The ‘Flying like a bird’ hoax and the trouble with online advertising

“My name is Floris Kaayk I’m actually a filmmaker and animator. I’ve been working on an experiment about online media for 8 months…” Now that the Dutch artist Floris Kaayk, also known as Jarno Smeets, the man behind one of the most elaborate internet hoaxes of recent times has come clean, how do you feel?

You’re a dreamer and for a moment Kaayk’s project inspired you, you defended it to the hilt. You’re disappointed.

You’re a skeptic and you gasped as high-profile news sources reported the story as a matter of fact. You feel vindicated.

You were undecided, teetering back and forth between the two extremes. You’re amused.

How did you formulate your opinion? Many looked to high-profile sites for the final word. The titles for some of these articles have been changed since their initial publication.

Wired: “Using videogame controllers, an Android phone and custom-built wings, a Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets has achieved birdlike flight.”

Gizmodo: “I’m really amazed by this video, because I always dreamed about doing this. Watch Dutch mechanical engineer Jarno Smeets take off and fly just by flapping wings of his own invention—like a real bird! It’s uncanny.”

The Register: “Jarno Smeets flew using wings of his own design, built over the course of a year, and managed to spend a decent minute in the air — longer than the Wright Brothers managed — by flapping his arms like a nutter.”

TechCrunch: “Houston, We Have Liftoff: Human BirdWings Guy Finally Enjoys The Miracle Of Human Flight.”

Business Insider: “This Dutchman Figured Out How To Fly Like A Bird.”

Wired fell hard, and fell deeper when it backed up the initial article with video analysis, but to its credit was also the first to raise suspicion when none of the fictional Jarno Smeets’s background details checked out. Unfortunately, before anyone noticed the red flags, there was a domino effect as one site after another repackaged the same story and reported it as truth.

We’ve all at some point believed something untrue to be true and Kaayk rightfully defends the eight month project as art, make-believe, but for Wired, this hoax might have cost it readership. Says one commenter: “Won’t be subscribing to Wired Magazine after this. If they thought something this blatantly obvious was real, without doing any fact-checking or without even a comment of skepticism, well, it makes me wonder about anything they publish.”

Wired will be fine. In the grand scheme of things, it’s but a storm in a teacup and page views are page views. The truth is, there probably wasn’t any time to do fact-checking. In this battle for ad impressions, the speed at which information is published has taken precedence.

Regarding editorial oversight, the late Steve Jobs famously said to Walter Isaacson: “I would love to help quality journalism. We can’t depend on bloggers for our news. We need real reporting and editorial oversight more than ever. So I’d love to find a way to help people create digital products where they actually can make money.”

Web publications compete fiercely to report on stories first, to reel in the ad revenue and so, we find ourselves in this systemic predicament. It does make me optimistic though, there’s a lot to be said for quality news stories and of course, great original content. There’s a sweet spot somewhere between speed and quality that makes a news resource authoritative.

Hoaxes like “Flying like a bird” shine a light on one problematic aspect of the online advertising model and maybe, someday, slow and steady will actually win the race.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video that started it all. Kaayk has also released an official statement on his blog.



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