First, do no harm. It’s one of the most basic tenets of good Internet citizenship. You don’t share malicious links or forward along emails that are obviously spam to your friends because you don’t want to subject them to harmful attacks, or at the very least waste their time with nonsense. But for some reason this same sort of thinking doesn’t apply to the content we share on social media, like this week’s viral video of choice, the cheating prank that backfired. In one day, it has already garnered 2.6 million views and counting.
Why is that? Is it because it’s a delightful glimpse into the human condition that teaches us something about the world while simultaneously amusing us? Maybe! An alternate explanation for its success is because you are stupid. Not just you in the aggregate, but you specifically, because you are easily manipulated and shallow.
There’s a reason we called these sorts of things “viral” in the first place. They’re insidious and gross, and you usually need a prescription from a doctor to get rid of them. In the case of obviously bullshit stunts like this, and the hundreds before it, the twerk fail girl or the eagle snatching the kid or the pig rescuing the goat, the cure, however, is a lot easier to come by — it’s called a modicum of common sense. We all consider ourselves savvy consumers of media now, capable of separating fact from fiction, marketing from content (although the numbers on sites like Buzzfeed sort of disprove that notion pretty handily). So why don’t people apply the same sort of skepticism to the viral content we share with each other without giving a moment’s thought to its veracity? Stop banging me with your infected content without at least getting a check up first, that’s all I’m saying.
Complicating this is the fact that we’re all members of the media now. But the single most defining characteristic of a reporter is his or her skepticism. There’s very little of that applied to what we pass along to one another online. Believe it or not, when you attach your name to something you’re sharing on Facebook or Twitter, you’re endorsing it in a sense. Here is this thing, signed off on by me, so you may believe in it, is the subtext of every share. The problem is, when a professional member of the media shares something that turns out to be fake, they get in a lot of trouble for it. At least they used to, anyway. There’s no such safeguard in place for the average, basic-ass content distributor. There should be. You should be ashamed when you pass off something obviously fake as if it were real.
This is a problem that begins from the top down. There was an interesting discussion on Paid Content last month about just who the onus for this sort of viral fact-checking falls upon, revolving around Gawker’s discussion of the matter. You remember the letter from a grandfather who disowned his daughter because she didn’t support her gay son? More fake than a three-titted bull. But in the current content paradigm, it literally doesn’t matter. As Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman, one of the foremost purveyors of viral content on the web, explained in the argument, “People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole. Overthinking Internet ephemera is a great way to kill its viral potential.”
In other words, if it makes people happy, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, and asking the question in the first place is an assault on joy and comfort. That’s not an uncommon line of thinking online anymore. That’s the foundation of the success of sites like Buzzfeed and UpWorthy and whatever other goofy thing shows up in your feed lately [editor's note: uh, no comment]: praying on people’s desire to feel good by telling them things they want to believe. But making people feel good isn’t the job of the media, whether professionals or amateur ones on blogs and social media, it’s the job of the marketer. Every time you share something like this video, you’re saying that you’re comfortable being an unpaid arm of some brand’s advertising apparatus. That’s fine if it’s something you’re actually a fan of, but who among us would be proud to call ourselves fans of fake nothingness?
The job of the media and the sharp media consumer, on the other hand, is to tell people things they don’t want to hear. Like this, for example: You’re all stupid and every time you share something like this you drag the rest of us down with you.
[Note: This is a commentary piece and solely the author's opinion.]