How We Faked a Startup
A Website Cloning Tool and the Problem of Personalized “Fact”.
April Fools was the perfect day to do this. Our web tool, Clone Zone which lets users clone any website online and edits its content, wasn't quite ready for official launch, yet April 1st was the time to put it to the test. Naturally we went on a search for a juicy website to clone. We decided on this article from TechCrunch about a recently funded startup. After a few quick edits with the Clone Zone, we had a believable post about Clone Zone ‘the startup’. Thats my co-founder and I in the pic above, closing $1.8m seed round lead by Andreessen Horowitz. We giddily shared the clone’s url on facebook and twitter: http://techcrunch.com.clonezone.link/clonezone.
The fake article turned out to be more believable than we ever anticipated with likes and reposts rollin in right away. Even two weeks later we are still getting congratulated on our ‘million dollar success’. Whenever we go out to a social event we inevitably end up having to explain to someone that no, we are not rolling in dough and can't actually afford to buy a bottle of Cristal for everyone. Even with the Clone Zone logo at the bottom of the clone and the not-so-conspicuous url, a majority of our friends and family fell for it. Turns out the article was even passed around the Genius office, a real and well-funded startup who we mentioned in the TechCrunch article. Apparently their initial concern about not being hyper-linked properly escalated to a discussion about the necessity to acquire the new competitor — Clone Zone the startup.
Of course we were psyched about the fact that Clone Zone worked so well, spreading like wildfire form share to share. But more importantly it reaffirmed our company’s reasoning behind making the app.
So what exactly is Clone Zone?
Clone Zone is an online tool we made at 4REAL as an art project. It lets you clone any web page on the internet, edit any text and images on the page and share the result on social media. So if you want to have your picture in the New York times you can chose an existing NYTimes article, add your picture, edit the headline and text and voila! You're famous… at least within your group of friends that fall for the clone. Clone Zone is in closed beta at the moment, but check for the beta password at the end of the post if you want to try it out for yourself.
Although it’s really fun to clone websites and and have everyone believe your version of reality, it’s also a little bit scary. Clone Zone is a vivid example of how easily false facts can be created and distributed with the help of social media feeds. The average internet user doesn't question or cross-check the information presented to them. We are all willing to let our guard down at first sight of familiar branding of a reputable source. On top of all this, our social feeds are personalised to give us what the algorithms presumes we will ‘like’. As a result our perception of what is fact has become highly personalised, politicised, and malleable. While there is more information available online than ever before, we are less willing to use it to form our opinions and instead increasingly rely on herd mentality propagated by our feeds.
A good example of this is Climate Change. 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening, and 95 percent of scientists believe that humans are the dominant cause. Yet the polls show that only 63% of Americans believe climate change is real. This number hasn’t changed significantly since the 90's despite an increasing amount of available information — both research and weather patterns. The facts of climate change are clouded by the politicalization of the issue which is split along Republican and Democratic lines. Where is before we could all agree on certain facts and debate about our interpretation of them, we now cannot even agree on the facts themselves. Our ‘facts’ are now shaped by our social and political affiliation.
States powers are also able to use the increasing subjectivity of facts to their advantage. The Russian government is actively manipulating social media websites and comment sections of publications to shape public opinion. The overwhelming abundance of information is in fact making it easier, not harder, to create propaganda. By carefully controlling the context and selecting just right combination of ‘facts’ or fact-like data and ‘expert’ commentary one can shape the ‘truth’ in pretty much any imaginable way. It turns out you don't have to censor anything at all, just push the specific combination of content that you want to the forefront and let everything else get drowned out by noise. Read more about the Kremlin troll army here.
Clone Zone doesn’t claim to solve any of these issues of course, but we hope that it will draw attention to some of the mechanics of the modern-day internet. Another part of the motivation behind making the app was to invert the dynamic of click bait and hoax websites and give users the ability to create their own version of ‘spam’. Further more, the content created with Clone Zone has the potential to be critical and elucidating since its not motivated by the usual financial factors (that will of course be decided by the users). Here is a good example of a great clone made by artist Sterling Crispin, where he critiques business’s and startup’s eagerness to track our personal data.
Our digital studio 4REAL created Clone Zone as an exploratory art project and we are not in any way benefiting from it financially. We are still tweaking a few things ahead of the official release but you would like to try out the beta site, go to:
http://clonezone.link and use the beta password: clonez
We would love to hear your feedback — contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!