‘Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook’ tale was the perfect shareable story

This week, a powerful, infinitely shareable blog post was picked up by many news sites and shared online an astounding number of times. The story was that Abraham Lincoln had filed a patent application for an idea that was remarkably similar to Facebook, albeit using more rudimentary media.

“How could it not get attention? Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook!” writes Megan Garber in an in-depth look at the story for The Atlantic.

It was a hoax. Of course it was.

But, oh boy, was it fun when people thought it was true! And there you have a big reason it was such a big hit for the hoaxster behind it, Nate St. Pierre.

Garber outlines some of the reasons the story was so captivating:

This was such a good story. You wanted it to be true — not just as a fun fact, or as an easy Internet Shareable, or as a reminder of the psychic continuity between past and present, or as a Campbellian myth of the banality of heroism, or as a Buellerian tale of the obvious productivity of truancy … but also because, I mean, Lincoln inventing Facebook. There is nothing that is not awesome about that.

All good, relevant points.

This kind of story is irresistible, especially online. In no time, a blog post like this will be sucked up into the aggregation turbine and spat out accross the Web. It gets bonus points for virality because any clever story about Facebook is bound to blow up on Facebook.

Looking at it, you can see the hand of a talented hoaxster, and that’s what Garber found when she interviewed St. Pierre. (I did my own interview with a different hoaxster a little while back.)

What’s most interesting to me is St. Pierre’s motivation. He didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to unleash a fake story that will go viral!”

His motivation was, if I dare say, purer than that. He wanted to tell a good story, something fun and surprising. Here’s some of what he told Garber:

“I was crabby; I was in a bad mood; I was tired of looking around at all the boring, lame stuff online — all the same people rehashing the same things.”

[He wanted] “to write something that would be exciting to read.”

“If you just have creativity and a blog, you can be powerful.”

He wanted to write something that people would enjoy and that could stand out from all the other stuff he was seeing. Something that was creative and fun.

St. Pierre put together the exact kind of story people want to blog about and share. It had all the elements of virality, one of which is thinking about storytelling and emotion rather than virality itself.

Here’s what Huffington Post co-founder, current BuzzFeed CEO and virality expert Jonah Peretti has said about what makes content viral and shareable:

Users are less likely to share how-to articles and more likely to share content that’s funny or that they identify with. As Peretti put it, on Facebook, users share things that “define you and make you look good.”

Some comments from his recent talk at a Guardian event:

St. Pierre’s Lincoln hoax checked just about every box, leading lots of people to repeat and share the story without doing any checking of their own.

The more viral and shareable something is, the less people — the press included — are inclined to hold off and verify.

This is “too good to check,” Internet-style.

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  • Anonymous

    One didn’t even have to go outside of the story to debunk it. The purported “newspaper” included a grayscale image. That technology wasn’t available until decades later. (And yes, I caught it immediately and debunked it in a return tweet.)