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What we've just learned about social media...again

Tuesday, 3 Dec 2013 | 11:08 AM ET
Twitter user 'Elan Gale'
Source: Elan Gale | Twitter
Twitter user 'Elan Gale'

The world is unfolding on Twitter. I'm not talking about political upheaval in Iran or Egypt or Ukraine.

I'm talking about really rude people at 35,000 feet—who don't exist.

People stopped this weekend—stopped eating, stopped shopping, just stopped—to stay abreast of some compelling incidents on Twitter, some of them trivial. Stopping to watch a real-time feed on a smartphone is the sort of thing you might expect in a dystopian science fiction novel by H.G. Wells or George Orwell. This is who we are now—people who read tweets by other people as they record the play-by-play of awkward encounters. We join in the conversation with praise or criticism.

Why do we do it? It's, well, fun. Social media is homegrown, collaborative, mostly commercial free, and highly entertaining. Just don't expect it to always be accurate.

Here are three incidents over the Thanksgiving weekend that illustrate my point.

Incident #1: Elan vs. 'Diane'Jerks on a plane

While many of us were busy cooking a turkey or heading to grandma's house, war broke out on a US Airways plane headed to Phoenix. Elan Gale, a television producer for such programs as ABC's "The Bachelor," began tweeting about one very unhappy passenger. "Our flight is delayed," began Gale at 8:05 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. "A woman on here is very upset because she has Thanksgiving plans. She is the only one obviously. Praying for her."

Over the next several hours, Gale updated his Twitter feed as he began an on-board feud with the woman in seat 7A, whom he later learned was named "Diane." The two exchanged nasty notes, nasty looks, things got crude. Finally, after they landed, Gale tweeted, "Well, 'Diane' just slapped me."

The world of social media gasped as one. "Did they arrest her???" asked @missADelgado with not one, but three question marks???!!! No, Gale replied, they did not. The gate agent asked him if he wanted to report the assault to authorities, but "Diane" missed her connecting flight, and that was punishment enough.

We should expect more of this kind of real-time storytelling now that airlines like US Airways contract with companies such as GoGo Inflight so one can remain connected on flights and pass the time tweeting and Facebooking. Gale's story was particularly compelling because it was hard to pick a winner. "Diane" sounded self-absorbed, entitled and high maintenance. Elan Gale came across as juvenile, posting a photo of his mother giving "Diane" the finger, and describing her as "wearing mom jeans and a studded belt and she is wearing a medical mask over her idiot face."

Many on Twitter were in awe of the producer's willingness to stand up to "Diane" ("you are my hero" tweeted one fan), while others called him a bully ("that's creepy and sad"). Gale became defensive and even wrote a blog to explain his actions. "I know I can come across as abrasive. I know I can seem harsh," he wrote. "But what I've never done is be unkind to a person in a service position."

The saga kept people on their edge of their Earth-bound seats for much of past several days. A summary of the entire conversation on Storify, written by my CNBC colleague Eli Langer, topped 5 million hits, the biggest story ever on the site. Elan Gale quadrupled his number of Twitter followers.

But almost as soon as the plane landed, some began questioning whether the story was true. A rude woman wearing a medical mask on a flight to Phoenix would attract notice, especially if those on board later learned she became the starring figure in the weekend's top tale on social media. Where were the "I saw her, too," tweets? At the same time, someone claiming to be a cousin of "Diane" said she was wearing a mask because she's dying of lung cancer. Nice.

Turns out it was all a complete ruse.

Late Monday, Gale admitted as much by posting a picture of "Diane"—an empty chair. The backlash has made the producer as popular as Obamacare. "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog. But we all know that Elan is a sociopath,"tweeted @NellSco. Sure, Gale's fiction did not create the hysteria Orson Welles did with his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast—that really was H .G. Wells—but people don't like being lied to (see "Obamacare" above). However, a few folks, like @briankoppelman, loved it. "Hilarious. Perfectly executed."

Lesson learned: You don't need a billion-dollar budget to create great drama. Just tweet well, then figure out how to monetize it. But one does not fool Mother Twitter without consequences.

(Read more: Porn industry offers to fix Obamacare)

Incident #2: Rob Ford vs. the musicianDrugs and rock 'n' roll

There was no social media back in the days of Washington, D.C.'s crack-smoking Mayor Marion Barry. Twenty-three years ago there was only one 24-hour cable news channel and no Netscape.

Fast forward to 2013, where Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford seems to be loving every minute of the round-the-clock attention he's receiving as he fights efforts to strip him of power due to allegations of drinking, smoking crack, harassing employees, and now, stealing seats at football games.

Sunday, as the Buffalo Bills headed north of the border to play the Atlanta Falcons at Rogers Centre, a Canadian rock musician named Matt Mays alerted Twitter that Hizzoner had taken Mays' $250 seat at the game. "Rob Ford is sitting in my seat at the Bills game. He stole my seat. I don't know what to do." That was followed a few minutes later by, "I'm by myself. I gotta kick him out right? I mean I would kick anyone else out... Am I wrong?"

Twitter lit up. "You're the only person in Toronto who can take Rob Ford's seat from him," joked @AdamaBaldwin."PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION. You don't know what that guy might be on right now," tweeted @RonTerrell. "Wow you are a wimp," chimed in@Lenny_Leonard19.

Was this story true? In this case, a reporter from the Toronto Star tracked down the musician and confirmed his story. Mays eventually got his seat back after security asked the mayor to leave because he was causing a commotion. People were clamoring to have their pictures taken with him and "madness ensued."

"Got my seat back," Mays finally tweeted.

Lesson learned: Even on a big story like the Ford saga, the social media "little guy" angle can be more telling. Smoking crack I can't relate to, but stealing my seat, oh yeah, that's nasty. Thank goodness this didn't happen on an airplane. ...

Portland's professional 'cuddler'
Samantha Hess, a professional "cuddler," has more work than she can handle, reports CNBC's Jane Wells. Hess charges $60 an hour and forbids any "funny business."

Incident #3: Paul Walker vs. the hoax machine

Sadly, one story that was definitely true this weekend is the death of actor Paul Walker. One of the stars of the "Fast and Furious" franchise was killed in the sort of fiery car crash meant for special effects, not real life. The news spread quickly on social media, and so did a report claiming it was a hoax. A website called Mediamass reported the actor had not been killed, but was instead the victim of a fake Facebook page called "R.I.P. Paul Walker." But the real hoax was Mediamass itself, which is described as satire meant to "ridicule the contemporary mass production and mass consumption that we observe." If this is one's idea of satire and ridicule, well, the online world is filled with those who can do it better, and with better timing.

Lesson learned: There's a lot of bad to go with the good online, a lot of false mixed in with what's true. Increasingly, we don't know what to believe anymore. However, skepticism is healthy. Question everything. Just ask "Diane."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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