Ti Kawamoto had an idea about the kind of Android phone he’d like to see on the market. Two Sundays ago, he played around with 3D modeling software to put together a vision of what he dubbed the Sony Nexus X.
Then he uploaded a few of those images to a Picasa account. The tech press took care of the rest.
The result is the latest in a long line of faked images about new mobile phones that made their way into the media. The first story about the phone ran 16 hours later, last Monday. From there, it spread far and wide, and by Kawamoto’s calculation resulted in around “1,000 news articles.” He offered that estimate and a whole lot more detail about his imaginary phone on anatomyofahoax.tumblr.com.
The site features background on how he faked the images, a timeline of how the story spread, why Kawamoto did it, and his conclusions now that the dust has settled.
Here’s one notable point about his experience, and how it was reported:
One slightly off-putting thing about this entire episode was that not a single soul made any attempts to contact the owner of the Picasa album. Seriously. Not one comment reaching out to the elusive Mutul Yeter (whose name I actually misspelled). Man, if I was a journalist, the very first thing I would do is to make some sort of attempt to contact the person who posted the leak. Even if it was a long shot, I could be the guy who put the whole thing to bed. That has to count for something.
That is remarkable, although certainly not novel.
This isn’t to say every site that wrote about the pictures treated them as credible. Some called them out as fake (for what Kawamoto said were often inaccurate reasons). Others noted the pictures were unconfirmed and details were scarce.
We will admit that we are sometimes lax in our due diligence, and instead defer to simply reporting something and clearly labeling it an unsubstantiated rumor. It’s a bad habit, and one that we have to try to fix, because we tend to strive to bring you guys news faster, even at the expense of not following up enough.
That’s a frank admission. PhoneArena deserves credit for explaining to readers that it went for the short game: get something up fast and add what amounts to a warning label. (TechCrunch also wrote a follow-up post about its coverage of the phone.)
The PhoneArena post added that “we’re just hoping that Sony and Google saw the excitement in the user base, and maybe a Sony Nexus will become a reality sometime soon.”
While the Nexus X story has many hallmarks of a typical tech hoax, in some ways it has as much in common with fan fiction as it does with media hoaxes.
Hoax as fan fiction
Media hoaxes are constant, and motivations vary.
Earlier this year we saw a person create the “Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook” hoax because he wanted to tell a good story. Nate St. Pierre, the hoaxster, wanted “to write something that would be exciting to read.” There was also recently a remarkably complex and multi-layered hoax executed by activists to raise awareness about Arctic oil.
Even more recently, a hoax about a celebrity sperm bank that ensnared U.K. and Canadian media last week was a copycat of a 1970s trick executed by famed media fooler Joey Skaggs.
“The prank was a comment on how technology challenges morality,” he recently told The Huffington Post.
Which brings me to to Kawamoto’s hoax. Yes, he said he did it in part to learn more about how technology sites handle tips and “leaked” images. But he had already started working on a 3D rendering of the phone before that thought entered his mind.
“As a fun exercise in 3D device modeling, I was already halfway finished with my vision of an ideal-yet-not-too-pie-in-the-sky rendering of a Sony designed Nexus device. Nothing nefarious here, folks; just a guy sharpening his skills,” he wrote.
He started working on the phone because he wanted it to exist. He imagined what his dream Android phone might look like, and used it as a way to practice his 3D modeling skills. It’s not all that different than a fan who likes to write imagined episodes of his favorite show in order to play out non-existent plot lines.
A secondary motivation was to spur some real public discussions around a Sony Nexus device. I wanted Google and Sony to see how much of a demand there is in the market for a premium Nexus experience from a manufacturer like Sony. I included details like the pogo pins and a removable battery in order to elicit responses claiming that these are features consumers overwhelmingly desire.
I contacted him on Twitter to see if he saw the parallel with fan fiction.
You’d think Kawamoto might be left feeling discouraged about the Internet, after seeing how such dubious information spreads so easily.
Yet later on in his post about the hoax he again adopts the fan’s perspective to express his aspiration for this kind of Android phone, and an appreciation for the power of the Internet:
Let me reiterate: I, an individual with no previous worldwide recognition save for a frontpage Reddit post, managed to alter the behavior of people in Russia, Japan, Uzbekistan, and Italy within the course of 24 hours, all from the comfort of my home while exerting next to no effort. If you are nothing short of absolutely blown the fuck away by this, then the music died for you a long time ago.
I can’t help but like this guy, even if by his own calculation his feat of fantasy resulted in “250 hours of human capital” being wasted on writing about a non-existent phone.