Last week, Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace broke the world record for the world’s highest sky dive, leaping from an altitude of 135,890 feet, breaking the previous world record by 7790 feet. While excitedly reported by news outlets worldwide, this grand achievement has been met with relatively little fanfare from the general public.
Contrast this with the last time the record was broken, some two years ago by professional sky diver Felix Baumgartner. Certainly, his jump was more of a historical event – it had been some 52 years since the previous record had been set by Joseph Kittinger in 1960. Yet, that should make it even more impressive that within two years, technology and knowledge have progressed to the point where the record could be broken again.
The difference is in the publicity, not just during the jump, but beforehand. Red Bull’s widespread social media presence, blogging, tweeting etc. ensured that it was viewed live by over 9.5 million users, setting a record for the “live stream with the most concurrent views ever on YouTube”, making it a major publicity stunt for YouTube’s then relatively new and frequently bug-plagued service. The event trended on every social media platform going, particularly twitter with thousands of tweets under the hashtags
#felibaumgartner and #stratos (not linked to here as this hashtag has since been overtaken by other trends).
His sponsors were also able to paint Baumgartner as a daredevil everyman in the public view, a good-looking, likeable athlete living the Red Bull dream. Alan Eustace may be a wonderful person and his achievement is certainly great, it’s unfortunately hard to portray one of Google’s top people as anything other than rich and entitled, unless there is effort in the media to portray him as such. The public opinion is even noticeable on the video of Eustace’s jump, with people criticising his efforts and diving technique compared to Baumgartner’s, or being outright skeptical of his record claim – after all, how could a google employee have made the jump if there is only a rough, low-quality upload on YouTube, watched by a mere 50,000 or so people compared to the millions on Red Bull’s vide?o (not even counting it’s many re-uploads, recuts etc.) Eustace’s jump seems to be a personal goal, which is great, but it means that ultimately the average person, when asked about sky diving records, will certainly remember Felix Baumgartner more clearly.
Good related reading: Multimodality in Transmedia Narrative: Red Bull Stratos by Lucy Turner looks at how Red Bull’s online campaign drew people into the story before and during the event.