck of the woods.

"But we’re in a world where hardly anybody, except for SJG above has noticed that Street View pics are mostly six months or more out of date, especially the ‘real’ Mark Stephens, it seems. So, a hoax about a hoax? Brilliant.

"Pip pip. We still say that round here doncha know."

And a reply to "friend of Mark Stephens" Laura Marcus:

"Didn’t you read your friend’s column in the Times?"

Before answering this question, consider the context in which Andrew Keen made the comment to 1938 Media's Loren Feldman: "I like Twitter because it's more civil than blogosphere".

Keen followed the line with: "Just block him". That's because Feldman was having a set-to with another Twitterer called Aronado in full boxing-match warm-up press-conference mode, the ones where after standing on the scales each calls the other a small cat. I can see Feldman's point after reading Aronado's bio, however. Zen of Kicking Ass? It's not quite as hopeless as the drudge who claimed to melt faces with his face-melting guitar riffs, but it's more or less on the same page.

See, already I'm off Twitter – where requests to borrow sugar are at least met with helpful advice on where the nearest supermarket is rather than "STFU noob" – and the bile is flowing.

So, back to the question. There are three possible answers to this:

a) It isn't. It's an illusion of the echo-chamber nature of Twitter

b) It is. It's in the nature of how Twitter works

c) It won't be. Usenet, forums, chat rooms and blogs were all neatly tended gardens once. Wait for the mob to arrive.

I can't make my mind up right now. I reckon all of the above are true to a point.

There are some arguments for Twitter being a more civil environment. As Charles Arthur points out, there is the Block. This is the facility that lets you stick your fingers in your ears and shout, "La la, I can't hear you," without all the effort. If someone gets enough blocks against them, their account gets killed. That's one reason for staying nice.

Second. This is a bit counter-intuitive but the 140-character limit may be a help. If you look at the way that forum discussion descend into abuse, it generally takes a while. And the length of posts gradually increases as the opponents take their turn in fisking each other before getting down to name-calling. To have a serious argument in Twitter, other than low common abuse, you have to take it outside.

Third. I reckon that for any network that demands you make some kind of formal connection, the participants will be on average more civil to each other. I'd be curious to know how Twitter conversations differ from those on Facebook. But I'd bet that Facebook groups descend into bitterness faster than personal pages, except where you have some concerted attempt at bullying.

Don't miss the first sentence in Keen's tweet - there's a lot of information in those 140 or so characters: "Sounds like the same problem Calacanis has. That's a shame". Jason Calacanis has more than 60 000 followers: there are bound to be some trolls in there somewhere. As these networks get bigger, the number of trolls and spammers approaches a critical mass and the tone heads downwards.

But, a lot of the time you don't see it if you have Twitter set up so that you don't see the @ flames. And, because people tend to cluster in interest groups, they don't regard comments against The Others as being insults or uncivil. The Skittles wheeze of putting its Twitter page up underneath some promotional blurb encouraged some to deliver the odd insult and as a young J Rotten once put it: "A rude word". Civil? But I'm not bothered about the feelings of carnauba-wax covered sweets, so it's OK by me.