I lied to my loved ones about winning the Powerball jackpot. This is what I learned.
I don’t play around when it comes to money. My husband and I work diligently to earn what it takes to live our Midwestern middle-class life. We have student loans, credit card debt, a mortgage, insurance payments, and two kids to clothe and feed. So with all the demands that determine how we slice our greenbacks, we’ve never considered earmarking any of our cash for gambling.
But then we heard a number that tempted us to reconsider our betting-averse ways: 1.9 BILLION.
Yup, you guessed it: along with millions of other Americans, we caught Powerball fever. Granted it was a low grade fever, but that was all it took for us to take 20 of our hard-earned bucks and throw them down for 10 chances at nabbing a pile of money large enough to eclipse the GNP of more countries than I can count on both hands.
In short order, my spouse and I began talking about all of the things we’d do with the booty: Start a family foundation to fund social justice initiatives and community-based businesses. Set up trust and education funds for our daughters — and other people’s daughters, too. Pay off our debts. Make arrangements for our retirements and end-of-life care. Launch a few ventures we’ve dreamed of for years. Buy a new home. Provide financial assistance to friends and family. And of course, maybe we’d also have just a teensy weensy bit of rich fun — you know, like hiring a tag-along tutor to teach our kids while we take several months off to hop, skip, and jump around the world as an 8-legged family unit.
As 10 p.m. on Wednesday night drew near, I jokingly said to my husband, “Hey, we should totally tell people we won the jackpot! But I’m sure no one would believe it, especially after I tricked everyone into thinking I was pregnant on April Fool’s Day a couple years ago. A Powerball joke is way too obvious, right?” We chuckled at the idea before pulling our Powerball tickets off the fridge, hustling into the living room, and flipping on the local news. With rapt attention, we watched the Powerball numbers settle on the television screen: 8, 27, 34, 4, 19, and red 10.
We excitedly scanned our tickets aaaand … nothing. Actually, we did match the Powerball in one sequence but let’s be honest — no one gives two licks about winning four bucks when their billionaire dreams are crashing down around them.
Once we accepted the reality that we were still, in fact, the same people we were at 9:59 p.m., I turned to my husband and told him we should try the Powerball joke anyways. “Let’s just do it and see if anyone bites,” I said. “People who know us will figure it out immediately.” The hubby, always a good sport and a lover of ridiculous jokes, smiled and said, “Sure — why not?”
So at 10:14 p.m., I posted the following status on my Facebook wall:
As a digital campaigner and avid watcher of trends and growth on new media platforms, I raised my antennae and paid close attention to how others reacted to my shady proclamation. In no time, folks started hitting the “like” button. The first few comments were unsurprisingly skeptical, yet also hopeful that I might be telling the truth. People started leaving “So happy for you!” and “It couldn’t have happened to better people!” messages. Friends and family began texting and calling, much to our amusement and “send to voicemail” glee.
One friend commented by posting a fast-breaking story indicating that the winning ticket was purchased in Chino Hills, CA, not in Kansas City, MO, where we live. With cat-like social media reflexes, I replied that my husband had just returned from a business trip to Chino Hills where he purchased the ticket. Amazingly, the explanation quieted digital doubts, and the joke continued to gain unexpected steam.
It wasn’t long before another suspicious friend (this one well-versed in the trickery of internet trolling thanks to his high-profile career in social media) lauded my showmanship while decisively throwing a flag on my play. But a little quick thinking led me to send him a private message revealing the joke. Knowing that this friend’s far-reaching and respected visibility on the WWW would lend me some net cred, I asked him to participate. He said yes and helped keep the joke going with some humorously supportive comments.
As more and more people grew invested in the joke, I experienced a fleeting twinge of guilt. Would people be mad about being duped? And what kind of meaning would there be in the emotional conundrum of someone later feeling angry about having been convinced to feel happy? My husband and I considered taking the lid off the prank, but ultimately decided that the social experiment was too fascinating to halt. Believing it would convince people that we’d gone underground to figure out how to proceed, we vowed to avoid all interaction on social media and pretended to engage in a lawyered-up blackout. Then we went to bed.
