Monday, March 21, 2011

Snopes was "Made to Stick"

I have a big family. I know a lot of people say that they have a big family, but my family makes the Brady Bunch look small-time. I've got two parents, two step-parents, a sister, four step-siblings, six sets of grandparents, thirty-one aunts and uncles, and nearly a hundred cousins (I've tried to count the actual number of cousins I have several times, but that number is expanding faster than I can keep an accurate count). I'm not even including my innumerable great aunts and uncles, second cousins, second cousins once removed, third cousins, honorary aunts and uncles, and a dauntingly long list of other genealogical titles which I don't fully understand and which make my brain spin in circles.

This is just one small branch of my gigantic family at a reunion last year

And here's the kicker: I'm pretty close to the whole lot of them. I rarely go a full year without seeing the majority of my extended family, and usually its not even that long between visits. Furthermore, if you know me at all, you won't be the least bit surprised to hear that my family is packed with talkers. So when e-mail became widespread in the early 90's, my family pounced on the opportunity to talk to each other even more than they did already. Many of my family members are especially big fans of chain letters, shoot we were even sending them around back when you had to do it by snail mail [insert hipster joke here]. My email inbox was constantly packed with messages like "FWD:fwd:Fwd:FWD:re:fwd:RE: SOO FUNNY READ ASAP!!!1" Back then, I was probably the biggest geek in my family, (who am I kidding, I'm still probably the biggest geek in my family) and I took great relish in disproving the countless myths and urban legends that my relatives would pass around. I'd plug a few words from the email into Google Ask Jeeves, skim through the results for a minute or two until I found a link with proof that the message was a hoax, then gleefully press the Reply-All button and type out a message that usually began with an obnoxious phrase like "Well ACTUALLY." (It's probably no coincidence that I picked up the nickname Andy "I Know" Flowe around this time as well, my sincere apologies to anyone who had to deal with the 7 year-old me on a regular basis).

My annoying knowitallness aside, I began to notice one site in particular popping up again and again in the search results: Snopes. Launched in 1995, Snopes is like the original version of the Mythbusters. They would index every urban legend and potentially false chain letter they received, then painstakingly research the story until they could definitively declare it True or False. Snopes is so accurate and contains a catalog of myths and legends so extensive that pretty soon I just started going straight to the site instead of starting with a search engine. I spent hours pouring over the different sections of the site, sharpening my know-it-all skills to a fine point. I even once had a conversation over email with Barbara Mikkelson, who created Snopes along with her husband David, when I was having trouble finding this myth on the site. My family too, began to notice that I was linking them to the same site over and over. Pretty soon, my aunts and uncles were beating me to the gun, and before I could even send my snarky email someone else had already sent one beginning "Actually, I checked Snopes and it says..." Eventually, to "Snope" something became a verb amongst my relatives, and the false email forwards started slowing to a crawl. Furthermore, the few that persisted always began with a link to Snopes assuring their veracity. "Snopes" had "stuck," at least with my family.

In researching this blog post, I learned that it wasn't just my family that Snopes had struck a chord with. It quickly gained a reputation as the number one debunker of lies on the net. The Mikkelsons were good writers, and even better fact checkers. They chastised countless media outlets for reporting urban legends as breaking news, and broke down the truths and lies in Michael Moore's infamous Fahrenheit 9/11. Indeed, 9/11 was a turning point for Snopes, as their site was flooded with new myths about the terrorist attacks. The Mikkelsons monetized the site with the addition of ads, quit their day jobs, and today it remains their only source of income.

So what exactly was it that made Snopes so "sticky?" After reading Chip and Dan Heath's "Made To Stick," I think I've got a pretty clear idea. The Heath brothers lay out a simple list of qualities that allows some ideas to succeed where others fail. Using the acronym SUCCESs, "Made to Stick" outlines six principles that sticky ideas often have in common, using numerous anecdotes to prove their worth. Since the Heaths opened their book with a classic urban legend, I immediately thought of Snopes. As I read, I tried to apply the Heath's model to the growth of Snopes as a fact-checking website and found that it followed almost perfectly. But I'll let you be the judge, starting with the first principle:
Simplicity. Simplicity is the most important factor in making an idea stick, and it definitely applies to Snopes. The Heath's compare their concept of simplicity to the idea of "Commander's Intent" in the military. The idea is to structure a goal broad and simple enough that commanders can adjust their plans on the fly to meet the goal. The original intent of Snopes was to catalog myths, folklore and urban legends, and they have hardly strayed from that intent in the past 16 years. Furthermore, by keeping their goal simple, the Mikkelsons were able to expand their reach into political myths, which today is by far their most popular section. Snopes also capitalized on the second principle of sticky ideas:
Unexpectedness. When I first began receiving chain letters from aunts and uncles, I often questioned the veracity of their claims but often struggled to find proof against them. With Snopes, I had a simple, straightforward counterpoint to every bogus email I received, usually with the text of the original message included. My relatives had no choice but to accept that they had been duped, and quickly learned that Snopes was an invaluable resource to avoid looking like a fool in the future. By including multiple versions of the original message, as well as all the sources that they had gleaned the myth from , the language in the Mikkelson's articles was so Concrete that it could not be doubted. Additionally, the idea was Credible, in that it capitalized on the doubts that many myths and urban legends presented. The articles almost always included numerous sources, and Snopes refuses to assert a myth as true or false until they are absolutely sure (the site has multiple labels for myths, including an "Undetermined" label for stories still under investigation).
Emotion is the next principle of sticky ideas, and I can personally vouch for the emotional qualities of Snopes. Being able to maximize my know it all skills with such a simple, yet extensive site was a huge relief. I no longer had to argue incessantly about whether or not a story was true, I had Snopes to make the argument for me. The last principle of sticky ideas, S
tories, applies so perfectly to Snopes that it seems like the authors had the site in mind. The site's purpose is its stories, and they aptly demonstrate the amount of information there is to be debunked. My family members also shared countless stories of "snopesing" others, or being "snopes'd," to the point that they wouldn't dream of passing an email on nowadays without "snopesing" it themselves.

The funny thing about Snopes is that like most "sticky ideas," it wasn't designed to stick. The Mikkelson's created the site as a hobby. They were extremely active in urban legend and folklore newsgroups, and they simply wanted a place to catalog all of their findings.

Like the Heath's say, "All they had were ideas. And that's the great thing about the world of ideas-any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick."

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