Friday, March 23, 2012

The Not-So-Illustrious Origins of #InflatableShark

It all started with an inflatable shark. Not even an actual, physical inflatable shark. Just the threat of one.

As the community manager of HubPages, I've dealt with a lot of persecution complexes. As I like to say, "the internet brings out the crazy" (often in otherwise seemingly sane persons). Online, as off-, people want to believe they're being specially victimized, rather than examine what responsibility they carry.

The original #inflatableshark moment arose from one of these situations. A user was highly indignant about one of his Hubs (articles on HubPages) being moderated as containing unrelated products. He insisted that all of his Amazon and eBay capsules contained products relevant to the subject (cable TV programs). The user sent several abusive emails to staff about the moderation, and we responded politely more than once to explain the problem. He ignored this and went to the public forums on our site to open a thread ranting that HubPages is staffed entirely by idiots.

I responded:
You have an inflatable shark in one of your product capsules. 'Nuff said.

Normally, I would not respond so brusquely, but having seen the emails coming from this guy, it was clear to me that he wasn't actually reading our communications to him. Partly, I wanted to be as succinct as possible to maximize the likelihood of him actually recognizing the problem. And partly, I was quite frankly sick of the guy. Perhaps not my finest moment as a community manager, but it gave rise to an internal meme around the site and office, which would quickly gather a life of its own.

Suddenly, the thread was hijacked by several users posting endless pictures of inflatable sharks... and some dolphins too! One of our moderators (anonymous for her own protection) pasted the image of an inflatable shark over the cowbell in a photo of Will Ferrell from the classic SNL sketch, with the caption "More inflatable shark!" Around HubPages HQ, we started referring to "inflatable shark moments."

When an Internal Meme Goes Public

As community managers, we all have these moments. We've all posted to our Facebook pages as ourselves instead of our brands, or mistakenly tweeted something personal from the company Twitter account. And really, these moments are not exclusive to community management. In a way, the user who prompted the whole meme was having one of those moments too.

In a #cmgrchat discussion a few weeks ago, I mentioned #inflatableshark on Twitter for the first time. The other community managers (and a few in particular) immediately latched onto the hashtag. I believe it was Michael Hahn who suggested we could use it as a funny codeword for a community mishap of any kind. Penelope Singer suggested t-shirts. A few days later, Matt Hirshfelt pointed out a daily deal site offer for inflatable sharks, and both he and I bought them for our respective offices. Rosemary O'Neill uncovered a forgotten inflatable shark on her table at home! We tweet each other regularly using the hashtag, sharing pictures, stories, and general camaraderie.

Taking those bad moments and laughing about them is vital, not only in community management, but in life. I see this user's quiet exit from HubPages (without even responding to the thread he himself opened) as a lesson. If you take yourself too seriously, if you can't take responsibility for your actions, if you can't laugh at yourself when necessary, you're doomed to a very unhappy on- or offline existence. Bottom line: we all make mistakes. It's how you recover from them that counts.

What #inflatableshark moments have you had recently? Join me on Twitter and share.


Rosemary said...

Thanks for posting the full story Maddie! Everyone has had "inflatableshark" moments; we just didn't know what to call them until now.

michaelhahn said...

haha awesome article!!

can i borrow your inflatableshark

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

We still haven't had our battle-shark video chat! And sadly, my shark is looking a little 'deflated' because of this. =)

Unknown said...

Maddie, you do tell a good story. I like to think that an #inflatableshark is a good reminder to keep things in perspective. A shark may be scary, but look closer. When you see the shark for what it is -- inflatable -- it can't help but make you laugh.

Maddie Ruud said...

Thanks for chiming in, ladies and gents!

@pushingvision, I'm not sure if that's a compliment, but I'll take it.

Unknown said...

It's definitely a compliment. I've got a few more around here somewhere...