This site will leave it to others to continue debating the Union Street Guest House’s $500 fine policy (with an intensity more usually reserved to debating Israel vs. Palestine). Was it a “joke,” a scare tactic, or a scam? We may never know, and probably shouldn’t care.
Far more interesting to this observer is the question: Why did this particular story go “viral”?
So far, the story has been covered in at least 200 online and print publications, many of them with a global reach, such as CNN. Reportedly, the inn has been beseiged with requests to appear on national morning programs, as well as p.r. reps pitching their crisis management services to its staff—as if the USGH were Union Carbide.
So why should a story about a small inn in a small Hudson Valley city provoke such visibility, and such vitriol?
REASON #1: It’s August. August is known among news people as the Silly Season. Many public figures, journalists and the public are on vacation, and either not making news, craving lighter news, or not paying attention to the news at all. Hard news drops off, in favor of either titillating tales about bears falling down wells and birthday party clowns punching children, or heartwarming fluff about hayrides for the family at your local county fair... So the USGH yarn hit at just the right time to fill that August news gap.
REASON #2: The Interwebs. The mainstream news media is both notoriously clueless about the internet and easily lured into writing stories about mundane online stuff not normally worthy of coverage without a web angle. (People are meeting their soulmates—ON THE INTERNET! People are gambling—ON THE INTERNET! People are having arguments—ON THE INTERNET!) Since the threatened fine by the Union Street Guest House involved punishing negative online reviews, the story was that much more irresistible.
REASON #3: Boarding Paranoia. Pretty much everyone stays at a hotel, inn or B&B at some point, and business travelers stay in hotels a lot. Most have felt that sneaking suspicion that our bill might be getting padded, even when it isn’t. It’s always a surprise to see a whopping hotel tax and an added telephone charge at checkout time, even though we had every reason to see these coming. Thus when a story arrives which appears (fairly or unfairly) to describe a nefarious lodging proprietor tacking $500 onto a bill, patrons and reporters alike assume the worst.
REASON #4: Hating on Hipsters. Dissing hipsters is to media today what mocking yuppies was in the ’80s. Though the term no longer means much more than “people younger than yourself,” every publication knows that it can lure both clicks and snide comments by including the word hipster. (This writer is guilty as self-charged.) And this hotel story had an apparent hipster angle.
The USGH site’s policy describing the hypothetical $500 fine included a long explanation of why some wedding guests more familiar with Holiday Inns than the Ace Hotel might not “get” its vibe—an explanation presumably based in actual experience with guests. Terms like “vintage” and “hip” were sprinkled liberally on its site, before getting to the policy’s punchline: “If your guests are looking for a Marriott type hotel they may not like it here.” A few might call that refreshing honesty. But most received it as archly snobbish. Now, here was a rare chance to punish the hipster hotelier; and punish they did.
REASON #5: Schadenfreude. Once it became clear how much attention and anger was unleashed by the initial coverage, the rest of the press and the public rushed to kick the establishment once it was down. For some internet trolls and parodists, leaving negative feedback on a business they have never visited and never planned to visit is just another way to pass the day. This led to a second lede about the online backlash, further extending the life of the story. The USGH having to take down its Facebook page, and Yelp having to remove countless comments, just further stoked the flames.
REASON #6: The Interwebs—Again! The media has always had something of a herd mentality. Most writers know that paradoxically, it is much easier to sell a version of a story which has already appeared elsewhere than to pitch a novel idea for a piece. Many editors are very cautious animals, fearing to look stupid by taking risks on an article which requires more than five seconds to explain. So if it’s been in the New York Times or New Yorker already, that’s actually a plus: The story topic has been validated. The internet compounds this problem with its culture of linking. Countless sites do little more than collect links to other sites’ reports, or shamelessly repurpose others' content. Once the $500 fine story hit a few well-trafficked sites, it was bound to get copied-and-pasted in exponentially more.
REASON #7: The Policy Itself. Whatever the owner’s motivation—and I say this knowing and liking the owner personally—the policy was counterproductive to say the least. Worse, it was written in a catty tone which set people’s teeth on edge far more than boring legalese.
One can question the policy’s legal enforceability, while also noteing that not a single visitor has brought forward evidence of actually being fined. It looks like some threats may have been made to enforce it... depending on how much one believes semi-anonymous online reviews, which can be edited after the fact to fit a new narrative. On the other hand, many Hudson lodging establishments consider wedding parties as much a curse as a blessing. (Think: Puke on hallway carpets, trashed rooms, noisy sex, lost keys). So fans of the place may be tempted to theorize that this policy was less a “joke” than a roundabout way of deterring all but the most docile wedding parties from staying at the Union Street Guest House.
Still, all that said: The $500 fine idea clearly wasn’t a fine idea. As much as for any other reason, the story gained traction because the policy generated righteous indignation.
Meanwhile, though the Guest House itself will no doubt take a hit for a while, the rest of the local B&Bs and hotels may see an uptick in curiosity-seekers, as millions heard about Hudson for the first time via this story. It’ll be a test of whether all publicity is truly good publicity, a saying repeated far more often than it merits.