On April 19, a recruiting analyst named Jonathon Paige wrote the first post on his new blog, Summer Hoop Scoop. That post came with a modest announcement:
After a seven month hiatus and brief retirement, I am back. A lot of you followed me last summer on the website and twitter. I originally thought the yearly AAU circuit grind might be a bit much moving forward, but I just couldn't hang up the kicks and notepad.
With that, Paige soon got down to the business of finding and breaking recruiting information. He quickly amassed around 500 Twitter followers, and several mainstream college basketball reporters, assistant coaches and AAU personnel were among them. His site's popularity grew. His news dispatches were cited in blog posts -- including by some of the more popular team sites in the college hoops blogosphere -- and his insights were debated and bandied on many a message board.
The problem will all of this? Jonathon Paige doesn't exist.
He's a fake, a fraud, the figment of an imagination. In a blog post on Summer Hoop Scoop yesterday, "Paige" -- who signs the bottom of the post as "Troll," an ode to Internet mischief-makers the world over -- revealed his site, Twitter account, and everything else about the persona to be an elaborate ruse.
But why? Why make up recruiting news? Why create a false identity? In his own words (seriously this time):
When a recruiting "source" brings good news to a fan base, it is instantly credible and plenty are willing to defend the source with recollections of previous information provided that proved correct. When a recruiting source brings bad news, it is open season. "Never heard of this guy"... "probably some opposing fan base's blogger" .... "I doubt he knows what he is talking about." In short, fans believe what they want to believe.
So, out of boredom and sincere interest in the relationship between the internet, recruiting services, and consumers, I created Jonathon Paige.
The execution was easy enough. Troll "immediately" tweeted news from trusted recruiting sources, including ESPN's own Dave Telep. He trolled message boards and "broke" any scant recruiting information floating around in the collective ether. He closely read the dispatches of recruiting analysts at summer tournaments and camps, then regurgitated that information in slightly different ways. He just flat made stuff up. And, when in doubt, he used language that seemed to appeal to fan bases' specific sensibilities:
When in doubt, use lots of language that appeals to specific fanbases (Example: Carolina fans love the words "family atmosphere" and Duke fans like to talk about "silent verbals" while Kentucky fans love to hear about [John] Calipari "going to work.")
In a remarkably short period of time, Mr. Troll's hunch was proven correct. When he tweeted positive rumors about a recruit leaning toward a certain school, fans of that certain school were quick to adopt the information, while fans of competing schools angrily dismissed it. Blog posts cited his news with and without attribution. Message boards blew up. Some asked who he was; others defended him for getting things right in the past.
If Jonathon Paige tweeted that a recruit was "leaning towards" school X, there would be multiple re-tweets and messageboard posts by fans of that school about the news. If another school in the race for the same recruit saw the tweet and it was brought up on a messageboard, the source and news would be summarily dismissed in short order... until something more positive came out a week later of course.
And then came the coup de grace, one last "test" of the big joke's ability: Breaking a big-time commitment rumor. Troll decided to see if a fictional Twitter account could convince people that elite 2012 recruit Kaleb Tarczewski was leaning toward North Carolina, even though his parents favored Kansas. Then, "Paige" called Tarczewski to UNC, even though the recruit was currently visiting another team's campus. Some folks took the bait.
Of course, this post is not written to chastise the media or bloggers or message board creatures or any of it. The Internet is a trust-based place, and it's not like people are going to assume someone spending his months writing and blogging about recruiting is really a fake. I didn't see Paige's work until today, but could I have followed him? Sure.
Nor do I believe this is necessarily an indictment of the media at large. Sure, there are elements in there: Where news filters exist, what sources can be trusted, who to believe and why -- mass media continues to grapple with these fundamental challenges as the Internet changes the way we consume news and opinion.
Troll's experiment proves how difficult the business of recruiting news really is. Rumors are everywhere. Sources are, too. The ability to separate the real from the fake -- the actual news versus the "my buddy heard so-and-so is coming to campus tomorrow, woooo!" -- has never been more difficult. Throw in the fact that this news is about 16- and 17-year-old high schoolers unschooled in media management and prone to changing their minds, well, no wonder it's so hard to figure out what's really going on.
And that was true even before Mr. Troll started making things up.