The Streisand effect
Since its Christmas Day release on digital networks and in certain independent movie theaters, “The Interview” has pulled in $18 million. More than two million people have downloaded the movie about a nonsensical plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader - and that’s before Apple’s iTunes adds the film to its streaming and download catalogs today.
Kim Jong-un, meet Barbra Streisand. More specifically, meet the Streisand effect.
Unfamiliar with the phrase? According to Forbes, it is “an increasingly common backlash that occurs when someone tries to muzzle information on the Web.” Attempts at censorship often have an unintended consequence: The information gets more attention than it deserves.
The term was coined a couple of years after photographer Kenneth Adelman in 2003 took more than 12,000 aerial photos to document coastal erosion in California. He posted them on a now-defunct site called Pictopia.com.
Among the photos was one of Streisand’s cliff-top Malibu estate. Streisand sued Adelman and the site, alleging among other things that the photo invaded her privacy, violated the state’s anti-paparazzi statute and tried to profit from her name. She sought damages of more than $10 million, which she generously offered to donate to charity.
Before the lawsuit, the photo was downloaded just six times, including twice by her lawyers. The publicity from the lawsuit drove more than 420,000 visitors in the first month alone to the site to view Adelman’s photos. The case was dismissed and Streisand had to pay the defendant’s legal fees of more than $155,000. The photo of Streisand’s estate has now been seen millions of times.
Had Kim understood the Streisand effect, he could have simply let the poor reviews of the sophomoric comedy do his handiwork for him. The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and The Wall Street Journal trashed it to one degree or another. The film would have vanished from theaters in a few weeks and been forgotten. Instead, his country hacked into the computers of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the film’s producer, and disclosed embarrassing corporate emails and confidential employee data in an effort to stop the film’s distribution. North Korea also made threats against theater chains, which then refused to show the film.
One of the privileges of running a totalitarian dictatorship is that you get to control everything your subjects see, hear and read. Your citizens know only what you allow them to know. But once it became obvious that Kim also didn’t want anyone outside of the Hermit Kingdom to watch “The Interview,” people became determined to find out just what it was the latest Dear Leader didn’t want them to see. More people will now watch “The Interview,” despite the poor reviews, than would otherwise have been the case.
Maybe Kim has learned a lesson about the limits of absolute power. On the web, curiosity about what someone doesn’t want you to see beats totalitarian rule every time.
*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about finance, the economy and the business world.
by Barry Ritholtz