I woke up Thursday morning and discovered that social media had been alive all night. By mid-morning, my private friends-only post had 151 likes and 110 comments. Not so shabby for a late-night status update with highly restricted visibility. Even now as I write this, the lie on my wall is accruing a like or comment about every 2–3 minutes.
As I read through the reactions from friends and family (including some independent posts made by individuals on their own Facebook walls), I began to see clearly 4 distinct reasons why it was so easy to take the bait.
1. Everyone had Powerball fever — even people who would never admit it.
I mean, come on — the idea of winning nearly 2 billion dollars is undeniably intoxicating for most people. That’s the kind of unfathomable money that invites imaginations to run free! There’s not a single person I know who didn’t fantasize about what would change for them if they suddenly came into that kind of cash. Even my most skeptical friends were roped into my hijink, the thrill so compelling that they were willing to overlook the glaringly obvious problem of making this kind of an announcement on Facebook of all places. Usually lottery winners choose radio silence, dig out their dusty lock boxes, and call the best lawyer their shiny new coins can buy. But because of the fever, people willingly chose to believe.
2. Social media is magic. Also, robots.
As the Executive Director of a digital non-profit advocacy organization who spends approximately 99.9% of my life on social media, I’ve learned how Facebook works. If you can get more people interacting with you, you raise the odds that the algorithm gods will send out notifications of those interactions to other people. More is more when it comes to increased reach. On top of that, the fact that I have a large network of friends who also have careers in internet wizardry increases the chances that our overlapping networked nodes will see the flurry of activity, have their curiosities piqued, and then click to engage. It also didn’t hurt that I’ve seen my fair share of smooth internet trolling and was able to incorporate convincingly placed typos, spaces, and returns to imitate wildly excited and rushed typing. See? Science meets robots.
3. People want to use money to make the world a better place. And they’re eager to share.
My life is filled to overflowing with folks fighting the good fight: Some spend every waking minute trying to end systemic racism and xenophobia. Others work day after day to halt climate change. Many are feeding, clothing, sheltering, and organizing with the sick, the elderly, the young, and the poor. Still others are fighting to change national legislation to dismantle laws that regulate women’s bodies or dictate people’s rights based on their sexual or gender identities. The list of amazing deeds and the folks who do them could go on and on.
But I — along with any of the organizers and activists in my circle — will tell you one thing with absolute certainty: We could do even better and more effective work if we had more resources. Just in my one little nonprofit alone, my staff and I are sitting on a bold civic engagement project that could dramatically increase the number of limited English proficient citizens who, with just a little bit of translation assistance, would be able to exercise their right to vote. The thing that’s preventing us from hitting “go?” We don’t have enough money to launch the project.
So you see, while some people believe that money is the root of all evil, there are many of us who believe money can make possible a happier, healthier, and fairer world. 1.9 billion dollars could do wonders for so many people, and the notion that the jackpot winner might be someone who strives for the betterment of others and redistribution of resources is pretty darn exciting.
4. People love and want the best for me and my family.
Above and beyond all skepticism, incredulity, and outright shock, there was one reaction to this prank that reigned supreme: Folks were genuinely happy for me, my husband, and our little family. Again and again, our loved ones expressed how thrilled they were that we had won. They showered us with kindness, thoughtful suggestions for how to protect ourselves and our new-found wealth, and reassurances of their confidence in our ability to make wise choices with the money. I could not have predicted the sheer amount of selfless joy we received in the wake of our faux announcement, and yet this was the very thing that allowed me to see the true, beautiful colors of the people in my life. Their happiness made me want to love each of them even more.
What started out as a silly joke that I assumed would fall flat turned into a social media spectacle that reveals how money can thrill, inspire, and bring people together. I didn’t have a clue that any of this would turn out this way, but I continue to be thoroughly fascinated by it.
While my husband and I didn’t win the Powerball jackpot, it’s not entirely true that we didn’t win anything. Since we matched last night’s 10 ball, we’ve got $4 dollars at our local Kwik Trip waiting for us. And because we believe in sharing with others, we’ve decided to split our winnings 400 ways — so let me know if you want a piece of the spoils.