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The internet helps cheap, fun events spread faster than ever. It’s also totally ruined them.

From disappointing cheese festivals to Szechuan sauce riots.

Lines for food stands at the Great GoogaMooga food festival in Brooklyn in 2012. Gothamist described the event as a “grass-covered hellscape.”
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The first 24-hour Krispy Kreme in Ireland opened its doors on September 26, but unfortunately for doughnut-eating Irish night owls, its initial premise proved faulty within just a week. The following Wednesday, Krispy Kreme announced that the all-night shop would now close at 11:30 pm, demoting it to just a regular ol’ doughnut store.

The culprit was the same as it always is: Too many people were lured by a tantalizing idea that the promise-makers couldn’t, for a variety of reasons, fulfill.

In Krispy Kreme’s case, that meant a line of hundreds of honking cars in the wee-est hours of the morning, disturbing neighbors and causing huge traffic jams. But it’s a story that has replayed again and again over the past few years: A limited-edition product, a free event, or a huge sale sounds a little bit too good to be true on the internet and, of course, ends up being exactly that.

I have spent literal years of my life thinking about — and contributing to — this phenomenon. For about a year and a half, my job was to write listings for free and cheap family-friendly events for a New York City kid’s magazine. More specifically, my job was to make these two-sentence descriptions sound as fun and exciting as possible without straight-up lying about what parents and kids would actually find when they got there.

This led to a lot of vague phrases like “hands-on activities!” and “music, performances, and food trucks!” that didn’t totally capture the reality of the only two possible situations. The first is that these “hands-on activities” and “performances” would be extraordinarily dull and not worth leaving the house for. The second is that even if they were free and decidedly non-lame, it still wouldn’t be worth the ridiculously long wait times, brutal crowds, and general feeling of total dehumanization that anything with the word “festival” can bring. (Fun fact: you can slap the word “festival” on literally any event with more than one thing to do!) It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive emails from angry parents complaining about a too-crowded or otherwise disappointing day.

My next job was the opposite: I’d scope out sample sales and report on whether they were worth waiting in the multi-block lines. Almost always, my personal answer was, “Uh, no???” but this kind of lazy reporting was, unfortunately, frowned upon. So instead, as fashion writers are wont to do, I described many pieces of clothing as “worth” buying when in fact I had no intention of doing so myself.

Both experiences have instilled in me a deep skepticism about any kind of buzzy event or sale, to the point where I have a deep mistrust of anything with the words “food festival” or “sale” in it. But I think more people should have that, too.

Because over the past few years, there’ve been tons of examples of overhyped and ultimately disappointing events, and almost always, social media is to blame. It isn’t just that the internet makes it easy for us to stumble upon fun-sounding experiences and then share them with our friends — it’s that there’s now a social media ecosystem that makes real money off hyperbolizing what you’ll find when you go to them. Essentially, whole brands and publishers are built on causing you FOMO.

Sales, limited-time offers, and food festivals: when marketing gimmicks backfire

When Build-a-Bear Workshop held its “Pay Your Age Day” sale on July 12, thousands of shoppers across the US, Canada, and the UK lined up outside stores hours before opening, hoping for a chance to stuff and buy an animal for only the cost of their child’s age.

Build-a-Bear, however, was woefully unprepared. Most stores cut off lines by mid-morning, though some shoppers claimed that even if they arrived early enough, the barrage of crowds forced them to wait hours. Others said that despite their early arrivals, they were turned away and told to come back later, only to find that the store had already closed.

The fiasco may not have happened had Build-a-Bear been able to gauge interest far enough in advance — it had announced the sale just three days before it went down, and the event was quickly covered by national news outlets.

In a similar case, McDonald’s attempted to capitalize on a joke from the popular animated comedy Rick & Morty by rereleasing its Szechuan sauce, but ended up revealing how toxic some corners of the fandom could be. When it turned out that McDonald’s had either barely stocked the sauce or failed to tell some stores the promotion was even happening, thousands of angry fans protested outside stores and wreaked havoc inside them. On social media, others proposed boycotts or filing a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s, which distributed so few packets of the sauce that, due to supply and demand, one woman was able to trade hers for a car.

As Vox wrote at the time, “McDonald’s made the classic mistake of a corporation that suddenly finds itself engaging with a large fandom: When fans began to interact with its branding, it signed up for the free publicity and easy marketing, but didn’t do the work of understanding just what kind of fandom it had on its hands.”

The peculiarities of the Rick & Morty subculture surely had something to do with the level of vitriol expressed toward McDonald’s. But the blame is also on the way McDonald’s teased and winked at fans in its advertisements: It knew the Szechuan sauce was an item that customers desperately wanted, and it failed to deliver.

And the biggest, most prevailing example of this kind of failure is the food festival. The idea of a free or low-cost never-ending feast, spread out over a maze of stalls with different cuisines, satiating every possible sort of person, and all attendees leaving happy and perhaps even culturally fulfilled, is generally far too enticing to ever reach its Platonic ideal. But because people keep organizing them, other people keep buying tickets.

