Boaty McBoatface: Meta News and the Environment

I hope that the marketing team at NERC gets a pay rise.

Earlier this week an online poll to name a new £200 million research vessel went viral after someone suggested the name ‘Boaty McBoatface’.

Mr McBoatface, I presume

Mr McBoatface

So many people wanted to vote for the name that NERC’s voting website crashed. The ‘news’ was reported at length, from all possible angles, by all the major UK newspapers and online feeds. The news was then reported globally. Even The New York Times and The Economist got in on the action, with cautionary articles on the dangers of asking ‘the internet’ for advice. Reporters and journalists, hungry for quick articles and millions of pageviews, took the story through several permutations. Even the ‘news’ that a train turned up at Waterloo station bearing the name ‘Trainy McTrainface’ was reported by every major newspaper in Britain.

The story became clickbait. Clickbait is ‘content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page’.

And for the first time, the work of NERC was opened up to hundreds of millions of people.

The NERC (National Environment Research Council) is a quango. In its own words, it ‘supports research, training and knowledge transfer activities in the environmental sciences … The council’s work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic sciences, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere, and from the geographical poles to the equator. NERC’s mission is to gather and apply knowledge, create understanding and predict the behaviour of the natural environment and its resources, and communicate all aspects of the council’s work.’

Paid for out of the public purse, to the tune of £400 million a year, they do a pretty large and important job, but few people outside of the environment sector are aware of NERC’s existence.

NERC and the government first announced that it had commissioned the new vessel way back in 2014. Sadly, the story didn’t really go that far.

It seems that NERC’s marketing department felt like the story deserved a second airing, and boy did they get one.

They must have seen it coming. The internet is full of stories of marketing stunts gone awry. Julia Maddock, acting associate director of communications and engagement at the NERC, wasn’t going to pretend it was some lucky accident: “We wanted people to talk about our ship and get involved. We are delighted!”

NERC was, in any case, prepared for the story to go viral. The public was asked to ‘suggest names’ for the ship, rather than to actually name it, giving NERC a get-out clause for just this eventuality.

For the most part, the internet is a great thing for environmental campaigning. It is a cheap and easy channel that has the potential to reach a huge global audience. More and more environmental organisations are investing heavily in their online presence. With so many people clamouring to get their message heard, harnessing the power of the internet is notoriously tricky. Get it wrong and you end up investing a lot of time, effort and often money into reaching very few people. Get it right, and the rewards can be huge.

Greenpeace has a hugely sophisticated online presence. Its short, snappily edited videos regularly garner millions of views, and have put real political pressure on issues as diverse as microbeads and Arctic oil drilling. Meanwhile, the ‘Blackfish’ project has almost destroyed a huge multinational corporation. Online petition websites like 38 Degrees provide an easy way for people to show their support for environmental projects.

The Boaty McBoatface story is a completely different type of marketing campaign to these. NERC embraced the concept of ‘meta news’; that is, news that becomes newsworthy simply because it has become newsworthy. With meta news, the media ends up reporting on its own media reporting, rather than on the story itself. Other examples of meta news include ‘Pig-gate’ and that time that Kim Kardashian ‘broke the internet’.

Any time that a news article records the reactions of people to a news event, rather than the news itself, that is meta news. Any article that quotes large numbers of tweets is meta news.

This article itself, which is all about the media reaction to a news story, is meta news.

These headlines from BBC news show how the story evolved and then disappeared:

Name sought for new UK polar ship March 17

‘Boaty McBoatface’ leads vote to name new polar ship March 21

Experts could overrule ‘Boaty McBoatface’ name choice for polar ship March 21

Boaty McBoatface instigator ‘sorry’ for ship name suggestion March 21

Man behind ‘Boaty McBoatface’ apologises for suggestion March 22

And with that, the story was gone.

The problem with meta news is that, since there is no real substance to it, stories tend to disappear as quickly as they arise. As we see with these headlines, the news that NERC was building a £200 million research vessel was included in the first story. It was hidden behind the gimmick of the public naming competition. The next four stories refer only to the gimmick and not to the substance of the news.

Does the campaign cheapen important scientific work? Somewhat. Does reducing an important story  to clickbait reduce its integrity? Maybe. But NERC’s marketing department did its job. Smuggled in behind the clickbait campaign, the news of NERC’s research vessel was disseminated.

Now that the story has disappeared again, the final objective for the NERC marketing team is the hardest part: harnessing all that lovely media attention and making it useful. If NERC has the nerve to name their new vessel Boaty McBoatface, if only temporarily, then they may yet get years more media attention.

For those who actually want to know about the new ship, here’s a link:

Image credit: NERC.

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Andy Painting

Writer, I guess.

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