Freakonomics gives trolling lessons

Want to get lots of traffic to your blog, and hundreds of comments from readers? Post something in which you speculate about how terrorists could attack the U.S. — and then ask your readers for their own suggestions. Better still, post this at the New York Times website.

I missed it when it originally happened last week, but that’s pretty much what the two Steves — that is, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt — did over at Freakonomics, which recently became part of the NYT web operation (I wrote about the fuss over them adopting partial RSS feeds here, a topic that was later taken up by my friend Mike Masnick at Techdirt).

Levitt, who is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, wrote about “what I would do to maximize terror if I were a terrorist with limited resources.” After laying out some of his thoughts about different approaches, he said: “I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service.”

Almost 600 commenters didn’t see it that way, however. Dozens wondered what on earth the subject had to do with economics, while others said posting such ideas was reprehensible. The post generated an editorial in the New York Post, a scathing blog entry by my friend Rachel Sklar at The Huffington Post and a follow-up post in which Levitt tried to explain himself (a little). The latter has so far gotten about 300 or so comments.

Damn — I wish I’d thought of that 🙂 I’m sure there will be those who believe this was a deliberate strategy to boost readership, but I doubt it — I think Levitt is just like that, which is part of what makes the blog so thought-provoking. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis uses the post as part of an argument for why he thinks blogs should be affiliated with newspapers rather than “owned.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *