Hoax Bait — A Special Kind Of Link Bait.

Filed as Features on December 24, 2007 11:11 am

Over the past few days the notorious blogger Fake Steve Jobs (also known as senior editor of Forbes magazine, Daniel Lyons) had put together a series of posts which made it appear as though he was being the target of legal action from the target of his satire: Apple.

What made it such a great piece of work was how legitimate it sounded. Oh, they had sent their lawyers after him. He had dropped his “FSJ” persona and was largely talking with that mask off. He was concerned and worried about having the pants sued off of him. And so on.

Which made it all the more poignant when a great majority of tech bloggers got suckered into these posts as they were all, in fact, fake. What’s the lesson here?

Only that bloggers are pathetically easy targets for hoax bait.

What is hoax bait, you might ask? Well, let’s revisit what link bait is.

My definition of link bait being is content that is deliberately put together that has is often quick, digestible, and relevant to a target audience, often co-opting a list type format (10 greatest bloggers of all time!) with a bizarre (… that have travelled to Greenland!) or funny (… and have handlebar mustaches!) twist, with the purpose, of course, generating links — often through social promotional means (… Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Propeller etc).

Hoax bait is a specific kind of content that is put together which is outrageous and attention-getting in its intentions. However, where most content is thoughtfully put together with careful attention to facts, hoax bait is often the oopposite. It is a form of link bait where there is often careful attention to the facts BUT with an emphasis on the subsequent creation of fake facts.

The FSJ story which had many bloggers (and fans) frothing at the mouth with Apple’s legal indignity and achieved its goal: satirization of the often-ham-fisted legal efforts of Apple, the recent takedown of Think Secret (an Apple focused blog on upcoming Apple Technology), and lastly, the Apple Faithful/tech-blogosphere itself which is so eager to leap upon any insult involving its technology/ drama involving its A-list cast.

So, the larger question is should *you* get involved with Hoax Bait?

Like many questions in life, the answer is that it “depends”.

Nobody like’s being made a fool out of, least of all your core audience, or the potential audience that you’re looking to create your blog around. On the other hand, some people are of the opinion that no publicity is bad publicity, and when you’re starved for traffic anything looks like good publicity, right?

So what’s a blogger to do? I think that it could work for you under the right circumstances

1. Its good hoax bait: You first have to have something that people are going to take notice of. In many ways I find that its like an urban legend: its often something that’s rooted in truth and plays upon people’s (or bloggers) own insecurities, prejudices, wishes or fantasies. Unlike an urban legend, however, there is often a timeliness component to it if its related to something in the news. FSJ being pursued for legal issues wouldn’t be as poignant if, for example, it wasn’t already highlighted by another Apple-related blog already (and legitimately) being shuttered.

2. When bloggers expect that things might already be fake: As in, a fake blog, or a blog that “does” comedy, or parody, or any one of a number of topics where people don’t expect you to be serious all the time. Or, say, April Fool’s day. Lots of fake content there. Its all about expectations — if bloggers aren’t expecting you to be upright and forthcoming all the time (and with good reason — to entertain) they’ll be less fussed when you pull the gotcha moment. Look to FSJ for inspiration if need be, or the Onion if you like.

3. You’re not too A$$hole-ish about it: That is to say, a general catch all term for “not being too mean in its fake content” and “being genuinely conciliatory” after you revealed what you just wrote is all fake, and meant for other reasons than bald-faced attention getting content. Earlier this year, for example, one tech blogger/podcaster wrote that he was going to replace Don Imus on his nationally syndicated talk show after Mr. Imus was fired for making racist remarks.

It got a lot of traction in the tech blogosphere, but it didn’t last too long and ultimately was revealed as a bit of a hoax by the author. He was conciliatory about it, and it was a pretty gentle hoax to begin with — but a good one, as it preyed on many a blogger / podcaster’s secret fantasy about making it big. Furthermore it was within the context of April Fool’s, so it was a good legitimate reason to put it together (as opposed to, for instance, admitting it was a traffic grab).

Now, if you’re not concerned about growing a core audience and don’t mind having your own integrity called into question, you could ignore #2 or #3. Or, if you’re thinking of creating a legendary prankster status, you could similarly ignore #2 or #3. On the other hand, you could risk running into the Punk’d syndrome (AKA the “Cry Wolf” phenomenon) where if people know its you, they might think what you’re writing about is just another hoax / prank.

If you know of other Hoax Bait that “worked”, or ones that bombed I’d love to hear it. Alternatively, if you have any hoax escapades of your own that you can share, you may do so right here. ;)

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