In September 2014, the organizers behind the massively popular outdoor food market Smorgasburg attempted to arrange a one-time-only night market inside Central Park, to much fanfare. Though the event, which was to include food, drinks, DJs, and dancing, was scheduled to run from 5 to 9 pm, by around 6 o’clock, police had to turn hundreds of people away, which ended up resulting in tons of leftover food.

But it shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. Two years earlier, a similar fiasco occurred when the organizers of Bonnaroo attempted a giant food festival and concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It would be called the Great GoogaMooga and would be free to enter with registry, though attendees could also purchase $250 VIP tickets that promised exclusive viewing, attendance to culinary seminars, cocktail demos, and wine and beer tastings.

A GoogaMooga worker holds a sign as festivalgoers wait in line for food.
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Though the festival ended up making headlines for its absurdly long wait times, technical payment issues, and the fact that beer and wine reportedly ran out by 3 pm, it wasn’t much better for the VIP customers. A Gothamist piece headlined “$250 VIP GoogaMooga Tickets: You Would’ve Gotten More Full Eating the Money” described some folks waiting “15 minutes for a bite of a mortadella hot dog and another 15 for a single piece of beef with some corn,” and zero vegetarian options to speak of. The VIP section eventually ran out of food entirely, leaving attendees to watch celebrity panelists like David Chang and James Murphy eat delicious food while they couldn’t.

These two are far from the only disappointing food festivals. If recent memory serves, most of them end up being a disaster on some level: There was the “unlimited” cheese festival in London whose cheese selection was in fact very limited, the African food fest with a measly two vendors, the “drunken hellscape” that was BrunchCon, the pizza festival that was such a scam that it ended up being investigated by the attorney general, and, uh, that other one.

The internet is to blame — but not for the reason you think

Though food festivals that don’t live up to the hype and sales that get out of control are two different beasts, they share some important commonalities. The first is that both of them hinge on brands and organizers promising something they can’t always deliver. Build-a-Bear and McDonald’s may have had the tools and staffing to follow through on their promotions for some customers, but both failed to take into account the rest of the equation, which is that a massive number of people wanted to take advantage of them at the same time.

Very sad slices of pizza from September 2017’s disastrous New York City Pizza Festival.

The same goes for events — GoogaMooga may have been a lovely experience for all if only fewer people had shown up (but in that case, organizers knew exactly how many people had registered, and had no excuse not to be prepared).

Part of this is obviously due to how social media is able to spread information much, much faster than it ever has in the past. When Build-a-Bear announced its Pay Your Age sale on Facebook, the post was shared by nearly 20,000 people, exposing it to huge swaths of potential customers.

And thanks to Facebook’s events feature, an event that’s labeled “food night market” or “ultimate cheese festival” can travel enormous distances. When users click the “Interested” button on events that are set to public, that event will then show up on their friends’ timelines, so that even if neither party ends up actually attending, everyone involved will still be aware of its existence. Plus, it’s so simple to create a public Facebook event that even if said “food night market” has zero proof of its quality or viability, people are made to assume that it’s legit because it looks exactly the same as the superior ones.

But the other problem the internet poses, besides simply allowing more eyeballs on events, is that there are an increasing number of brands and publications whose businesses depend on getting you excited about going to them. There are the kinds of local magazines and blogs where I’ve spent years writing this kind of content. But in the past few years, there’s also been the ascent of Facebook video creators like Insider, Refinery29’s RSVP series, and BuzzFeed’s BringMe, which traffic in getting users hyped to visit a certain place or attend a specific event.

This Cheese Festival Could Be Coming to a Place Near You Soon,” reads the title of one video by one of Facebook’s largest publishers, the viral content site LadBible. The video itself is the same kind of mobile-friendly, simple text-on-screen stuff you’ll see on any Facebook feed, and none of the footage is original — mostly it’s close-ups of different kinds of cheese and an aerial view of the festival, all provided by Cheese Fest UK. But it didn’t need to be any more complicated than that: All viewers needed to know was that there was a cheese festival possibly coming to a place near them soon. As of now, the video has 13 million views.

But when the actual Cheese Fest UK landed in Brighton last August, the event devolved into hour-long lines, cheese shortages, and expensive prices, and Cheese Fest was eventually forced to apologize.

Essentially, there’s an entire economy within social media that trades off people’s FOMO. And in order for these videos, posts, or events to go viral, they require organizers and publishers to hyperbolize as much as possible, without any real concern for what customers can actually expect to get for their time and money.

But until social media engagement and virality aren’t important markers of brands’ and publishers’ success, it’s not likely that we’ll see the tale of the overhyped and underwhelming event end anytime soon. The only thing we can do, really, is take our 10 million–view videos about rosé-soaked pool parties with a hearty dose of skepticism. Or just do what I do and avoid them all entirely.