Why Valleywag is only right 17.3% of the time and why we like it

I’m having a good laugh all the way over here in London thanks to Fake Steve Jobs.

Oh, my. Turns out that Valleywag printed a rumor about Facebook’s founder that turned out not to be true. That isn’t all that different from the average Valleywag post but this one got picked up by a bunch of bloggers who drove it to the top of TechMeme (now the retraction is on the top of TechMeme, which demonstrates that there is a self-correcting function there). My friends and I have been comparing notes about what kinds of things get onto Valleywag and why we all love reading Valleywag (the insiders, at least, normal people have no interest in a Silicon Valley gossip rag).

Now that I’m over in London I get to see the media that Valleywag is patterned after. Over here they don’t have really serious newspapers. That’s what the BBC is for, after all. But every store sells these gossip papers that scream at you with huge type. They go for the most salacious of topics. Just like Valleywag does. After all, if Scoble picks his nose, that’s more interesting than what Oracle announced in a press release this morning, right? Heh.

Anyway, my friends have learned that they can quite easily game Valleywag and get Valleywag to print almost any damn thing. Here’s some rules for gaming Valleywag:

1. You need a somewhat credible source. So, if you want to get something onto Valleywag about me, or about PodTech, you’ve gotta have a former employee, or someone who works inside PodTech. Or, if you’re really good, you figure out how to get a Podtech email address and you send a tip that way. If you’re really good, you send an email from an email address that LOOKS like it might be coming from a PodTech employee. For instance, send them an email from robertscoble@podtech.com. Hint, we’re a “.net” but Valleywag doesn’t really check out news tips, so as long as things look pretty close you’ll probably get your rumor printed.

2. You need a story that’s both salacious and sounds plausible. Zuckerberg selling $40 million in stock fit both. Can you come up with some of your own? Heck, practice on me. “Scoble to go back to work for Microsoft.” “Scoble is a frigtard.” “Fat blogger almost killed in London.” “Scoble enters TechCrunch deadpool.” Etc. Etc.

3. The story must fit Valleywag’s story line. So, don’t bother sending a news article saying something like “Scoble turns out to be nice guy.” That will never get printed, even if you could add a salacious angle to it. Valleywag’s editors have decided I’m evil incarnate, so if you want to get something printed about me you’ve gotta make sure it fits that story line.

4. Send it at a time when it’ll be hard for them to check it out. Notice that that story about Zuckerberg broke on Friday evening. Everyone knows that PR people are harder to find on Friday evening cause they are usually out at the company beer bash or getting ready for a weekend, especially if they had a rough week. Remember: PR people have lives. Bloggers don’t. Take advantage of that. Truth be told Valleywag doesn’t call the subject of their stories anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. But the lie will go further if PR people can’t be reached for comment by other bloggers/journalists who MIGHT actually try to follow up on the rumor.

5. Send the story from multiple sources. Only one really needs to be halfway credible. The others will just ensure that the tip is taken seriously.

6. Take advantage of the fact that many bloggers will reprint the story as fact, even if it comes from Valleywag. This will soon wear off, though, as more and more bloggers realize that Valleywag is playing them. I’ve removed Valleywag from my link blog and didn’t print this item, even though tons of bloggers had printed it because there wasn’t a second source other than Valleywag.

Why do these tactics work? Because Valleywag doesn’t call sources to check facts and Valleywag doesn’t really care about whether something is true or not before printing it. Jason Calacanis wrote recently that he used this fact to get Valleywag to hype up his new company with a series of fake email tips.

So, why do we love this kind of news? The British press sure demonstrates that millions of people like this kind of salacious stuff.

1. We like human misery. Especially if someone more popular than us, or richer than us, is going through the misery.

2. We like talking about other people. “Did you hear that…”

3. There’s nothing like conflict to get our attention antenna up. A good fight gets us all worked up.

4. Sex sells. It’s quite obvious that lots of magazines and newspapers write the headlines before they even have any content. Look at the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, or a dozen of its competitors. I guarantee that at least one of them has a headline with something like “100 new ways to please your lover.” These kinds of headlines sell magazines and they never seem to change too much. So, in the tech industry, “100 new ways to piss off Mike Arrington” will probably get you more hits than “100 new Office 2.0 apps.” Even if it’s actually better for you to try out some new Office 2.0 apps. Heck, look at Valleywag right now. It’s all about Larry Page’s wedding and has salacious shots of him making out with his new wife.

Why am I writing about this? Cause I’m a sucker for all this. Even as they throw me under the bus again and again, I love it so much I keep reading it. It’s a personal bug of mine and one I’ve tried to work on, but everyone has to have their stupid addictions, right?

OK, enough fun on a Sunday morning from the gossip capital of the world. Back to more mundane things like testing out new RSS readers.