Saturday, 30 January 2010

How to waste time. And influence people?

If anyone was wondering, it's actually surprisingly easy to find yourself responsible for wasting the time of hundreds of people you don't even know.

Or at least that's my excuse anyway.

Here's what happened.

It's early Thursday evening, I'm in a Tesco Express, as usual deeply dissatisfied with what's on offer. I've already wandered around the place at least three times without anything taking my fancy, and as a result am getting mildly exasperated with myself as well as at the store. 'Well,' I find myself snapping (not out loud), 'what actually do you want?' At which point, I can only assume that I object to the question's tone, because I start to sarcastically suggest crisp flavours, such as Salt & Vertigo, Cheese & Umbrage, or Soured Dreams & Chive. Ultimately, this proves quite diverting, I cheer up, and probably just buy some hummus or something. Who knows.

Anyway, a few more flavours come to mind on the way home, so I decide to tweet them, explained by the hashtag #rejectedcrispflavours.

And that's where the trouble starts.

A couple of people who follow my account, it turns out, are amused enough to suggest flavours themselves. One of them starts retweeting flavours suggested by some of his followers too. Soon enough, though, he's moved on to another game involving punnily combining soap operas with song titles, so I assume that's probably the end of that then, and get on with something else. Eating hummus, probably. Yet, unknown to me, it's not; it's not the end at all. The hashtag has begun to spread.

A couple of hours pass and it finally occurs to me to search Twitter for #rejectedcrispflavours. Not having expected it to be used by anyone else in the first place, and not even to the extent that it was, I'm curious to see how far it might have travelled during its brief moment. I'm certainly not expecting #rejectedcrispflavours to have turned into a Twitter meme...

Yet no, not only are there now hundreds of tweets appended with #rejectedcrispflavours, but people are still continuing to tweet new flavours!

Stomach-turning new flavours.

Frankly, for the most part, the whole thing's moved on a bit from my whimsical semi-puns: Godwin's law - "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" - should have an addendum in which the phrases "online discussion" and "comparison involving Nazis or Hitler" are replaced by "Twitter hashtag game" and "references to genitalia or bodily substances". Two hours later, and #rejectedcrispflavours, it seems, has turned into a Twitter gross-out contest.

While not exactly what I had in mind, to the extent that I had anything in mind, I can't say that it's not exciting to see it take on a life of its own.

I monitor for a little while longer, but am just about to leave it be, when I spot another tweet: someone is expressing bemusement that #rejectedcrispflavours is a UK trending topic! Surely not? J D Salinger's just died, Blair's due at the Chilcot inquiry tomorrow, the iPad was released just yesterday. And what do people in the UK want to tweet about? (Or, more accurately, try to disgust each other with?)

Yes. Crisps. (They are one of the few things the UK's good at, though, I suppose).

Over the next hour or two #rejectedcrispflavours, in fact, goes on to become the top UK trending topic: 'So this is what it's like to have power,' I think. 'And abuse it.' I feel proud, bemused, and ashamed, all at the same time. 'I've created a top UK trending topic! Wow...

'But it's this one. Sigh.'

So, yes, if anyone saw #rejectedcrispflavours in the UK trending topics, and wondered why, or perhaps despaired, well, this isn't so much me claiming credit as accepting the blame. Apparently this is the kind of thing that can happen if you have an argument with yourself in a supermarket. Be warned. (Or possibly encouraged, depending on your point of view).

Regardless of what the #rejectedcrispflavours hashtag eventually turned into, though, the whole thing was certainly a thoroughly fascinating first-hand lesson in exactly how easily something can (accidentally) go viral: all it took was having one follower* with the right kind of followers to propagate the idea (in this case, followers with a shared interest in hashtag games). That simple. Even knowing why marketers spend so much time and energy trying to identify and woo influential, connected voices online, I still couldn't help but be surprised. It really is, it seems, who you know.

*Of the two people who initially joined in; as far as I can tell, followers of only one of them went on to use the hashtag.

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