The Strange Rituals of TEDxSummerisle

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I woke up early that morning with the intention of helping to fake a TEDx Conference.

I prepared tea and oatmeal in the usual way. Then I opened a Google Drive document, in which more than ten people were convening for the last-minute plotting of our hoax. My partner woke up and settled in on the couch with her computer, and opened the same document. I was at my desk, in my usual place, watching the traffic pass our apartment in the sunshine. The clock turned over slowly, towards 10:00 AM, when the fake Conference would begin. 10:00 AM, Pacific Time. It was 1:00 PM Eastern Time, where some of the other members of this plot were located. And it was 5:00 PM Greenwich Mean Time in Summerisle, where the non-event would not take place.

Summerisle is not a place. If you Google it, the first result will tell you that it is the fictional setting of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, in which a police inspector travels to a small island off the western coast of Scotland in search of a missing teenage girl. He discovers a pagan society that believes in a collection of natural magic and fertility rituals. I won’t spoil the entire film for you, but suffice it to say, human sacrifice is involved. Our plot, hatched in a late night conversation between the two central planners, was a mashup of cult film fan performance art and Internet-savvy TED-culture satire.

The following fake events took place that day: the island of Summerisle, looking to infuse their society with a much-needed dose of spiritual energy and innovative thinking, hosted a TEDx Conference, after which a number of the presenters and guests were sacrificed to guarantee the success of the island’s agricultural economy. We performed this entire drama using nothing but social media, predominantly Twitter. We crafted a simulacra of an event, live-tweeted a fiction and attempted to make it as real as the Internet could manage.

I was invited into the plot fairly late in the game, via one of my back-channel lines of communication. “If there was to be X, would you be interested in taking part?” I replied yes, and received a link via email. Inside Google Drive, the conspiracy: a timeline, a list of names, and the general idea of what will happen on the date and time in question. Over the next week, the document grew in complexity. The names of the fake conference talks were added, and their themes elaborated. Characters were born as their Twitter accounts were registered, and their back stories were seeded with innocuous tweets to nearly no followers. Places on the island were described, so that we might refer to them simultaneously. Tweetable quotes were written for the TEDx sessions that we could all post simultaneously, as if we’d heard them spoken aloud, and at the last minute, the brilliant idea of fake PowerPoint slides was made a reality, thanks to some clever computer screen and lighting effects. The images were shared so that all of the tweeting characters could upload them as if taken with cell phone cameras. My partner and I went out into the woods, and devised a way to film Vines—short looping six-second films that are posted to Twitter via an iOS app—and save them for later posting. We did our best to recreate the “Blair Witch” aesthetic in the coniferous forest of the Pacific Northwest, pretending we were running for our lives through the woods of the Northern UK.

Most of our energies, though, were spent in faking the conference, rather than the sacrifices that followed. As the process went on, I came to understand that without the foundation of a fake conference, the descent into horror would have no point of reference, no literary fulcrum, and the tweets would cascade out into nothingness. By setting the stage with a bit of fakery and allowing the TEDx conference to percolate through our social networks, we drew our audiences in, creating a sense of normalcy which would be shattered as soon as the knives came out.

And this was the major lie. I was never personally concerned about the potential consequences of staging of an act of violence on Twitter, because the moment anyone attempted to ascertain where precisely this violence was occurring, they would see the Wikipedia page revealing that Summerisle is a fictional locale. On the other hand, with the TEDx conference, we all exploited the trust of our social networks. Our fake Twitter accounts prattled away, posting silly observations and chatting with each other, as we enjoyed mocking some of our less favorite (real life) personalities. But with our real Twitter accounts, through which we typically voice our real opinions and observations in a way that we hope people will generally take seriously, we retweeted the postings of our fake Twitter accounts. By association, we shared our followers’ trust of us with these non-persons, these digital patsies. Among all of our past tweets—the articles we’ve shared with our real Twitter accounts, the experiences we broadcast, the history-making events we’ve witnessed, the photos of breakfasts we’ve taken—are these lying tweets like black marks in our streams. They are not ironic “retweets do not imply endorsement” posts, but as precisely the opposite. We knew that retweeting these tweets implied reality, and we used that to give our fairy tale the weight of truth.

And a fairy tale is what it was. The talk titles and subject matter were ridiculous, each a parody in and of themselves. One talk implied that bees’ honeycomb is a social network—rampant nature/technology metaphorism (as well as a veiled reference to an important precursor):

Another supposed solar industry CEO played fast and loose with renewable energy statistics and environmental ethics, claiming that not using solar power was the equivalent of literally pouring oil on the ground. Some of the fake conference slides included photos of women in suggestive outfits, in a mockery of the sexist attitudes present at many conferences:

And one talk about magic and ecology specifically mentioned Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, two presenters previously “censored” by the TED organization for giving insufficiently scientific TEDx presentations. And some people in our networks responded to this, either mentioning that this non-event strained credulity, or that it was it was “all too typical” of the sometimes poorly organized nature of TEDx events (there being so many—over 5000 from 2009 to 2012).

This is not the first fictional story that I’ve told via Twitter, and I imagine it won’t be the last. There is a range of stories that you can tell with any medium, and TEDxSummerisle is merely one type of story that the medium of social media enables. To be precise, the medium was not just the online platforms we used (Twitter, Vine, and the various image services that we used to post content to the Internet). The medium was also live-tweeting, the performative act of witnessing and reporting an ongoing live event to people who may or may not care about it.

While this story shared certain characteristics with other forms of fiction, the element of trust that it relies on is unique to social media. We needed to harness the trust of our networks in order to give credence to the fake TEDx conference.

I have no idea how many people were involved with perpetuating this fiction, either in planning or in performance, either with explicit knowledge of what was planned, or following along as it happened. Perhaps some who came across the performance became aware of the fiction and embraced it, helping to propagate the story. Perhaps others were taken in for a while, and annoyed or angered by our duplicity. There were at least twelve people deliberately taking part, perhaps as many as forty at the climax. I could not give the real names of more than eight, and I have met only one of them in real life, though I have known many for years. Given that we do not really know each other, have no collective existence, and our artistic studio was a Google Doc, to what extent was TEDxSummerisle even an artwork performed by artists? I might think of my part in it as an elaborate experiment with story-telling and online mediums, but I could not begin to guess the details of how others consider their roles.

And what record of this work will there be? How long will the tweets remain, saved as part of the continuum of a hashtag? Can they really be recorded in this way, if they are not seen in the context of all the other tweets anyone might have seen in their timeline, before we inserted this tangent into their social media sightlines? It’s better if they disappear, of course; sudden presence followed by sudden absence. At the appointed time, at 12:30 PM Pacific Time, 3:30 PM Eastern Time, and 7:30 PM GMT, we took our collective bow in the form of one last post, a link to a disclaimer—a Tumblr post—saying that what was real was that it was fake. There is no TEDxSummerisle and there never was.