Let’s imagine that you have a favourite uncle. His name is Uncle John and he always tells the funniest jokes at Christmas. How would you feel if you discovered that he got all his jokes from someone else? Not too bad, probably. It happens. Now, how would you feel if Uncle John was a male escort whom your aunt pays to attend social functions with her? You’d likely feel a bit betrayed. And that, precisely that, is how I feel about the viral “blog” UsVsTh3m.
You see, UsVsTh3m isn’t a funny little blog at all. It’s an attempt by Britain’s largest newspaper group: Trinity Mirror, owner of the Daily Mirror, to produce “viral content”. In Trinity Mirror’s most recent half-yearly financial report, UsVsTh3m is misleadingly referred to as “a new social media site”.
Navigating to the About page of UsVsTh3m is also difficult. The link is at the bottom of the home page, the page that uses infinite scroll. And if you do get there (usually by typing in the URL – who does that?), the About page fails to mention the fact that the blog is actually an attempt by Britain’s biggest newspaper group to produce shareable web content. Instead, we’re told that they are an “experiment” that publishes “internet LOLs” every weekday.
I’ll admit it, I was taken in by UsVsTh3m’s charm. The RSS feed went straight to my email inbox. I enjoyed playing with the toys they made: Type “Ed Balls” as fast as you can, don’t shoot your Twitter friends or you’ll unfollow them, etc. But half of the posts on the site aren’t new at all, they’re from somewhere else.
In the past, I’ve had to contact UsVsTh3m to point out that they haven’t credited someone’s work. When your site is a mere Tumblr blog sharing funny photos, that isn’t a big problem. But when you’re spearheading a major move into web-based content from one of Britain’s largest businesses, suddenly that’s rather unethical. And a bit tragic.
Let’s be honest here, what UsVsTh3m is doing isn’t “wrong”, exactly. I applaud Trinity Mirror’s experimental foray into the tricky worlds of viral content and social media. But this latest venture is deceitful to say the least. A reskinned Buzzfeed with no mention of the corporate bankroll isn’t cool. The authors and contributors behind UsVsTh3m have put in huge amounts of time, so it’s a shame that the site doesn’t even attempt to make it clear who is behind it.
I recall the moment that I found out about UsVsTh3m’s true ownership. I was shocked. An all-caps tweet was sent with a link to a news article profiling the site and Trinity Mirror’s ambitions. I felt used. Every UsVsTh3m link that I had tweeted felt like an affront to the original content creators. Surely everyone else had known about this? Nope, other journalists had also been taken in by this friendly front in the form of a blog, and reacted in a similar manner when I told them what it really was.
The UsVsTh3m RSS feed still goes to my inbox. I still see the animated GIFs of cats falling over. Sure, I saw them last week on Reddit, but that’s (kind of) OK. But no longer do I laugh at anything on UsVsTh3m. The joke isn’t funny when you realise who’s telling it.