Things James Franco can teach me about the viral Web

One reporter's shot at creating a Net meme on behalf of a publication she doesn't even write for--and her advice for said pub in the future.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
The Daily

It's a minor badge of honor to say that you were a fan of actor James Franco back in the day: He starred on the late-'90s high school drama "Freaks and Geeks" alongside fellow then-unknowns Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, and then sort of disappeared for a few years when the show was canceled after one season. (But he was so cute.)

Now the guy is everywhere: hosting the Oscars this month while up for a Best Actor award for "127 Hours," trying his hand at directing and screenwriting, and simultaneously participating in graduate school programs at Columbia, New York University, and Yale.

The guy seems to be capable of pulling off anything, or at least trying to. This was the thinking employed by Molly Young, a writer at The Daily, the tablet newspaper launched by News Corp. last week, in a Wednesday "infographic" titled "Things James Franco Can't Do." The rather sparse image details feats that would be physically or legally impossible for Franco to undertake, with amusingly didactic explanations for them: say, "Bear a child (only women can bear children)," or "Run for prime minister of Canada (Franco is not a Canadian citizen)."

As entertainment journalism, it was a bit slapdash. But in terms of potential resonance, The Daily had a viral Internet meme in the making. Here's why--and here's what it could have done.

Marginally inspired by the "Chuck Norris facts" that flooded the Web a few years ago, the idea of listing things that an overachieving actor du jour couldn't accomplish if he tried seems to be ripe fodder for a collaborative Twitter hash tag. For those who are unfamiliar, take #lessambitiousfilms, in which thousands of Twitter users flooded the service with fake film titles like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The Room," "Being John Stamos," and my personal contribution, "The Devil Wears Zara." Or #failedrockbandmovies, in which witty Twitterers poured out mashups of movies and musical acts like "Gorillaz in the Mist" and "Honey, I Shrunk The Cold War Kids."

On seeing the James Franco humor in The Daily, it occurred to me that it would've been funny for the infographic to include a suggestion box that would tweet user-created submissions and automatically append a hash tag. I tweeted, "Missed opp: @Daily's "Things James Franco Can't Do" should've had a Twitter widget + hash tag to solicit submissions." And another: "Like this: 'James Franco cannot predict the weather on Feb. 2. Biologically, he is not a groundhog. #thingsjamesfrancocantdo'."

And thus began a simple but interesting lesson in understanding how things become "viral" on the social Web.

The Daily's official Twitter account responded to my initial 140-character criticism, as did its publisher, Greg Clayman, who tweeted, "James Franco cannot regrow his front teeth every six weeks. Franco is not a rattlesnake #thingsjamesfrancocantdo." More began pouring out, like "James Franco cannot place a call on an AT&T phone" (ouch), "James Franco cannot send Michigan State to the NCAA Tournament," "James Franco can't rule Spain with an iron fist for more than 35 years; that's the other Franco," and "James Franco works a lot, but he can't work forever. Perpetual motion machines violate Newton's second law."

It didn't turn into a massive sensation along the lines of #lessambitiousfilms, but people were amused, wanted to know where the whole thing came from, and were willing to toss in suggestions even if they had no idea why the #thingsjamesfrancocantdo hash tag had popped up in the first place. The ability to produce a short utterance of impeccable wit and possibly see it retweeted by thousands is enough to get many people excited about the potential attention, and they'll want to participate.

Lots of brands attempt to use hash tags to get the word out, whether it be for a product announcement (on Thursday morning's conference call about the launch of Yahoo Livestand, reporters were told that the official hash tag was #livestand) or a contest giveaway for the best tweet associated with the proper hash tag. But many of these don't work, since a large number of Twitter users are hesitant to clog up their streams with goofy promotional tweets. What worked with the James Franco mini-meme--and I can take only partial credit for this, since the whole thing stemmed from The Daily's Molly Young--is that it was worth joking about regardless of whether a story in The Daily was attached to it or not.

As for the fledgling News Corp. tablet publication, it retweeted a few of the best #thingsjamesfrancocantdo selections--and, I hope, also responded to the handful of Twitter users who publicly tweeted that they wanted to know where the hash tag came from--and maybe next time it'll help one of its lighter-hearted stories get a boost in a similar manner. A Twitter widget in both the tablet and Web versions of the story could make it easy for people who were either amused or dissatisfied with Young's infographic to throw in their contributions.

Particularly for a pay wall gated, tablet-only publication from an old-school media company, getting that Twitter credibility won't be easy. But James Franco could no doubt solve the problem.