Kimmel’s ‘Girl on Fire’ Hoax and the Two Traditions Within the History of Hoaxing —
Daniel Engber doesn't think Jimmy Kimmel's "Twerking Girl on Fire"
hoax was very funny. He wrote in Slate
I think it illustrates everything that's wrong with viral marketing. Kimmel's prank is not a biting satire, nor is it a mirror to our stupid culture. It's a hostile, self-promoting act—a covert ad for Jimmy Kimmel Live—rendered as ironic acid that corrodes our sense of wonder.
At times Engber's critique became so over-the-top that I wasn't sure if he was being entirely serious, or if he was deliberately trolling. Nevertheless, what he wrote did make me think of an ongoing controversy within the world of hoaxing. The issue is that there are two traditions within the history of hoaxing, and these two traditions have never been able to agree on what constitutes a good hoax.
The first tradition dates back to the 18th century Enlighenment — the Age of Reason. Those promoting the values of the Enlightenment (people like Benjamin Franklin
and Jonathan Swift
) recognized that hoaxes were a great vehicle for exposing credulity and superstition. Irrationalism could be shamed (and hopefully banished) by exposing it to ridicule and laughter. So in this tradition, hoaxes were acceptable if they served as educational tools for creating an informed citizenry.
The second tradition dates to the "market revolution" of the early 19th century, when entrepreneurs (in particular, newspaper editors and showmen such as P.T. Barnum
) realized that hoaxes might be a good way of exposing credulity, but they were also a great way of attracting public attention. In other words, hoaxes could be cheap and highly effective ads.
Defenders of this tradition argued that being educational shouldn't be the only standard for a good hoax — that a hoax could also be good if it was clever and amusing, and offered the public entertainment value in return for being deceived.
So, on the one hand, you have the enlightenment tradition of hoaxes as educational tools to promote reason and skepticism. And on the other hand, you have the entrepreneurial tradition of hoaxes as deceptive but entertaining publicity stunts.
Proponents of the enlightenment view of hoaxes have never been happy about what they see as cheap, self-promoting entrepreneurial hoaxes — and this sense of resentment continues to this day, as evidenced by Engber's article.
But the thing is, many of the most celebrated hoaxes since the early 19th century have been of the entrepreneurial, self-promoting kind. The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
, the Cardiff Giant
, and all of Barnum's hoaxes certainly fall into that camp.
Where do I stand in the debate? Well, as someone who studies the history of hoaxing, I don't have to take sides. I report on the phenomenon as a whole. (Though I have to admit I thought Kimmel's hoax was amusing, even if it didn't serve any grand, educational purpose.)
However, both the enlightenment and entrepreneurial traditions agree that good hoaxes should be created with the intention of being eventually exposed — usually to the embarrassment of their victims. If a hoaxer never intends for his deception to be unmasked, then he's simply trying to get away something. The hoax becomes a species of fraud.
So I think Engber is totally wrong when, later in his article, he suggests that Kimmel's 'Twerking Girl on Fire' hoax was no different than the hoaxes of Stephen Glass
, James Frey
, or Richard Heene
. None of them wanted their deceptions to be exposed. They were hoping to get away with something. There's clearly a difference.