4 things I learned when Big Think's Facebook page was hijacked by spambots
Well, that was an eye-opener.
Jason Gots is a New York-based writer, editor, and podcast producer. For Big Think, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) the blog "Overthinking Everything with Jason Gots" and is the creator and host of the "Think Again" podcast. In previous lives, Jason worked at Random House Children's Books, taught reading and writing to middle schoolers and community college students, co-founded a theatre company (Rorschach, in Washington, D.C.), and wrote roughly two dozen picture books for kids learning English in Seoul, South Korea. He is also the proud father of an incredibly talkative and crafty little kid.
In case you hadn't heard, or (for our Facebook fans) noticed in your Facebook feed yesterday a torrent of hideous clickbait coming from Big Think, please check out this post for the whole backstory.
For 12 horrible hours, from late Wednesday night EDT through midday Thursday, we watched, helpless as hijackers kicked all administrators off of our Big Think fan page and posted sexist and sexually explicit comics to our 1.3 million Facebook fans. (In an especially ironic twist, I was blocked from even commenting on these posts because the hijackers flagged my comments as spam.)
Nothing like this has ever happened to us before, and speaking for myself, it's something I never want to experience again — the sickening feeling of having Big Think's identity stolen and knowing that some of you would believe we actually meant to share this stuff. To their credit, most commenters on Facebook figured it out immediately. And many defended us against critics who thought we'd completely jumped the shark with some crazy new editorial/business strategy, or who took us to task for pathetic internet security. ("Hey Big Think! Next time don't use 'password' as your password!!")
But not all. Many wrote us horrified at the surprising "new direction" and a few thousand, understandably, unliked the page. Honestly, given the nature of the content and its frequency (once every 10 minutes or so), I'm surprised we didn't lose more of you.
So what have I learned (or been reminded of) from all this?
1) In spite of all the selfishness and nihilism that's definitely out there, people can be and often are heroic in their everyday actions:
After hours of fruitless requests to Facebook through anonymous "report a problem" web forms, a Big Think fan we'd never met before connected us with someone at Facebook who could actually help us reclaim our page. Hundreds of other fans rushed to our defense, writing in support of Big Think, sharing my explanatory post on their social media and in the comments on our compromised page, and rallying others to do the same. Here are just a few of our favorite comments:
2) Along with the benefits of reach and community, social media as a publishing platform still has some serious, built-in perils.
Much of Big Think's audience now lives on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, rather than on our website. It's true of all modern media companies: the old model of homepage-as-home is eliding into a much more distributed, multiplatform reality. BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti captured this perfectly in a recent interview on <re/code>. But social media platforms don't belong to those of us who use them. Even recognized brands like Big Think are guests on someone else's real estate and at the mercy of their developers and internal corporate decisions. We were fortunate enough, in this case, to be rescued by a friend. But as the threads I was reading all over the web at 2 o' clock Thursday morning attest, hundreds of companies and individuals have had their accounts hijacked permanently, submitting report after report with no response. This is a dangerous state of affairs — an exponentially scaled world in which someone or something can steal your personal or brand identity, leaving you powerless to reclaim it.
3) It's worth fighting for, this thing we're trying to do.
Since 2008, we've been working nonstop at gathering the smartest, boldest ideas and thinkers on the planet and giving them an open forum for discussion and debate. We try not to take sides without strong evidence, nor to shy away from controversial topics. As a result, it seems we've made many, many loyal friends out there who understand the fragility and necessity of open discourse in a world too full of deadly certainties.
4) We need to get to know our audience better.
For me, the #1 takeaway of this ugly experience is that our fan base is full of smart, funny, good, and resilient people. People we need to talk and listen to better on the site and on social media. And we'll be devoting a lot of effort in the coming months to figuring out creative new ways of doing just that.
I am not the most touchy-feely person on the planet and words like "heroic" (or even "thank you") don't always come easily to me. But after what felt like a 12-hour sucker punch to the gut, I'm left mainly with a warm sense of gratitude. Thank you to every person who supported and stayed with us throughout this wild episode. Because of you, we're back to work, inspired with a renewed sense of purpose.
Jason Gots is Big Think's Managing Editor
@jgots on Twitter
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