Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Mr. Splashy Pants

What it’s about: In 2007, Greenpeace attempted to drum up some attention toward the plight of humpback whales threatened by the Japanese Fisheries Agency, which planned to hunt 50 of the animals. Greenpeace held a contest on its website to name a whale it was tracking by satellite. One of the 30 names, “Mr. Splashy Pants,” exploded in popularity, in what is now a textbook example of a social media promotion spiraling out of control.

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Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian even created a logo for the whale

Strangest fact: Cheaters do in fact prosper. While voting was going on, an anonymous user in Arizona discovered Greenpeace’s one-vote-per-person limit could be circumvented by disabling cookies, and began voting twice a second for 38 solid minutes—every vote was for the name “Mr. Splashy Pants.” Greenpeace caught the loophole and erased the extra votes, but by that point, it was too late. Other websites—including Reddit, BoingBoing, and Digg—got wind of what was happening, and a Facebook page was launched urging more people to vote for the name. Greenpeace’s site was flooded with so much traffic it was nearly disabled. The anonymous Arizonan had voted 450 times, but the publicity he or she generated brought in over 100,000 subsequent votes.

Biggest controversy: Greenpeace wasn’t initially thrilled with the name’s surging popularity. The other vote-getters were serious names like Aiko, Libertad, Aurora, and Shanti. Mr. Splashy Pants had been submitted as a joke, and now the joke was getting out of hand. However, Greenpeace embraced the name, as it was able to use the storm of publicity to bring more attention to the whales’ plight. In the end, Mr. Splashy Pants’ popularity convinced the Japanese government to abandon its whale-hunting plan.

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Greenpeace’s effort became the second-most-famous Save The Whales effort, behind Star Trek IV.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Mr. Splashy Pants got his own TED talk. Two years after the name won by a landslide on Greenpeace’s poll (with 78 percent of the vote, a full 75 points above the nearest competitor, Humphrey), Reddit and Hipmunk co-founder Alexis Ohanian gave a TED talk titled, “How To Make A Splash In Social Media.” He used the story of Mr. Splashy Pants as an example of how an organization can lose control of its message, and why that’s not a bad thing, given that the Splashy voting gave Greenpeace and the humpback whales far more attention than a more sedate Humphrey vs. Aiko vote would have done.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Mr. Splashy Pants still has a ways to go when it comes to religious tolerance. When Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minneosta honored Muslim students’ request to put up a divider separating women from men in the school’s meditation room, students protested, using an image of Mr. Splashy Pants (a logo Ohanian created, and which was widespread on Reddit). Wikipedia doesn’t make it clear whether the whale’s foray into protest was successful.

Also unhappily, Wikipedia has a link to a page on Greenpeace’s website where you can track Mr. Splashy Pants and other whales, but the page is no longer active.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Mr. Splashy Pants is just one item on a long list of internet phenomena, which includes everything from ads that went viral, to Nyan Cat, to the Nigerian prince scam, to “double rainbow,” to the dancing baby from Ally McBeal.

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Further down the wormhole: Reddit was one of the main instigators of the Mr. Splashy Pants voting, though not all of its group efforts have been quite so spontaneous or well intentioned. The site has been home to astroturfing, when a corporation or other group funds a fake grassroots campaign. Sometimes astroturfing involves a fake advocacy group that’s in fact advocating for the astroturfer (often used in politics). And sometimes it’s a method of creating a fake internet sensation for the sake of product placement. We’ll look at that insidious practice next week, while innocuously enjoying a cool, refreshing Blue Pepsi.