Linkbait Case Study: Why Nate St. Pierre Claimed Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook


Did y’all hear about Abraham Lincoln inventing the internet (or something like that)? It was the meme of the week, an owl in a box for our time – Nate St. Pierre, a blogger and consultant, told the (long-winded) story of his recent trip to Springfield, Illinois, and how he discovered a patent application filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845 – for a product that looks and sounds a lot like an early version of Facebook:

Lincoln was requesting a patent for “The Gazette,” a system to “keep People aware of Others in the Town.” He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where “every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.”

He went on to propose that “each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship.” Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn’t quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated “at any time deemed Fit or Necessary,” so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends’ lives “without being Present in Body.”

That was it. Pretty much just a simple one-page overview of how his system would work. After we read it, we both sat there quiet for a long time. It was so obvious what this was, guys.

A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.

He even provided photographic evidence of Lincoln’s prototype, the Springfield Gazette.

Springfield Gazette

Sounds great, if broadly implausible. But it was implausible for a reason – Nate St. Pierre made it up. Jason Kottke writes:

Update: Ok, I'm willing to call hoax on this one based on two things. 1) The first non-engraved photograph reproduced in a newspaper was in 1880, 35 years after the Springfield Gazette was alledgedly produced. 2) The Library of Congress says that the photograph pictured in the Gazette was taken in 1846 or 1847, a year or two after the publication date. That and the low-res "I couldn't take proper photos of them" images pretty much convinces me.

Update: And the proof...the original Springfield Gazette sans Lincoln. (via @zempf)

Now we all get to shame Nate St. Pierre, right? Not so fast – he’s already published a (long-winded) explanation of why he pulled this hoax on America. Here are his top four reasons “in order of importance”:

  1. I wanted to do something fun that would make me (and others) laugh
  2. I was tired of all the same old boring blog posts rolling past me that day
  3. I was officially launching my consulting services the next day, so I wanted a bigger audience
  4. I wanted to illustrate one of the drawbacks to our “first and fastest” news aggregation and reporting mentality, especially online

Do I buy his ordering of these reasons? Not really – I’m pretty sure #3 was overwhelmingly the driving motivation. This is classic linkbait! He even pulls the double-classic follow-up linkbait move (hey, we’re not above it).

He claims that all he did to get the ball rolling was “put out one tweet, facebook, etc.” and “a dozen or so DMs to friends” – I don’t really buy this either; I think he probably worked harder than that to make sure this thing would go viral. He also claims he didn’t expect it to blow up as huge as it did, but he’s certainly not humble about the success of his scheme:

Between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, I did an interview and a podcast with CNN, a phone interview with The Atlantic, and another one with the Washington Post….

Pretty much the whole internet picked this thing up and ran with it … In addition to social media and bloggers, it ran as fact on a lot of big-name sites and news aggregators. That’s the thing that surprised me the most. I knew it would happen, but I thought only one or two would run it without fact checking, and the rest would shout it down. But only one or two actually caught the joke, and the rest just kept promoting it! It was crazytown for a good long while … In terms of numbers, it’s pretty staggering.

At the end of this post, he writes:

The Point

Amazing content sells.
You can create it.
I can help.

It was all a sales pitch, guys!

Pretty astounding results for a linkbait post, but is it really – as he implies – that easily recreatable? Whenever we think we’ve figured out what makes a piece of content go viral, we try it again and get disappointing results. There’s one element of a successful meme that you can’t reliably generate, and that’s luck. What’s more, hoaxes are not a great business model. Nate St. Pierre certainly got a lot of attention and links this week, but he sacrificed trust to do so, and I’m willing to bet he also pissed a lot of people off.  Will the benefits outweigh the costs? I guess he’ll find out!

More Web Marketing Highlights

Danny Sullivan speaks with Google about the Penguin update, two weeks later. Matt Cutts deems the algorithm change a success. He also addresses negative SEO, calling it “rare and hard.”

Aaron Wall, however, likens anyone who thinks negative SEO can’t harm them to “Stuporman” saying “Bullets can’t hurt ME!”

SEOmoz published a couple of good posts about linkbuilding this week: a Noob’s Guide to Link Building and some tips on creative link building for e-commerce sites.

Frank Reed postulates that Facebook will be a victim of the move to mobile, and wonders if their inability to monetize mobile could even leave a hole open for Google+ to succeed.

An evidently brilliant 13-year-old named Mallory Kievman has invented a new cure for hiccups.

Have a great weekend, all.

