Why You Shouldn’t Share That Awesome Infographic

A friend sent me an infographic from a sketchy “medical degree information website” … and I learned that sometimes, good people pass on bad Internet pages that make money for bad people.

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May 2014

A friend recently sent me an infographic that supposedly shows that doctors make less in lifetime earnings than teachers. Unsurprisingly, the infographic is controversial. It also went viral and has been Liked on Facebook over fifteen thousand times.

I am not impressed by this infographic, and I could write a whole post dissecting its statistical silliness, but that’s not the point here. More importantly, this infographic is just one piece of a vast and sketchy clickbait empire. Everyone who links to this dumb infographic is helping a clever, unethical man make money. His name is Ryan Caldwell, and he’s been playing this game for years.

This wouldn’t bug me so much if Caldwell were giving out decent information. But he’s not, although his website calls itself an “independent online publication dedicated to providing accurate and useful information for prospective students considering a career in medicine.” And my smart friends are passing this on! Some of them are doctors and teachers!

Red Flags That Tipped Me Off

Many small, sketchy aspects of the site made my hackles rise. But I’ll just tell you about the big red flags:

The infographic is hosted at BestMedicalDegrees, which does not list any authors, editors, or other names anywhere. There are no names on the website’s main page, the About page, or the Contact page. Most of the articles list “Editors” as the author. I saw the name Yvonne McArthur on a couple of posts, but she has no biography on the site. If Yvonne exists, BestMedicalDegrees doesn’t offer any way to find her elsewhere (like a website or Twitter link).

BestMedicalDegrees also has an irritating “Rankings Methodology” page that says: “We rank schools and degree programs based on widely accepted measures of market reputation, academic quality, student satisfaction, and value, as well as our own editorial judgement.”

“Editorial judgment?” “Widely accepted?” Are they even saying anything at all?

Anyway, by the time I went through all that, I knew the site was nonsense. So I checked the registered owner of the site, using its publicly available Whois record, and I found a name: Ryan Caldwell. I didn’t have to work hard to figure out the details after that, because as soon as I Googled Caldwell’s name, I found this blog post from 2011 that described one of his other viral hits.

Caldwell routinely makes viral sites that pretend to be information sources about schools. On those sites, he links to school-related organizations, and those organizations pay him an affiliate fee for each person he refers. Voilà!

In fact, from Caldwell’s perspective, I’m guessing that being mildly inaccurate is valuable, because that will just get people riled up and send more attention his way.

Why My Smart Friends Helped This Guy Make Money

My friends are really smart people (hi friends! I love you!). Why are my smart friends forwarding this thing around?

I guess most people are unfamiliar with how online content makes money. Also, maybe people are lulled by the lack of ads at BestMedicalDegrees; maybe people assume that an ad-free site won’t be profit-driven. And maybe people are less critical about media that does not appear to be “political,” or that doesn’t have an obvious “agenda.”

But I’m hardly the first person to make this point, and I won’t be the last: When you pass on a piece of content to your friends, you are helping spread its influence or earn money for its creator — even if you’re saying something negative.

Are you sure you want to do that? Do you even know who the creator is?

One of my favorite things about the Internet is that it’s relatively easy for people with zero established reputation to work their way up, solely by being awesome. And personally, I really enjoy great content marketing. But people like Caldwell are not even close to legit. So don’t reward them by passing on their stuff.

For the record, I tried sending a note through the BestMedicalDegrees Contact page — I said I was a writer working on a piece about the site, and that I’d love to talk to the editors. I received no response.

P.S. Hey, if you’re planning to link to BestMedicalDegrees, then I strongly recommend that you use DoNotLink when you do so. (To learn more about DoNotLink, here’s a great writeup.)

(Image credit to 401K 2012, who posted it on Flickr under a Creative Commons license)
 

I got my start in digital media at age 15, when I was invited to intern at a game design company. I went on to write games for White Wolf Game Studio; from there, I branched out into blogs, articles, a few books, and general social media mayhem. I have spoken at universities across America and at South By Southwest Interactive. I have also traveled extensively, including Peace Corps service in Swaziland, Africa.

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