THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Pulling a Swift One

by by Alex Ronan

illustration by by Diane Zhou

There is no mention of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf on the webpage for the win-a-Taylor-Swift-concert contest, which is surprising, since the school received the most votes. Sponsored by Papa John’s and Chegg, an online textbook rental company, the contest promised to send the pop singer to perform at the school with the most Facebook votes. But when Internet pranksters on 4Chan and Reddit got wind of the concert, they launched a campaign to send her to Horace Mann. One commenter on Reddit called it “fucking brilliant,” while another said it “seems kind of mean.” “They are technically the only ones [who] could enjoy her music,” said a third commentator. Votes came from those who thought it’d be funny to send Taylor Swift to perform at a deaf school, and from those who were disgusted by the campaign, but nonetheless thought the school would enjoy the concert and benefit from the $10,000 donation to the music program that the winning school and four runner ups received.

The Swift concert marks the third crowd-sourced marketing campaign hijacked by 4Chan and Reddit users this summer. In July, David Thorpe and Jon Hendren, of the website SomethingAwful.com, succeeded in “exiling” hip hop artist Pitbull to a Walmart in Kodiak, Alaska, an island with a population of just over 6,000 people. In a promotional campaign for Energy Sheets, a line of caffeine-infused breath freshening strips [???], Walmart announced that it would send product representative Pitbull to the store that received the most Facebook “likes.” Members of 4Chan and Reddit helped contribute the 70,000 Facebook “likes” that guaranteed the Alaska store’s victory. And in August, 4Chan users hijacked a pizza restaurant’s contest to name a new variety of Mountain Dew. The “Dub The Dew” campaign was shut down after it was populated with suggestions like “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong,” “Diabeetus,” and “Sierra Mist.”

Because of the poll-trolling, the Horace Mann School for the Deaf was disqualified from the competition. But the PR nightmare was quickly rectified. Swift gave the school a personal donation of $10,000, which was matched by the contest’s four sponsors. VH1’s Save the Music foundation contributed $10,000 worth of instruments and all the students at Horace Mann will get a ticket to Swift’s next local show.

PANTY RAID

It wasn’t just the top result that raised a few eyebrows. Chegg announced on October 1 that Harvey Mudd College would be the new winner of the Taylor Swift concert, but the school doesn’t exactly have a clean record when it comes to polls. In 2009, Victoria’s Secret launched a contest to promote their “Pink Collegiate Collection,” promising to create products featuring the mascots of the top schools from the competition. Voters were allowed to vote once daily, with protections in place to prevent automated voting bots. Because of the contest’s structure, schools with the most students, alumni and fans would be most likely to win. Surprisingly, Harvey Mudd, a school with fewer than 800 students, somehow managed to wrangle over a million votes, 400,000 more than the next leading school. Not only that, but the first letter of the schools in second through fifth places formed the acronym wibstr. At Mudd, this acronym stands for “West Is Best Screw The Rest,” the motto of the infamously raucous West dormitory.

The Independent spoke to numerous Harvey Mudd graduates who participated in the contest’s shenanigans. Many requested anonymity. One alumnus said the prank was “a blast,” calling it “the most amazing and organic social grouping I think I’ve ever seen …There were whole lounges full of students” working together till all hours of the night. Of the prank’s origin, another participant explained, “someone sent a link to the contest, thinking it would be hilarious if we got Harvey Mudd College Pink Victoria’s Secret underpants made.” The school’s mascot is Wally the Wart, a concrete brick with arms and legs.

He said that students initially voted legally, but then realized the site lacked high security. It contained a cookie, to remember if you’d voted and a CAPTCHA. Mudders, as students at Harvey Mudd are often called, created a program that downloaded the CAPTCHA, allowing students to type it in, cast a vote, and load another CAPTCHA. This sped up the voting process, allowing students to vote every 2 or 3 seconds, pushing Mudd into the top 15 schools. But then, according to the graduate, someone realized that the CAPTCHA itself was relatively easy to hack, and students were able to write a program that would break the CAPTCHA and cast a vote. (“It had a success rate of about 85 percent, so we were like, ‘eh, good enough.’”) Students began running it on their computers continuously, which was how they were able to get Mudd into first by a huge margin, while also arranging the runners-up as they pleased.

At one point, the first letters of the top 28 colleges spelled out “Harvey Mudd Rox, Boo CalTech,” in reference to one of Mudd’s longtime rivals. But the prank is most remembered for the “West Is Best” slogan. West is well known for its wild antics and pyromania, and there’s actually a rule that bonfires are not allowed to exceed the height of the dorm’s second story. Residents of West once created giant fireball that relied on a chemical reaction involving Spam. Mudders have also built a Rube Goldberg machine that spanned all of Mudd’s eight dorms. The machine ended in the middle of the inner dorms where “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang played and a piece of toast with “HMC” branded on it popped out of a toaster. According to sophomore Travis Beckman, “Mudd has a storied tradition of goodhearted pranks” and the Victoria’s Secret contest was “just another example of Mudders using their smarts to have a little fun.” To everyone’s displeasure, but nobody’s surprise, the school was disqualified. “I’m still really sad that we never got Victoria’s Secret HMC underwear,” said Teri Cinco, one of West’s current dorm presidents.

