Making the News
June 25, 2007
The gist: A lighthearted unscientific poll that was created as a PR ploy for a tech company is quickly evolving into a "real" news story, being treated as fact by mainstream press. That evolution from marketing effort to established fact can have real impact on people who works in related fields. This phenomenon is worth examining because, while this fairly harmless example hasn't resulted in a lot of drama, it shows the pattern that underlies a lot of the drama that tends to pop up in web communities.
First, to begin with the disclaimers, I know a lot of the people involved in this story, either as acquaintances in the tech industry, or socially by running into them at various events. Second, I don't think anybody's done anything egregiously wrong here, I just think the end result is interesting, insightful and a little scary.
Here's the story: Last week, I got an unsolicited press release and pitch from a PR company that has sent me announcements for a few years. I get a lot of these pitches, though I never blog about them, and this particular PR company is fairly respectful so I don't mind much. (I'll omit mention of the PR company, though they're fairly easy to find if you're interested.)
Towards the beginning of the announcement was the following:
"Folksonomy" has been voted the word most likely to make web-users "wince, shudder or want to bang your head on the key-board" -- in a poll to mark the tenth birthday of the word "weblog" by finding the single most irksome new word to have been spawned by the Internet.
Folksonomy (a web classification system) out-pointed words including "blog" (an online journal), "blogosphere" (the collective name for all blogs), "netiquette" (Internet etiquette) and "webinar" (a web seminar) -- in a poll commissioned by the Lulu Blooker Prize (www.lulublookerprize.com), the world's first literary prize for "blooks", alias books based on blogs.
A folksonomy -- a hybrid of "folks" and "taxonomy" -- is a system for classifying web content by tagging key words.
The press release was a fairly straightforward pitch for Lulu, one of the more popular services for printing books on demand. They were pretty clearly trying to get the word "blook" to be named one of the most annoying web words, as an oblique promo for their sponsorship of the "Blooker" prize. ("Blooker", of course, is itself a take on the Booker Prize.)
The poll mentioned in the pitch was run by YouGov in the U.K., though I could find no mention of their methodology. As has been noted by prominent bloggers like Jason Kottke, the press release and poll were picked up by some mainstream news organizations, first starting with second-tier small-town papers and moving up to established outlets like Entrepreneur, Salon, and the Seattle Times, as you can see in a Google News search.
Now, when I got the email, the first person I thought of was Thomas Vander Wal, who's a friend of mine and whom I'd just been hanging out with at a conference earlier last week. Thomas coined the word "folksonomy" (see his history of the word's origin) and has some part of his professional identity associated with the word.
Fortunately, Thomas' career is far too well-established to really be negatively affected by someone saying a word he created is annoying. In fact, I'm sure Thomas has considered "folksonomy" to be somewhat annoying from time to time himself. But instead of coining a phrase, he could easily have made a product or service that was being maligned in passing as part of a company's promotional efforts. And that potential is what makes this story interesting. I emailed Thomas late last week to get his opinions on the press release and its migration to mainstream media outlets.
I have seen a few variations of this and yet to see any actual source, until you pointed this press release. I was amazed that 2,000 people in Britain knew of the word and knew it well enough to hate it, but the poll being British has only been in 2/3rds of the "news" articles I read. I was not surprised with the term folksonomy being hated as most people read the continually bad overview of the term on Wikipedia (after pushing from academics I finally posted the concise definition and story about the creation of the term - http://vanderwal.net/folksonomy.html - as they were tired of being corrected that their understanding of folksonomy was wrong).
The remarkable thing here is, I don't think YouGov would present their poll as anything other than simple entertainment -- they don't pretend to be scientifically valid. Even those who published the poll would probably not assert that the trumpeted headline represents actual facts. But through sheer force of repetition, and gradual amplification from a PR pitch to a few blog posts and second-tier media outlets, all the way up to reputable media outlets, this little nugget of information has already graduated to a semblance of truthiness. Those of us who have the misfortune to spend too much time at web technology industry events will undoubtedly be hearing someone say "this is the most annoying word on the web" in reference to a PowerPoint slide about folksonomy at some point in the near future. Like the false stories that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, uncritical repetition by media outlets and the idea's convenience as a shorthand punchline will work together to subvert fact.
In this case, the result's kinda harmless. One guy's pet word is kinda tarnished, and I'm sure when Thomas's upcoming book is released, half of the people he talks in promoting it will ask him stupid questions about whether the word is annoying. That's not so bad. Lulu might have gotten a little bit of press out of this, but most of the mentions only plug the poll results and mention the company in passing, which isn't exactly a slam-dunk.
The most damning thing here is the fact that these media outlets, many of which do have blogs already and have embraced social media, are still in the habit of repeating poorly-sourced unscientific polls as if they accurately reflect societal trends. And often, the end result isn't merely a harmless annoyance for one person, it's the perpetuation of a falsehood that can affect the careers or efforts of people or entire organizations. It's the kind of thing that can make you "wince, shudder or want to bang your head on the key-board".