Simon Weckert, an artist, borrowed phones from friends, until he had 99 devices, these he piled onto a little red wagon. Over the course of a day, he walked up and down a random street, towing his smartphone-packed wagon behind him. The effect wasn’t instantaneous; it took Google Maps about an hour to catch up. But eventually, inevitably, his wagon created a long red line in the app, indicating that traffic had slowed to a crawl; even though there wasn’t any traffic at all. Weckert had effectively tricked the system. This prank, his self-confessed “Google Maps Hack” had created a virtual traffic jam and this news went viral.
This story reminded me of a 200-year-old practical joke that created a real traffic jam in London.
(Image by William Heath – Published by Samuel William Fores in 1810, Public Domain)
In 1809, Theodore Hooks, a man of letters and composer, made a bet with his friend, Samuel Beazley, a noted architect and writer, that in a weeks’ time he could make any house the most talked-about address in London. The bet was made, and Hook chose; 54 Berners Street, home to a prosperous widow named Mrs. Tottenham.
On the appointed day, 27 November, Hooks and Beazley stationed themselves in a house opposite Mrs. Tottenham’s to watch the prank unfold. At five that morning, a chimney sweep arrived to sweep the chimneys of Mrs. Tottenham’s house. The maid who answered the door informed him that no sweep had been requested for and his services were not required. Moments later another sweep presented himself and then another, in total twelve sweeps presented themselves. As the sweeps were sent away, carts carrying deliveries of coal appeared outside the house, this was followed by a series of wagons carrying large wedding cakes. After that, fifty chefs arrived attempting to deliver a total of 2500 raspberry tarts. Six burly men delivered an organ. Forty butchers came wielding 40 legs of mutton. Throughout the day, Mrs. Tottenham’s house received several doctors, vicars, lawyers, fishmongers, wigmakers, dentists, undertakers with bespoke coffins, shoemakers and priests. Several dozens of pianos and multiple pieces of furniture were delivered throughout the day. The news spread fast and soon the narrow street was filled with onlookers and several dignitaries too arrived to gawk, including the Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chairman of the East India Company and even the Mayor of London. The police were summoned to clear the jam, disperse the onlookers and the increasing horde of irate tradesmen whose large orders were being refused by Mrs. Tottenham. To win the bet, Theodore Hook had written almost 4000 letters with orders to several tradesmen requiring them to present themselves at Mrs. Tottenham’s. Since she was a wealthy woman, all these requests had been honored. The prank was a huge story in the newspapers and everyone in London spoke about Mrs. Tottenham’s house for weeks. Hook won his bet and Beazley paid him one guinea. This affair came to be known as the Berners Street Hoax and is an example of a story going viral before the age of social media.
Word of mouth is at the core of viral news, contrary to popular belief, research has uncovered that only seven percent of word of mouth happens online. We tend to overestimate online word of mouth because it is easier to see and track.
People love to share stories, news and information and this basic human behavior underpins social transmission and word of mouth. We spend far more time of our lives offline than online, thus creating a lot more opportunity for offline conversations. While social media and the internet aid transmission, if the core idea, story or the product is not interesting it will not be widely shared and will hence not go viral. Jonah Berger’s book Contagious uncovers fascinating insights about social transmission and building word of mouth in today’s digital age and offers a practical framework to spur word of mouth transmission. In the book, he writes, at the core of social transmission is social currency; people share things that make them look good to others. Interesting stories, useful information, stories that evoke emotions or tales that inspire awe are some of the things that have social currency and hence get shared.
Simon Weckert’s Google Maps Hack prank probably has as much social currency as the 200-year old Berners Street Hoax. It doesn’t really matter if you are in the 1800s with limited media choices or today – in the age of the internet; if your story is not worth sharing, it will not go viral.
First published in afaqs here.