Thursday, 14 June 2012

Rallying Your Tribe: Social Media To The Rescue

I've written before about social media and the power thereof but two unrelated cases have come to my attention as fantastic examples of how you can deal with a bad situation using social media to either rally a mob of great justice or soothe the savage beasts that come after you if someone else does.

I've been online since 2006 and I've seen a lot of stuff happening from both sides and today I'm going to talk about how to get help when nothing else is working, how to deal with bad PR situations and how to utilise social media to its fullest effect. Marketing is not my core discipline but social media is so integral to my life and work that I've learned how to use it to get my message across, to engage with others, and to recover when something goes wrong.

Getting the message across

If you can't be honest with yourself about your motives for doing things, you can't be honest with anyone else and most people are smart enough to see through lies and spin. Forget that at your peril. All that stuff about owning the narrative only works if you can get your audience to agree that it's true and if you do it on the internet remember there are nerds and that nerds check things to see if they're true. Woe betide you if they're not. I'm going to show you two cases where people were dishonest about their motives and ended up paying for it.

1. Maya's Voice App

If ever a situation demanded a furious internet mob with pitchforks and torches, it's this. Four year old Maya Nieder can't speak. Here family haven't identified why, but the kid, who is otherwise fine, is nonverbal. Her mother discovered an app called Speak For Yourself which, at $299, is way cheaper than the alternatives offered by PRC at $8000. When PRC found out about it they decided to sue over the patent.

The message

"Infringing on our patent, even if it's for a different patent, will land you in court, you thief." This is interpreted in the comments on their Facebook page as sheer greed. While some apologists have stepped up to the plate, PRC is handling this as if they've never heard of "But honestly, Monica." They already look like the bad guys for suing over an app when they're not making one and aren't losing money over it and since the only defense the PRC can provide is, "But they're infringing!" on an app that is apparently debatable, it looks bad.

They're being called out for being disingenuous, too. The innocent claim of having "learned" that Apple removed a language assistance app is undermined by the restraining order/injunctive relief court papers and the fact that the patent is old (1999) and is for hardware, not software. Taking a dive and calling for a penalty to get sympathy doesn't work on a soccer pitch and it ain't working here.

The whole approach is the classic defensive rabbit-in-the-headlights flailing and it's the wrong way to handle it. The Speak For Yourself side owns the narrative because they've got

1. a cute little girl who is possibly going to be deprived of the one thing that enables her to communicate
2. a software app V hardware patent
3. cheaper product
4. underdog status
5. media support
6. Internet mob of great justice on their side.
7. #MayasVoiceApp

The response

They're being slaughtered in the media (how long till it makes broadcast news?) and on social media. I'm working to get #MayasVoiceApp trending on G+ and Twitter. Meanwhile, kind-hearted Kelvin Williams is offering to put together an app to replace the Speak For Yourself one as an open source collaborative effort. If you want to help out, please hop in to his thread.


It's obvious they're losing a lot of goodwill over this. When you're constantly being hammered for being, not to put too fine a point on it, a douchebag to an underdog, you're going to either cave in or go into siege mode and suffer from negative press for months. If they want a way out, here's what they can do:

1. End the court case
2. Apologise publicly to Speak For Yourself regardless of whether or not there's a principle at stake
3. Publish a statement that guarantees that there will be no further interference with Speak For Yourself's app

4. Privately ask Speak For Yourself to link to your website and to provide a page on their website that pretty much advertises your products along with funding information IF there are legitimate grounds to do so. That way you will be able to build goodwill on both sides and come away smelling of roses. Right now you look like you're trolling.

The Oatmeal

About a year ago, The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman posted a rant about Funnyjunk and how they had "stolen" his content. A user-generated website, Funnyjunk operates by permitting people to upload pictures from around the internet and makes money from clicks on the ads. Since the task of administrating a website that basically requires copyright violation is a full-time job I can sympathise with the other side's CEO but what he did about Inman's griping was just stupid.

The message

"The Oatmeal is mean for saying things that make us look bad. Make them pay! We have a host of fourteen year olds and a lawyer who says he's an internet specialist. He did the case. You're toast, Inman!"

The Oatmeal will win no matter who's right. It was a bit unfair to blame a user-generated site for what the users chose to do but setting an internet mob on Matthew Inman, then setting a lawyer on him was really stupid and Funnyjunk and their troll lawyer deserved what happened next.

