The Streisand Effect, or why you shouldn’t call attention to your demo tech troubles

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The Streisand Effect, or why you shouldn’t call attention to your demo tech troubles is about when the things in your demo that are bound to go wrong….. All. Of. The. Time. After all, the demo gods are fickle. And we’ve all uttered the phrase “the demo worked 5 minutes ago, I swear!”

But when something goes wrong, the last thing you want to do is call attention to it. It’s easy to make a bad joke about it in an attempt to deflect attention, but that tactic never actually works. Besides getting you caught up in demo quicksand, it increases the risk that your audience will focus more on the thing that you don’t want them to notice.

This phenomenon – trying to keep people from focusing on something only makes them focus on it more – is known across the internet as “The Streisand Effect.”

What is The Streisand Effect?

A long, long time ago (back in 2003), the internet was a very different place. Homestar Runner and eBaums World were in their prime, From Justin to Kelly was the movie people were making fun of, and celebrity sites were full of pictures of famous people wearing trucker hats and cargo pants. There was also a site (which is still around) called the California Coastal Records Project, which contained pictures of (you guessed it) the California coastline in order to document erosion. Photographer Kenneth Adelman took a picture and posted it on that site, and that picture happened to have Barbara Streisand’s house in it.

Here’s the picture – her house takes up 3% of it. It’s impossible to zoom in and see anything, and while the house is identified as hers on the site, you can’t see her or her stuff or anything of note.

Well, she found out about it – I’m not sure how (and no story about it sheds light on that fact – if you know, drop it in the comments!) – and she was mad. Really mad. So mad that she sued Adelman and Pictopia for violation of privacy for $50M and tried to have the picture taken down.

No, that’s not a typo. I didn’t mean to write “$50K” and write “$50M.” I mean fifty million US dollars – and if you think that’s a lot of money, that’s nearly $75M in today’s dollars (and the picture is still up/I’m writing about it, so you can probably see where this is going…).

Spoiler alert, Streisand lost. The case was dismissed, and she had to pay the defendants $177,107.54 in legal fees and court costs.

Had this lawsuit been filed by someone who isn’t a celebrity, it may have made minor headlines or maybe have been the butt of a joke on late night TV, but that most likely would have been the end of it.

But that lawsuit wasn’t filed by a non-celebrity. It was filed by one of the few people to achieve the EGOT (a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award- even if her Tony was a lifetime achievement award vs a competitive one, it’s still quite the feat), against a photographer who donated revenue from his coastline pictures to an organization that protects said coastline. Needless to say, the press wasn’t kind to her.

This story isn’t “internet lore” because of a celebrity filing a frivolous lawsuit, but because it was an attempt to suppress a picture, which then backfired spectacularly.

Before the lawsuit, “image 3850 had been downloaded six times – two of those downloads were from Streisand’s henchpeople lawyers. After the lawsuit? A whole lot more than six.

A month after the suit was filed, more than 420K people visited the site and saw the picture.

The term “The Streisand effect” was coined two years later, when urinal.net, a real website that “showcases the World’s largest collection of urinal photographs ever,” was sued by the Marco Beach Ocean Resort (on Marco Island in Florida, because of course Florida had to somehow be part of this whole ridiculous story) for having the audacity to use their name on their silly website. Writer Mike Masnick published an article about that suit on techdirt.com, and ended it with:

How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.

The term made its way to high-traffic sites like Forbes and Gawker (RIP), and is still in use today.

What does The Streisand Effect have to do with demos?

There are so many ways demos can break. Sometimes it’s because of factors out of our control – the internet is slow, Zoom + the application slowed the computer to a crawl, the operations team took down your demo environment even though you specifically told them not to and that you had a big demo (this has happened to me more than once). But sometimes it’s not. We forget to reset a password, the application timed out because we waited too long to show anything, there was something wonky in the data (technical term), etc.

When something happens, presenters have a natural instinct to make a comment about it. They’ll typically do one of two things, either A) apologize or B) make a bad joke. Neither one of these land particularly well.

At that point, it can feel a bit like the last scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the “Wizard” says the famous line “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” And what did Dorothy do? She immediately went to see what was up with the man behind the curtain. Just like when you try to get your audience to not pay attention to the thing that broke – they immediately want to see the thing that broke.

How to keep The Streisand Effect from impacting your demos

One of the easiest ways to mitigate the impact is to simply not say anything.

I know, that sounds super simple – but it’s harder than it sounds. When something goes wrong, we get a bit of that shame response (I could do a whole post on that, but for now, pick up some Brene Brown) and feel like we HAVE to say something. Because if we don’t, won’t the audience notice?

Most of the time, they won’t. Musicians have a saying: play through the accidentals. When things go wrong, unless it’s catastrophic, just pretend like you meant for it to happen. Especially if it’s those little things that don’t severly impact the demo – little warning screens, forgetting to reset a setting, that sort of thing.

If you’re in a team setting, I recommend having some sort of a cue with a teammate that means “please start talking so I can fix this.” They can engage the audience in some way while you fix it. Depending on the situation, you may need to acknowledge that something went wrong, but that is OK. The key is to take the emotion out of it. If you are matter-of-fact about it, and move on, the audience probably won’t remember.

“I forgot to reset the user, but we’re good to go.”

The good news is that most audiences will let those little things go – as long as you keep them little things by not talking about them.

Blaming the internet probably won’t work

It’s 2021. High speed internet is not ubiquitous (which is a bigger problem for another time, but I’m looking at you FCC), but for those giving demos, there is likely a high-speed internet connection. Those comments like “oh, I guess the internet is slow today” probably won’t land as audiences are smarter than that.

I’ve also seen “I’m going to go off camera to free up bandwidth.” That’s certainly something you can do, but beware, if that doesn’t fix anything, you’ll not only lose a bit of credibility, but your audience will likely go off camera (if they were on camera) as well – and they’re not coming back.

Speaking of things not to say, I recommend avoiding “well, it’s just a demo environment.” At that point, you’ve put doubt in the mind of your audience – “oh, a demo environment, huh? So is this entire thing fake, or just that one part?

All of these things are going to be seen by the audience as a deflection, which, as we’ve learned by now, won’t work.

The Streisand Effect isn’t your friend, but you can reduce its impact

It bears repeating: the demo gods are fickle. A demo that worked 5 minutes ago might not work now. And a demo that was broken 5 minutes ago might suddenly work now. But the more you try to get the audience to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and not look at the thing that’s broken, the more attention they’re going to pay to the thing that’s broken.

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