SOPA Protests: Viral or Vacuous?
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate companion, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), are losing momentum by the hour. Congressmen and Senators seem to be scrambling to announce their opposition to the bills as currently written, and there’s a significant grassroots movement dedicated to defeating these bills.
As a language and messaging consultant, I’m especially fascinated by the way online firms such as Google and Wikipedia have taken up this issue. From their perspective, opposing the legislation is virtually a no-brainer. They argue that SOPA could restrict free speech and even force some web sites to shut down – not exactly good for business or the ideals they stand for. But how they choose to dramatize that opposition can reveal much about how these companies think about the people they’re trying to reach.
In any act of communication, companies must ask questions about their audience. Who are you trying to reach? What do they already believe? Will they trust that you’re a credible source of information, not self-serving propaganda? In this case, Google and Wikipedia must also ask themselves where to draw the line between raising awareness of an important issue and angering an audience that simply wants to use their favorite web sites.
Reputations can be gained or lost in the blink of an eye today – see Netflix’s struggles over the past year. So although these internet firms certainly appear to be on solid ground in opposing SOPA, they also risk hurting their own reputations if they don’t strike the right balance between awareness and anger. Here is my (un)scientific take on which sites did it right, and which ones may need a little damage control.
Google is known for having a little fun with its home-screen logo. So simply blacking out that logo in protest of SOPA is a natural extension of Google’s brand and image. Millions of people already make a point of checking out what Google’s logo looks like today, and this is a simple, elegant protest that reminds users what’s at stake without interfering with their ability to browse the web.
Similarly, Wired’s homepage is a brilliant dramatization of what might happen if SOPA and its kin are approved. By redacting virtually all of its homepage, Wired is showing its users that something is amiss. But by allowing users to continue reading the text simply by scrolling over it, the site doesn’t interfere with their ability to browse the content. Compared to a simple black-out, this temporary censorship shows users the dangers of SOPA while preserving the joy of discovering something new and interesting on the web. Wired also continues to burnish its existing reputation as a cutting-edge, thoughtful publication in this effort to develop a unique, technologically-interesting approach to protest.
In many ways, Wikipedia is an internet utility. And, as The New York Times’ David Carr points out, the site itself encourages that perception. But what happens when a utility goes dark? Well, people get angry. Do the majority of Wikipedia users understand the protest and support the site’s decision to shut down for 24 hours? Maybe, but it’s not likely Wikipedia made this calculation before it decided to shut itself down yesterday. Wikipedia took the pulse of its most dedicated consumers and editors, but in the process may have lost sight of how more casual users would view the shutdown. Wikipedia may not lose much business as a result of their protest – where else are people going to go to find more information on the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse? – but they may have lost some goodwill among college students and others who weren’t able to find what they needed today.
The social media site Reddit.com similarly shut down today, but its position in the market is much more tenuous than Wikipedia’s. Unlike the online encyclopedia, most people have never even heard of Reddit, and if they have, they know there are many other options for sharing news and links. By joining the protest, Reddit has raised its online profile. But by not allowing people to use its site for 12 hours, it has missed an opportunity to draw more people into its actual business.
It would be easy to pick on GoDaddy.com here. After some controversy last month, this site reversed its alleged support for SOPA, and now features a small banner – below the fold – on its homepage announcing its opposition.
But I’m more interested in pointing out a different scourge of the internet age. Mentioned alongside Wikipedia and reddit in many accounts of today’s protests is the popular site icanhazcheezburger.com – known as the purveyor of LOLcats and other raw material for chain emails. How easy is it to simply click through a popup ad in today’s internet environment? This form of grabbing users’ attention went out of style around the same time CompuServe did. I think we can all agree that this is the site that should have been shut down for a day.
In short, the most effective SOPA protests work within a brand’s established image and reputation. The least effective pay too much attention to what a hard core of consumers believes, without taking into account how actions might be viewed by the broader public. And those are lessons that can be applied more broadly to the work we do every day. To be effective, communication has to be situated in the right context, one that:
+ Addresses the audience’s pre-conceived notions of who you are and what you stand for. Putting forward a credible case means recognizing what your audience will allow you to say, and not trying to push the envelope into territory where you have less credibility.
+ Starts with an existing conversation. Your audience should expect you to have an opinion on an issue. If they don’t, your message will be dismissed as just more noise.
+ Doesn’t put the burden on your audience. Sophisticated users will want to learn more, but, frankly, the average user doesn’t want to be bothered with extraneous information or responsibilities. The simpler it is to understand what you stand for, the better.
+ Separates the vocal minority from the silent majority. Sometimes, their interests are aligned. Often, they’re not. It’s important to understand how most of your audience will react to your message, not just those most likely to tweet about it.
Ultimately, communicating effectively means understanding that it’s not what you say that matters, but what your audience hears. It’s about recognizing how they view you today, and working within that image to create credible messages that polish, not tarnish, your reputation.