LOVE STORY

Campus mobilizer Beckman is a huge Taylor Swift Fan. “I have every single one of her songs and know them by heart. [I] have no shame singing them in front of friends, which I do all the time, much to their chagrin,” he explained. Beckman created a Facebook event with fellow Mudder Yeahmoon Hong to spread the word about the contest. Russell Transue, who graduated in 2012, acted as a publicist and insists that it wasn’t anything illegal that secured the win, but rather a way less exciting combination of “grit, determination … [and] a great deal of organization.”

Unlike the Victoria’s Secret contest, the voting system for the Swift contest was normalized, so as to give small and large colleges equal chances at wining. The total number of votes for each school was divided by the number of students at the voting school, rounded to the nearest thousand. As Mudder Bea Metitiri explained, though there are many Swift fans on campus, but “we definitely wouldn’t have won if there weren’t so many students and alumni who just thought it would be ‘lulzy’ to have a country pop singer perform at our tiny science school.” Cinco noted, “our small size maximized the impact of each individual’s vote while also making it easier for us to mobilize the student body as a whole.”

Beyond Mudd’s immediate community, its role within the Claremont Consortium—the five colleges Pomona, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd, or the ‘five Cs’—helped increase votes. Another Mudd graduate who wished to remain anonymous explained that the Facebook group promised that tickets would be shared across the five schools (as is common with events at the five Cs), which meant that students voting for Scripps, Pomona, Claremont McKenna, or Pitzer probably decided to cast their votes for Mudd instead. Despite its nerdy student body, Mudd is known for having the best parties of the five Cs, a reputation often attributed to the student-policed honor code, correspondingly less drinking policies. According to Beckman, approximately 150 students from the other four schools joined the Facebook group and voted daily. This sort of mobilization is legal within the rules of the contest.

Students are thrilled about the concert and the $10,000 grant. According to Beckman, Mudd is “filled, and I mean filled, with musicians,” but lacks proper practice area. “A Taylor Swift Music Department would give me a chuckle, but hey, anything is possible considering we won this competition in the first place.” Mudd’s sole music professor, Bill Alves, says he was both “surprised” and “delighted” to hear about the grant. Mudd participates in a joint music program with the other Claremont colleges.

WINNERS AND LOSERS AND CHEATERS

“I had nothing to do with the Taylor Swift shenanigans, I just know that there were some,” Metitiri told the Independent. “I also heard that the contest officials removed all suspect votes, so it’s possible the shenanigans did not cause us to win,” she added. Current students and alumni who participated in the Victoria’s Secret prank were split over whether or not the contest was won fairly. Those who were skeptical that there was foul play cited the heightened security of the Swift contest in comparison to the Victoria’s Secret one. One alumnus said he’s “pretty sure” it wasn’t rigged, a sentiment shared by current senior Liana Boraas. As alumnus David Gross explained, “It’s not unreasonable that HMC could win: we are a small school with a larger following.”

Others are less convinced. Allison Winn, who sent out the initial email about the Victoria’s Secret contest said, “I have heard rumors of a few individuals cheating the system via fake Facebook accounts, but I do not think there was an organized effort to break any of the rules of the competition.” Adam Novak, an alumnus who participated in the Victoria’s Secret prank responded to the Independent’s inquiry, “Did Mudders game the competition? Almost certainly. Did they create an automatic tool like I did to cast absurd numbers of votes? Probably not.” He wasn’t sure how they might have gone about it, and he’s hoping for a “proper clinic report” after the concert, when details would be more likely to come out. Other alumni suggested that Mudders probably considered messing with the poll (“a challenge is a challenge,” as one put it), but the normalized votes based on school size made it unnecessary.

Jacques Favreau, an alumnus who was also involved in the Victoria’s Secret prank, was quick to point out the difference between that and the Swift contest. Regarding the Victoria’s Secret contest prank, he cited a “drawn out conversation” amongst students about the ethics of the situation, who eventually decided that it was okay to pursue the trickery because the contest was non-binding and lacked official rules. He described a strong sense of ethics regarding pranking amongst Mudd students, which includes “not doing any damage that can’t be fixed.” Accordingly, to spell out messages with the results, they chose schools that weren’t actually competing, so that if they were banned, or voting was reset, they wouldn’t impact schools where students had been organizing to win legitimately. This approach to pranking is a far cry from the no-holds barred modus operandi of 4Chan.

As Favreau explained it, the Swift contest, with a concert and $10,000 prize, is completely different from the relatively harmless Victoria’s Secret prank. “That’s not pranking, that’s stealing because you’re smart,” said Favreau. If it turns out that the contest victory was a result of individuals not playing by the rules Favreau said there would be serious social and academic repercussions. As he explained, “‘Don’t be a dick’ is a pretty core belief at Mudd.”

Alex Ronan B’13.5 is a challenge.