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March 5th, 2010

Zynga, the Twitter Mob, and the New Age of *Journalism*

Is Zynga being shady with a charitable effort, or is journalism in the social age showing its “always in draft mode” innards?

The setup:

Despite being an avid Facebooker, I never really took to the gaming aspect of the social network. In particular, many of my friends are rabid Farmville and Mafia Wars players. Both games are produced by Zynga, a Silicon Valley-based company that, according to a recent Mashable article, is worth more than Twitter. One thing that helps in that regard, aside from the massive popularity, is the fact that people actually give Zynga money to buy virtual goods in the games. That is, they have a direct revenue model. This direct revenue opens up the opportunity to do, as many companies do, charitable works, and Zynga ran a campaign in which players could buy special corn, and 100% of their contributions could go to Haiti earthquake relief. Simple, yes? The Interesting Part Not so fast. Down in Brazil, the newspaper Fohla de Sao Paolo investigated claims that Zynga was keeping 50% of the money raised rather than forwarding 100% as promised. This story was picked up in a site call Social Media Today (the post has since been removed, but VentureBeat saved a screenshot here. The story claims that Zynga admitted in an email to Fohla that they did indeed keep half of the funds. Wow, what a story! The Twitter mob got ahold of this and cranked out the missives and ReTweets all morning:

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..and, unsurprisingly, Gawker joined in. The Even More Interesting Part I saw that the letter from Zynga was posted (in English) on the commentary site of a former AP reporter in Brazil, on the site True/Slant. A key paragraph:
Prior to the campaign for the earthquake, we ran programs where 50% of the proceeds went to organizations in Haiti for the welfare of women and children. All of these campaigns had a time limit to them. These campaigns raised an additional $1.2 million and the amounts raised were communicated to our users in the game and photos of the results of their donations are at our web site.”

My reading? The Brazilian newspaper confused a prior campaign in which 50% of proceeds were donated with the campaign in question. The SocialMediaToday.com didn’t interpret it that way, or misread the letter, resulting in the Twitter storm.

Issue: Journalism on the Web is in permanent “first draft” mode, and audiences must be cognizant of that fact- but will they be, and will they be responsible where the publishers fall down?

Issue 2: This all took place in the morning Eastern time, before Zynga’s presumed office hours. Where were they on Twitter managing the storm– if that was possible? Is it reasonable to expect 24/7 monitoring and response from companies, or is everything moving too fast? Who wants to find out the hard way?

The other person I saw that interpreted the email correctly (in my opinion) was Mathew Ingram of GigaOm, who said so in a Tweet. A bit later, Web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis reported that he spoke with Zynga’s Mark Pincus and confirmed the campaign was legit.

Eventually, Ingram posted a story, around the same time Zynga posted Tweets with their side, and only then did the Twitter sentiment start to turn- a little:

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In the end, Social Media Today ran a corrective article that explained the issues a bit more clearly, leaving only the question that the game mechanics may have been confusing to some players.

My question: do you know where the trigger point is– where you need to respond and quell a potential riot, versus letting a few grumblings online alone to die? Do you know where to defuse these situations– is it publicly online as a reaction to quiet the mob, or is it communicating directly– and perhaps privately– with key potential influencers (such as the SocialMediaToday.com writer) earlier in the process?

I am an advocate for timely response– even in “off-hours,” within reason– but also a big advocate of preparing the market with unambiguous briefings, handling corrections privately when possible, and realizing the mob, while a little slower in moving with the information, is likely to get it right in the end if you have help up your end of the work.

UPDATE: Marcelo Ballve, the author of the True/Slant piece posted above that showed me Zynga’s original email letter, alerted me to a follow-up piece that looks more deeply into the questions- and clarifications- around Zynga’s Haiti relief campaign and Fohla‘s criticisms of it.

UPDATE 2: Eric Ehrman, author of the Social Media Today stories,also has some illuminating comments below this Huffington Post article on the topic. As with Marcelo’s piece, it is worth reading for further context.

About the Author
Doug Haslam is a Supervisor on the Voce Connect Client Services team, managing client programs and developing strategy. In addition to Voce Nation, Doug writes his own personal blog and you can find him on Twitter as @dough.

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