Linkbait Case Study: Why Nate St. Pierre Claimed Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook

Did y’all hear about Abraham Lincoln inventing the internet (or something like that)? It was the meme of the week, an owl in a box for our time – Nate St. Pierre, a blogger and consultant, told the (long-winded) story of his recent trip to Springfield, Illinois, and how he discovered a patent application filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845 – for a product that looks and sounds a lot like an early version of Facebook:

Lincoln was requesting a patent for “The Gazette,” a system to “keep People aware of Others in the Town.” He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where “every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.”

He went on to propose that “each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship.” Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn’t quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated “at any time deemed Fit or Necessary,” so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends’ lives “without being Present in Body.”

That was it. Pretty much just a simple one-page overview of how his system would work. After we read it, we both sat there quiet for a long time. It was so obvious what this was, guys.

A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.

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He even provided photographic evidence of Lincoln’s prototype, the Springfield Gazette.

Linkbait Case Study: Why Nate St. Pierre Claimed Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook image nate st pierre springfield gazette 600x450

Sounds great, if broadly implausible. But it was implausible for a reason – Nate St. Pierre made it up. Jason Kottke writes:

Update: Ok, I’m willing to call hoax on this one based on two things. 1) The first non-engraved photograph reproduced in a newspaper was in 1880, 35 years after the Springfield Gazette was alledgedly produced. 2) The Library of Congress says that the photograph pictured in the Gazette was taken in 1846 or 1847, a year or two after the publication date. That and the low-res “I couldn’t take proper photos of them” images pretty much convinces me.

Update: And the proof…the original Springfield Gazette sans Lincoln. (via @zempf)

Now we all get to shame Nate St. Pierre, right? Not so fast – he’s already published a (long-winded) explanation of why he pulled this hoax on America. Here are his top four reasons “in order of importance”:

  1. I wanted to do something fun that would make me (and others) laugh
  2. I was tired of all the same old boring blog posts rolling past me that day
  3. I was officially launching my consulting services the next day, so I wanted a bigger audience
  4. I wanted to illustrate one of the drawbacks to our “first and fastest” news aggregation and reporting mentality, especially online

Do I buy his ordering of these reasons? Not really – I’m pretty sure #3 was overwhelmingly the driving motivation. This is classic linkbait! He even pulls the double-classic follow-up linkbait move (hey, we’re not above it).

He claims that all he did to get the ball rolling was “put out one tweet, facebook, etc.” and “a dozen or so DMs to friends” – I don’t really buy this either; I think he probably worked harder than that to make sure this thing would go viral. He also claims he didn’t expect it to blow up as huge as it did, but he’s certainly not humble about the success of his scheme:

Between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, I did an interview and a podcast with CNN, a phone interview with The Atlantic, and another one with the Washington Post….

Pretty much the whole internet picked this thing up and ran with it … In addition to social media and bloggers, it ran as fact on a lot of big-name sites and news aggregators. That’s the thing that surprised me the most. I knew it would happen, but I thought only one or two would run it without fact checking, and the rest would shout it down. But only one or two actually caught the joke, and the rest just kept promoting it! It was crazytown for a good long while … In terms of numbers, it’s pretty staggering.

At the end of this post, he writes:

The Point

Amazing content sells.
You can create it.
I can help.

It was all a sales pitch, guys!

Pretty astounding results for a linkbait post, but is it really – as he implies – that easily recreatable? Whenever we think we’ve figured out what makes a piece of content go viral, we try it again and get disappointing results. There’s one element of a successful meme that you can’t reliably generate, and that’s luck. What’s more, hoaxes are not a great business model. Nate St. Pierre certainly got a lot of attention and links this week, but he sacrificed trust to do so, and I’m willing to bet he also pissed a lot of people off.  Will the benefits outweigh the costs? I guess he’ll find out!

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Have a great weekend, all.

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