Aaron Sorkin demonstrates the Internet’s long memory

Today’s post focuses on a comment in Chapter 8 about authenticity. Kerpen quotes Aaron Sorkin’s comments about social media on The Colbert Report when he was promoting The Social Network. His comment about social media posts take on an interesting dimension when you know some of the stories about Sorkin’s past online interactions.

Sorkin is well known for creating The West Wing, a critically acclaimed show that ran 1999-2006.  During the first season of the show, he began posting in a forum discussing the show on Television Without Pity, a site that offered show recaps and fan discussion with the motto, “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” A blogger compiled a complete account of Sorkin’s interactions on the site and estimated that Sorkin posted 10-15 times during the first season.

The summary is that after the show won its first Emmy for writing in fall 2000, some posters in the forum criticized the way Sorkin stole the spotlight from the second writer credited in the episode. Sorkin responded on the site that he provided writer Rick Cleveland a courtesy credit for his first draft but that very little of it would be recognizable in the episode. The forum moderator replied that a union, the Writers Guild, governs who gets writing credits, not anyone from the show itself. Cleveland also came to the forum twice to defend his work. The New York Post reported on the interaction.

The third season of the show began in fall 2001, and fans criticized more than they had in the first two seasons. Sorkin continued to post, but the blog account shows a more defensive tone than had been present in the conversation before.

Near the end of the third season, The West Wing aired an episode called “The U.S. Poet Laureate.” Its B-plot focused on the interactions of Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff, with a fan website, lemonlymon.com. Netflix permitting, we’ll watch the relevant parts of the episode today. The blog account credits a longtime poster, mjforty, as saying:

This is my problem with the lemonlyman.com plotline. It misrepresents what happened and actually makes Josh (Sorkin) look better than he should…. He had never really embraced the adage of “think twice, post once.” But the fact is, that first post was actually kind of nasty, in parts. So, I guess, if you’re going to call someone a muu-muu wearing, chain-smoking dictator, perhaps you should portray your alter-ego as something other than a hapless fool who didn’t really understand the crazy bee-hive he had wandered into. That’s the part the bugs me about that storyline, how Josh/Sorkin appears to be a passive victim, when in reality, Sorkin was as responsible for the craziness that rained down upon him as anyone else.

Sorkin’s interactions on the site appeared in USA Today‘s obituary for Television Without Pity more than a decade later when the site closed. Sorkin’s behavior at the 2000 Emmys wasn’t forgotten, and The Atlantic compared it to the way he shared credit when he accepted his screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network in 2011. 

This story is relevant to our discussion this week (“Nobody ever looks good in a social media fight”). It helps to see how bad it can go when a company makes a poorly timed or defensive comment online, which is why we studied the Tesco, KFC, Nestlé, and Applebee’s cases. This is never more true than in the Sorkin case, though.

Placing ill-conceived or argumentative posts on your own page is one thing. Going to a fan site and airing dirty laundry is another, and airing a primetime episode that mocks the site rises to astronomical heights of churlishness. The fact that Sorkin’s actions of 14 years ago still arise in connection to his recent work shows the long memory of the Internet.

This makes Kerpen’s advice all the more value so that people will be talking about you online for the right reasons. Valuable points from the reading include:

  • Be authentic; your goal is to connect in your unique voice, not put on a show.
  • Audiences are drawn to videos 60-90 seconds on social media.
  • “Be as honest and transparent as possible when using social media.”
  • Ask a lot of questions in order to make your content more valuable to audiences.
  • Giving some content away for free helps establish your expertise, build goodwill, and hook the audience. This leads to a stronger relationship. One reason it works is because you’re focusing on what the audience needs rather than focusing only on marketing to them. It all goes back to Kerpen’s first point in the book about listening.

We will read chapters 14-17 for Monday.


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