When the NEXT team told me that Oobah Butler was one of the speakers at our NEXT Limited Edition conference, I must confess to a slight moment of confusion. What did a journalist with a history of amusing viral stunts have to say to our corporate audience? Was our audience ready for a trickster?
All of which goes to prove that you can take the man out of the corporate, but it’s much harder to take the corporate out of the man. After a decade away from corporate life, I still have some of the more conservative impulses that big corporations like to encourage.
You see, I should have trusted Monique and Ina. Butler is a trickster, and the value of the trickster is in the way he reshapes your perceptions of the world. By forcing you to view reality from a different angle, he smashes your preconceptions and opens up new perspectives.
So, what can we take from Butler’s stunts? What lessons can you take away from your company from what he’s already done?
The meaning in the stunt
The key thing here is not that there’s a direct message in Butler’s work. The meaning, in a very post-modern way, emerges from your reaction to the work. When Butler’s been asked the meaning behind his stunts, he’s unwilling to be proscriptive:
I am quite reluctant to be like ‘this is what this means’ because I think people’s interpretations are more interesting than my own.
To unpick this, what is happening is that Butler sees a vulnerability, or absurdity, in a system. And he exploits it, for amusement and entertainment. It’s up to us to derive meaning and lessons from that.
So, let’s have a go at drawing lessons from a couple of his more noteworthy stunts.
The characteristics of success are easy to fake online
The idea that really brought Butler to people’s notice was The Shed at Dulwich. It was a top-rated, highly exclusive restaurant on TripAdvisor — and it didn’t exist. It was entirely fictitious:
And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: Within the current climate of misinformation and society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s the kind of place that could be a hit?
It could. Using his friends to post fake reviews, he quickly transformed his shed into a virtual hit.
The core insight here is that the characteristics of digital success are incredibly easy to fake. Of course, we’ve known this at some level for years — look at the politicians and other notable figures who have bought followers on social media to create that illusion of success.
But, deeper than that, marketing which plays to human needs, especially the need for status, can be incredibly powerful. Butler has an insight into what has driven his virtual restaurant into the viral stratosphere:
I realize what it is: The appointments, the lack of an address, and general exclusivity of this place are so alluring that people can’t see sense.
We humans are status-seeking monkeys.
Of course, the viral impact only gets you so far. If the real product can’t live up to the hype, eventually the word of mouth will get you. Butler neatly extended the life of his stunt by making the restaurant unavailable to anyone, so the only reviews were fake ones. Reality would have popped the virtual bubble.
Build your systems defensively
But there’s another lesson from this stunt: TripAdvisor’s systems weren’t built to look for fake restaurants. As a representative of the company told Butler:
“…most fraudsters are only interested in trying to manipulate the rankings of real businesses,” so the “distinction between attempted fraud by a real business, as opposed to attempted fraud for a non-existent business, is important.”
We build most systems with the assumption of goodwill on the part of people who use them. Or, at least, they’re built without thinking how people might try to actively attack them. In digital, there’s an in-built optimism that means we don’t harden our systems nearly as much as we should do.
What do I mean by that? Well, look at the number of data breaches there have been down the years because people didn’t build adequate security into their systems. Some of Butler’s pranks play into that: an assumption of goodwill. For example, when he was invited to speak on TV shows worldwide after The Shed went viral, he created an army of semi-lookalikes to attend for him.
I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way broadcasters, journalists, and producers will fail to realize they’re interviewing the wrong guy. I get that. But I have reason to believe this will work. Whether it’s the segment on Brazil’s Globo TV, or the hour-long documentary on Japanese TV, every interviewer has asked me the same questions about the shed.
Yeah, it worked.
Why? Because journalism systems are built about finding the right person to interview, not double-checking that the person in front of you is actually the person they claim to be. Fifteen years ago, rather infamously, the BBC interviewed the wrong man live on TV.
Everyone prepares against the obvious threats. You also need to protect yourself against the marginal threats, the odd ones that come in from a different angle. And you need someone who sees your system in different ways to allow you to do that.
The role of the trickster
We’re going through a moment of love for the trickster figure in our culture. We’re re-embracing one of the great mythic archetypes that appear in the folk stories of many cultures. Recently, Loki, the trickster figure from Norse mythology, has seen a massive resurgence in popularity through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Why? Because there’s an underlying need for change. That’s the role of the trickster:
One role of the Trickster is to question, and to cause us to question, and not accept things blindly. He appears when a way of thinking becomes outmoded, thereby needing to be torn down, built anew. He is the Destroyer of Worlds at the same time the savior of us all.
The story of the digital revolution has been a story told by evangelists, without a matching trickster voice. As we continue to develop new technology, address climate change and embrace the Metaverse, we need to learn the lesson of the past. And to do that we need to regain the wisdom of the distant past and listen to the challenges of the trickster once again.