The men who fooled the Internet with their hoax about a woman who quit her job via a dry erase board say it made some money for their site, TheChive.com — but that attention-grabbing stunts don’t make for a reliable business model for their company, Rober Media.
“TheChive is already an established and profitable brand with multiple advertising networks representing us,” said John Resig, who along with his brother Leo, owns the hugely popular picture board site where the hoax took off. “We closed [that week] at more than 11 million hits. So yeah, there’s money to be made in hoaxes but there’s not a business model you could possibly build around something so speculative. I’ll say this however, the Internet is Vietnam and we won.”
Resig is a confident, irascible 28-year-old actor who appears on the HBO show True Blood (he plays Deputy Kevin Ellis) and, through Rober, owns a network of several sites. In the last two years he and his brother have attained legendary status in some circles for pulling off widely circulated Internet hoaxes. In that time, TheChive has risen to rival extremely popular and similarly jokey men’s lifestyle sites like Ebaumsworld and Cracked through a simple formula: posting photo galleries, mostly of attractive women, funny situations, or — best of all — both.
“It’s worth noting that those sites have been around for years,” said Resig. “We started in mid-2008. Cracked and Ebaums have huge staffs and corporate backing. We’re a bootstrapped blog.”
Here’s what John and his brother Leo did earlier this month: They came up with an idea for a hoax over a beer in Santa Monica. They hired an unknown but beautiful actress to play the part of a girl who posts pictures of herself quitting her job via messages on a dry erase board. They posted it on TheChive and within a few hours, their site was recording hundreds of thousands of pageviews an hour. Many of the biggest sites on the Internet, including the Huffington Post, ABCNews.com, and Gizomodo, were fooled and linked to it — not noticing TheChive’s reputation for hoaxes.
In the course of two days, about 7 million unique visitors and 9 million page views came as the story spread and was revealed to be a hoax.
Resig believes he can do it again.
“I already know what the next hoax will be,” he said. “You will never see it coming. I would agree that any potential hoax we launch from TheChive would be immediately scrutinized, but America has the memory of a goldfish. There’s no reason that somebody’s bullshit detector shouldn’t have gone off when we launched this one. People want to believe it. I think (pulling off a hoax) takes time but it’s not as big a hurdle as you think.”
The Resigs say they’re not doing it to earn recognition, make money, or pull one over the rest of the media. They do it for the rush.
“I think a lot of people have gotten our motives wrong in the press,” said Resig. “A lot of people think we do it for publicity — and maybe it started out that way. When we pulled the ‘Trump Tip’ hoax, there was this feeling, this rush, we got from fooling people. I guess we’ve sort of been chasing that dragon ever since. We didn’t do it to prove that the media doesn’t fact check anymore or doesn’t do their due diligence, but I do find that hilarious.”
Hoax number one, the infamous “Trump Tip” story, occurred in 2008 on another one of Resig’s sites called Derober.
“We made up this story that Donald Trump walked into the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica and left a waiter a $10,000 tip. Trump himself loved it because he was promoting ‘The Apprentice’ at the time and it made him look generous. Timing is everything. [Gawker Media’s Defamer] first posted the story and it sat on the front page of FoxNews.com for 24 straight hours.”
Hoax number two happened last year on TheChive, Resig recounted: “We made up a story of a girl who accidentally reveals on Facebook to her father that she has lost her virginity. They linked to it on CBSNews.com and talked about it on Chelsea Lately and Jay Leno.”
What makes a good hoax? It’s surprisingly simple.
“Number one, the story has to be uplifting,” said Resig. “This type of thing doesn’t have to be full of malice. Anyone can say something bad about something else. I’m looking for more of an entertainment value out of it. Number two, I’m looking for a good story. If you look at the ‘Dry Erase’ hoax, it tells a story in three acts, beginning, middle and end. It must be a story well-told.”
But narratives like that don’t make for a steady, reliable business. Funny pictures? Those are Internet gold. No fooling.
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