What writers can learn from 'pranksters' on the Web
Published: November 9, 2010
Web culture often seems to have a mind of its own, one based on
collective actions that are products of message boards or social
networking websites. The most powerful search engine on the Net learned
this the hard way several years ago.
Kay B. Day
The best account of what happened appeared in The Guardian.
Employees at Google’s Tel Aviv (Israel) offices were shocked on a warm
summer day in 2008 when they discovered the Nazi swastika had somehow
appeared at the top of Google Trends. Technically, that phenomenon
suggested millions of Web users had searched for the symbol. In fact the
search giant soon realized they had been gamed by a group of
“pranksters” at the online community that has thundered its way into
A web giant that claimed its algorithm could not be gamed had in fact been gamed.
at 4chan are not required to register or reveal their identities. Over
the years, 4chan has reinvigorated the career of Rick Astley, a British
pop star from the 1980s.The clever manipulation of Astley’s song “Never
Gonna Give You Up” even spurred the coining of the term “rickrolling.”
Remember the song “Chocolate Rain”? That was advanced by 4chan.
incidents are a few of the more benign pranks the group has undertaken.
They’ve crashed talk show hosts’ servers and one member hacked a
well-known politician’s e-mail. But perhaps in the interest of public
service, members have also helped authorities locate a person who abused
How do they do it and is there anything useful in their methods?
Sites like 4chan run on unified action to advance a meme, a bit of information that is repeated across the Web. The methodology is complicated, but applying the concept is fairly simple.
If thousands of people mention a specific link on their Websites or blast that link to their entire address book, the potential for momentum is great.
Writers can apply the concept.
Most of us have sizable address books. While it’s not polite to bombard people with messaging, it is perfectly appropriate to make an announcement to your address book contacts if you have just published a book or won an important award. If you ask friends, family and colleagues to share the announcement or link, you will begin to see collective action take hold. Essentially we’re talking about word of mouth, cyber-style.
It’s also feasible to share good news with members of any communities you belong to as long as you observe the guidelines for posting. Most websites, including The Writer, have forums with designated threads where writers can share news.
Even better is your ability to get others to support your work. For instance, I happened to catch a brief interview on TV with well-known physicist Michio Kaku. He talked about the myths surrounding the year 2012, which some people with fanciful imaginations liken to Armageddon. I wrote up a brief story about his comments, snapped a photo of him on TV and posted it. The response was amazing. I had no idea how many people considered predictions of doom a possibility when 2012 rolls around. The story was the gift that kept on giving. Even now it remains a popular item.
Some of my stories have been forwarded to friends by other writers. Those referrals are just as good as if not better than a search engine in terms of getting your brand broader recognition. On occasion writers have done this of their own accord. On other occasions I have forwarded a story to other journalists who might be interested in the topic because they cover the general subject area in their own writing.
I maintain a list of like-minded writers with whom I share links to articles they might be interested in. It’s important to reciprocate, so when I see an article by someone else that might interest my readers, I share the link.
A few months ago I wrote a story that a well-known journalist took an interest in. He shared it with his own editors and when I checked my statistics that day, approximately 10,000 people had visited my site in a two-hour period. This traffic was actually more valuable to me than general search referrals because these visitors were interested in my specific subject matter and many of them read other pages. Often search results send visitors who are looking for a quick bite of information; those visitors don’t really hang around or click on ads or comment.
The Web is a vast community of diverse groups and individuals. If you get even a small percentage of them to support your work by forwarding links or by recommending your work on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, you’ve applied a concept that the community at 4chan has shaped into a fine art.
Many of us don’t have funds to hire an expensive publicist or to purchase adequate advertising. Viral marketing and collective action can be invaluable in attracting readers to our work and hopefully to inspire them to come back and read again another day.
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.