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Nate St. Pierre
May 11, 2012

Thanks for the article, Elisa. But I'd just like to add a point of clarification to the editorial portion.Tying it in with the consulting launch was a distant third reason. Adding the sales pitch in at the end only came in, well . . . at the end. I thought the deconstruction lacked flourish, so I thought I'd put a little showman in it. It felt more self-promotional than I'm used to, but I thought it fit with the overall theme.I had already scheduled the consultancy launch for Wednesday morning, and I had no intention of writing anything else for the week. But come Monday night, it was just as I said - cranky, bored, wanting to do something fun to take my mind off of work, I sat down and banged this out in a sitting. When I realized it was probably going to be big, I decided to tie it into my consulting launch - why not take advantage of the great publicity in my chosen field of work for a job well done?You're wrong - I literally did nothing but send out one social media thing and a dozen DMs. The content was strong enough on its own to do the rest.Were people pissed? Just a few. The vast majority loved it, and I had fun with it, so I'll call that a win.You're right, hoaxes aren't a good business model. But I don't think people will want to hire me to run hoaxes for them. ;)Did I sacrifice trust? A little bit, yes. But more in a fun way than a bad way, and I think the thousands of hours I've poured into the philanthropy work speaks for itself. I'm not worried.I *was* surprised to see it go this big. You're right, you can't recreate this stuff easily, and this one had some luck involved, of course. But I'm certainly capable of crafting things that have a good chance of going big. It's something I've done for fun in the past, and it's something I'll be looking to do more of in the future, as I start my new career, doing things I actually enjoy, as opposed to working in a cubicle.Thanks again for the article, I enjoyed reading!Nate  

Elisa Gabbert
May 11, 2012

Wow, that was a fast response! Congrats on pulling off some serious link bait. Who were the people you DMed? As in, were any of them in positions of power? Just curious.

Nate St. Pierre
May 11, 2012

Hmm, I would say that two of them were in "positions of power." One because of who she is (big following), and one because of who she writes for (decent following). The other 10 or so were just friends of mine that I know would like the joke, and some have twitter followers bigger than mine (not that mine's big at all).The hardest part about all this is that it's my sense of humor, but most people who don't know me think I'm just trying to make a killing off of everything. Quite the opposite. 90% of the time I work for others, giving away my time and money. But hey, it's all part of the game, and you take the good with the bad.This year I'll be focused on working with bloggers and business to improve their web marketing efforts. Helping others *while* getting paid - there's a novel concept for me. ;) 

Elisa Gabbert
May 11, 2012

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. As a blogger/web marketer myself, I'm mostly interested in the strategy behind the linkbait, less so with your actual motives, which we can't trust you to be 100% honest about, surely ;)Again, hats off to you for pulling it off with apparently so little outreach, it's extremely rare to get so much exposure without making a bigger outreach effort. Impressive.

Victor Pan
May 11, 2012

I certainly fell for it. Then was really bummed out when it was a hoax.Didn't feel any hard feelings Nate. Clever story. Well executed. Lovely follow-up too.

Megan Marrs
May 14, 2012

I think we've come to expect that most cool things on the internet could be hoaxes, which I find pretty sad. Reading that story, I felt like I was in National Treasure for a few minutes. It was nice while it lasted.I'm not angry with Nate, just disappointed.But yes, pretty impressive link bait success with such minimal promotion. Although I'm surprised to hear that only a few people were annoyed. Most people don't like being duped! 

Richard Kraneis
May 15, 2012

I miss reading WordStream every day and consequently I am late to the news flash that Abe Lincoln tried to patent a Facebook type concept as a young man.  (Yes, I know, it was a hoax)But Abe Lincoln would've loved the joke.  Most people thought he was an incredibly funny story teller and the comedians during his Presidency thought he was the funniest, wittiest president ever.In case anyone's interested, there was no Internet when Abe Lincoln was a young postmaster at the age of 24 in 1833 in the tiny town of New Salem, IL.  But Abe read every newspaper that came through his "post office" and many of those newspapers were from back East. a gangly newcomer to Illinois in the tiny town of New Salem in his early 20's, Lincoln was as well connected to the news of his day as anyone could be in that situation.  He didn't need Facebook.  He met every man, woman, and child within miles of New Salem as a postmaster taking his long stride through the forests and patches of crops surrounding New Salem, IL.If I had missed reading WordStream today I would have missed the Abe Lincoln Facebook hoax.  Always nice combining two of my favorite hobbies:  online marketing and Abe Lincoln.

Elisa Gabbert
May 15, 2012

Thanks for stopping by and sharing that story!

Barry Adams
May 16, 2012

Archimedes invented the computer over 2200 years ago... and that is NOT a hoax.

Elisa Gabbert
May 16, 2012

You should be writing this up for Mashable instead of leaving a comment here! :)

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