Fanning the Flames

By Matter

As anyone who’s ever worked with me (or, frankly, met me) is aware – I take a lot of pride in my hometown of Syracuse, NY and try to keep close tabs on home by including the local newspaper, the Post Standard, as part of my online news-gathering routine.  Earlier this summer, I paused on a headline that involved two favorite subjects: my home neighborhood (Manlius, NY) and technology apps.  I ended up with another glimpse of how in the online world, two groups of readers can view the same story and yet come away with completely different messages.

The online article featured a woman whose family has lived next to mine for more than 20 years, Sally Hootnick.  It told the story of how Sally left her iPad on a vacation flight home and subsequently used the Apple proprietary technology, MobileMe, to locate the device.  She tracked the iPad as it journeyed from JFK to Long Island and then later as it made several airport-to-airport hops, leading her to the reasonable conclusion that the iPad was picked up and being used by an airline employee.  Unfortunately, the airline and the police were unwilling to track the lost item and, despite some clever uses of MobileMe (like annoying the thief by pinging the device with random sounds – nicely done, Ms. Hootnick!) she eventually gave up the effort and upgraded to an iPad 2.

While I usually don’t read the comments section attached to newspaper articles, this was a story involving a friend and neighbor.  Plus, depending on your vantage point, the story had something for everyone to sink their teeth into.  From a technology standpoint, it’s a perfect example of software being used exactly as it was intended, regardless of the discomfort that tracking technology presents many users.  From an ethical view, it raises the question of the obligation a person may have to locate a lost item’s owner (though the law is fairly clear in this case – the finder could have and should have returned the item).  And so I scrolled through the comments, fully expecting there to be comments from the members of the cult of Apple (to which I subscribe happily), and perhaps comments from lawyers clarifying the ownership debate.

It was therefore a bit of a surprise to read the storm of responses that the story generated over just two days on  The flames were personal, hurtful and misogynist, and reflected the kind of class and wealth divide that is clearly turning our political and cultural dialogue into something rather ugly.  The posts were anonymous, enabling (perhaps even encouraging) users to send some pretty vile, even vaguely threatening – if later banned – posts.

I’m a regular Web reader and hopefully understand the medium better than most. Still, I was struck that if a person can’t be the subject of what is, to me, an innocuous story about missing property and technology tools without opening themselves up to attack…why would any “normal person” ever want media publicity at any level?

Ms. Hootnick’s story underscores the uncertainty of the web as a publicity tool – it’s nearly impossible to know what direction a story will take – but it is the very openness of the web that makes it so invaluable. I tell Matter clients that if you have a story to tell, you need to be willing to take the sometimes senseless, but often thought-provoking feedback of the public.  The internet allows the “peanut gallery” a platform on which to vent opinions – ANY opinions, many of which may be irrelevant to the discussion on hand.  But it also creates a kind of collective narrative that can sway the course of everything from elections to consumer product design.   The openness of the Web is precisely what makes it ultimately more powerful and, perhaps, more trustworthy than other forms of mass media.  And if one is to swim in these waters, one needs to expect some sharks.

Thankfully, I am told Ms. Hootnick needed none of Matter’s PR advice in this situation.  Her MobileMe story was picked up on a national ABC feed and more follow-up on her case is in the works.  According to my parents, she shook off the comments that would have sent most people, at the very least, into a full-scale flame war that probably would have been more embarrassing than helpful.

My guess is that at some point in the coming weeks, I will have to address a situation in which a client wants, but unfortunately cannot have, guaranteed positive response to a web story.  Perhaps another will want to go toe-to-toe with the online masses.  When it happens, I’ll be able to say thank you to Ms. Hootnick for the media lesson.