When you've decided to call someone out in a popularity my-mob-V-your-mob contest, a) it gets ugly and b) it's quite funny if you're in the right mood. The difference is

1. The Oatmeal may seem childish and vulgar on the surface but it appeals to the child in us and everyone over twelve. Kids don't really get it. My generation does.
2. The Oatmeal's success hinges on the fact that it is often referenced by blogs of varying distinction.
3. The Oatmeal is the one that gets copied. Matthew Inman's work is his own. The only user content is in the comments.
4. The Oatmeal has a huge fan base.
5. Pretty much anything Inman does can and does go viral.
6. Matthew Inman appears to have married the Zeitgeist because his comics are bang on where current affairs are concerned.
7. The Oatmeal is funny.

The response

The response was one of those epic comics where Matthew and the Zeitgeist have a quiet evening in, enjoy a nice romantic meal and a bottle of wine, followed by a quick gestation and a bouncing baby viral meme. It's been referenced more than the Game of Thrones one already and once again all the news and tech blogs are buzzing with it. The idea that the man could turn a shakedown for $20,000 over a grouchy rant into a fundraiser that has raised over $157,000 in three days as a virtual one finger salute is so awesome I have to keep checking to make sure it's true. I love his Facebook page. It's a treasure trove of win.

Funnyjunk has no response to this on any of their own social media pages and the lawyer, hilariously named Charles Carreon is definitely not keeping calm. He's flailing and lashing out and making a huge fool of himself. For a man who claims to be a digital media lawyer he's playing this very, very wrong.


Funnyjunk has lost out so badly that if it wants to survive it'll have to come up with some new policies. Bear in mind that Inman was prepared to let the infringement slide. I propose a solution to get them out of this mess, namely, publicly announce they've sacked the lawyer, make a generous donation to the fundraiser because trying to get it shut down was really stupid, and find a way to work together. If Inman is willing to make a revenue sharing deal with Funnyjunk, everyone wins. Failing that, Funnyjunk could make all items pre-screened and operate a three-strikes policy for infringement. What they're doing now is just abusing DMCA if it's not penalising users for infringement or working out a way to compensate The Oatmeal.


There are many lessons to be learned from this, but I'm going to focus on four.

1. Be honest.

Before you embark on an epic hunt for vengeance and gather your d00ds, ask yourself why you are doing this. Is it because you feel aggrieved or because you have a genuine grievance? When the Maya's Voice App story came out I made a hashtag, #MayasVoiceApp, and posted it on G+ and Twitter. I've been trying to get it to trend ever since. I did it because I think patents on software are immoral. And the kid is cute. And it hits all my "unfair" buttons.

2. Be humble

I made a bit of a fool of myself earlier today over a maths problem because I'm not great at maths. When someone explained why I was wrong in a way that made sense to me, I folded and said, "Okay, you got me. I was wrong." When someone else hopped in and went, "LFMAO," my response was, "I deserve it." By being humble and admitting I was wrong I sucked the fun out of fighting and it fizzled out two posts later.

3. Be reasonable

If you don't understand where you fit into the internet food chain you are going to be chewed up and swallowed. It doesn't matter how right your cause is if you don't have support and you're not being actually harmed, walk away. Faceless corporations might hold weight with people who wear suits but on the internet they are regarded as either furniture or the enemy depending on how they utilize patents, if at all. Bear in mind that the patents-for-profit businesses are at the same level as child molesters, kitten-stompers and SOPA on the internet. Basically, never pick on a hero or an underdog. Or the internet.

4. Be friendly

One chap did himself a huge favour when he found his pictures being hosted and discussed favourably on Reddit. Instead of freaking out about it he chatted to the Redditors and posted links to his own website, almost certainly gaining a new revenue stream. It's what I've been saying throughout this post; make use of sharing, chatter, etc., instead of trying to fight it. You have to take a sort of Taoist attitude for this to work, and it does. If you're less combative and more approachable you get things done. If you post horrible comments about the underdog you're fighting, you will lose whether you're right or wrong.

If you can fully understand and utilize those lessons you'll be able to own the narrative of yourself and your company. The trick is to participate in the community and you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

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