Internet | Media

March 16, 2006

Toothing's Dubious Return

Gelf talks with the creators of the "toothing" hoax, now that their bogus idea has regained currency with reporters.

David Goldenberg

Two years ago, Ste Curran and Simon Byron publicized the idea of "toothing"—people using Bluetooth technology for arranging anonymous sex—in order to make a point. They were trying to show that journalists are so slothful—and so desperate for a sexy technology story—that they are willing to overlook logic for a scoop. Now that Curran and Byron's prank has reappeared in the news as fact—the latest iteration comes from Reuters—Gelf caught up with the original hoaxers over email to discuss why spurious phenomena such as toothing continue to pop up in the media.

Simon Byron
Simon Byron (above) and his co-conspirator Ste Curran invented the idea that Bluetooth could help people get laid.
The toothing craze was conceived by the British bloggers as an elaborate practical joke, comprising a fake toothing web forum, emails to newspapers, and tips to websites. It may have been convincing, were the practice not so unrealistic. "The idea with Toothing was to come up with something which was theoretically possible but practically impossible," Byron tells Gelf over email. "All it would have taken—and we only realised this a week after we were into it—was someone to actually try it." Curran says that Bluetooth technology only allows people to broadcast messages randomly. "You might as well be throwing a bottle into the ocean and asking for sex on the piece of paper within," he writes. But that didn't stop a number of publications, including Wired News, Reuters (mirrored at Mick's World Tour), and the BBC from contacting them and running stories about the rise of toothing. (The pair outed themselves on their blog last year.)

Perhaps one reason toothing caught on so quickly in the media is that it touches on an interesting paradox: Even though most pure tech stories are really boring, every other type of story seems more interesting when it involves technology. That's why we read so much about the supposed mass of sexual predators lurking on MySpace, but little about the very real sexual predators lurking around their own children.

The original rise of the toothing hoax inspired more tricksters, including one group that attempted last July to spread the word about "greenlighting," a fake trend in which anonymous sex fiends would yank down the collars of green-shirted passers-by to signal their interest in a quickie. But this hoax, which also had its roots in a fake online forum, was quickly outed by reporter Cyrus Farivar, who explained the hoax (and its accompanying Wookie backing) in an article over at Slate.

So it would seem that the press is getting better at researching dubious claims. Byron thinks so; he tells Gelf, "People are trying these things all the time," he writes. "But as one person gets away with it, so it becomes harder...And as one hoax hits, so the press does, rightly, get more suspicious."

But the recent Reuters article suggests that some in the media might not quite be ready to give up on these bogus stories. "It started as a prank that tricked the world's media," the article starts, "but now spoof stories about people using their mobile phones to hook up with strangers have come true."

Kari Hernandez, a spokeswoman for a Bluetooth trade group, tells Gelf that you could, technically, target a stranger with your Bluetooth device: "With toothing or bluejacking (which is the same thing but not inherently sexual), what a user is actually doing is sending a business card. To make it interesting though, you change your device name to be something funny or flirtatious. The user would scan for other Bluetooth devices in the area and then select the device to send the business card. This can be a guessing game if there are a lot of Bluetooth devices in the area but to your question, the user can select and send to a specific device."

The Reuters article shows just how lazy reporters can be: As Techdirt points out, a good chunk of the piece quotes a fishy BBC article from seven months ago. Much of the rest of the piece is devoted to Italians with a financial interest in seeing toothing come to fruition. (Gelf will send a copy of this article to Reuters after we publish it. When they get back to us, we'll let you know.) UPDATE, 3/20: Reuters spokeswoman Samantha Topping tells Gelf: "We checked our reporting on the story and we stand by it. It was based on direct contact with the sources we cite, and first-hand reporting, and we're surprised Mr. Goldenberg hasn't made any attempt to contact Reuters before publishing his article."

Curran doesn't place much faith in the return of toothing. He writes, "People don’t bother to research these days, or if they do it’s barely more than that cursory Google thing, and it’s kind of ironic that the reveal after our lazy journalism proof-of-concept gets muddled up by more lazy journalism. That Reuters thing is so badly written, so badly researched and it makes me furious."

"It is not just that people aren’t generally trying to tooth that makes it impossible," Curran adds. "It’s that the overwhelming majority of people simply do not want to bone that fat, sweaty disgusting man opposite them on the tube, or that lecherous waiter in the café, or that shifty youth of indeterminate gender beneath the hooded top. People like sex, yes, but most people can see a million better ways of getting it. We will need more than a technological revolution before the majority of us are ready to break a thousand social, physical and moral barriers and start fucking randomly like primates."

Byron suggests one reason that the trend may have taken on new life. "Across the board, we’ve found there have been two reactions, broadly speaking," he writes. "Some of our media friends held their hands up and have been brilliant about it. And that’s really shown us that some individuals have humility— we’ve respected them even more. Others have continued down this 'we weren’t fooled; it is possible' route. I’d not be surprised if this re-emergence of Toothing is actually pre-empted by one technology journalist still annoyed he got caught out."

Curran adds that would-be entrepreneurs, like those quoted in the Reuters article, may also have a hand in perpetuating the hoax. "During our time masquerading as Toothing-mascot ‘Toothy Toothing’ we received a lot of offers from variously shady, disgusting, disturbing and frantic people wanting us to endorse their ways of making money from Toothing," Curran writes. "I have seen lots of those names in papers and on websites (not least my own) since, claiming that hey, it started as a hoax, but now it is real, and it is happening. I assume these are people trying to build second-wave hoaxes, aftershocks of ours but with financially motivated purpose."

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Article by David Goldenberg

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