On the morning of October 26, Andrew Strugnell, a Thailand-based online TV broadcaster from New Zealand, noticed that an old high-school buddy, Tim Hodge, had replaced his Facebook profile photo with a picture of a giraffe. He had also posted a riddle on his Facebook wall:
“3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?”
The post instructed readers to send guesses as direct messages to Hodge rather than posting them in the comments section on his wall, to keep the answer a surprise and not to spoil the riddle for Hodge’s other Facebook friends.
Following the rules, Strugnell sent a message to Hodge, submitting the word “door” as his answer. Hodge informed Sturgnell that his answer was incorrect: if it’s “3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up,” the first thing you will open are your eyes.
Strugnell’s punishment for failing to solve the riddle was the same one Hodge received when he offered an incorrect answer to the person who sent him the riddle: “set [his] profile picture as a giraffe for the next three days.”
Strugnell took the opportunity and ran with it—shooting, editing, and uploading an explainer video Sunday evening. Around midnight, he created the Giraffe Riddle Facebook page, and by Monday Facebook was imposing five-minute penalty freezes to control the surge of responses. Using Typinator enabled Sturgnell to personalize about 1,000 responses a day, so he was able to handle the volume without giving the answer to the riddle away to individuals wanting to guess.
By Monday evening, he had launched a website to automate the process, and an ancient folklore tradition was successfully transposed into what is perhaps the most viral brain teaser ever to hit the Internet. On Saturday, November 2, when the next riddle is slated to post, TheGreatGiraffeChallenge.com will most likely receive more than a million unique visits.
“As folklorists have long recognized, riddles make excellent memes,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “Their textual compactness allows them to spread quickly and efficiently, and their question-and-answer format encourages the receiver of the riddle to change roles and become the transmitter.”
Ambiguity is what makes this particular riddle so interesting, he adds.
Although eyes was the right answer and door was the wrong answer in the version Hodge told Sturgnell as well as in the version Sturgnell explained in the video he posted on the Facebook page and website, not everyone shares their certainty.
“Since linguistic memes often ‘mutate’ as they travel, the phrasing of the question can change in transmission, which can in turn affect the ‘catch’ of the riddle in various ways,” says Zimmer.
When Scott Kleinberg wrote about the riddle for The Chicago Tribune, he changed the answer. Or at least, by declaring that both “door” and “eyes” were acceptable responses, he started an entirely new conversation.
In the Tribune article, Kleinberg concluded: “You open the door first. The door.” He then added: “Also acceptable is ‘your eyes.’ Makes sense at 3 a.m.”
Kleinberg’s mutation of the rule wasn’t a complete deviation from the popular responses, which were split about 50/50 between door and eyes, says Sturgnell. The fact that The Chicago Tribune had initiated and then driven the mutation, however, elicited an entirely different kind of reaction.
“I got a lot of emails thanking me and in a lot of cases calling me names and chastising me for pushing the dual-response angle,” says Kleinberg. “I think it seems easy, but it’s not really. You are given a list of stuff that you are supposed to share with parents who show up at 3 a.m. But you have to realize quickly the answer is none of those. It goes back to how you read it. Did the riddle begin before you woke up, so ‘eyes’ makes more sense, or did you interpret it as if you were already awake, in which case ‘door’ is much smarter?”
“I was informed by the person who I first saw posting the riddle that aIl had answered incorrectly, and even though I disagreed with the answer, I thought it only sporting to replace my picture,” says Jay House, executive director of the East European Folklife Center. “It seemed ridiculously easy, which is why I answered in the first place. The whole thing now seems strange to me. Like a setup or some kind of social experiment. I was annoyed by it all, almost to the point of feeling angry. When I read the article you posted saying that both ‘the door’ and ‘your eyes’ were acceptable answers, I took down the giraffe picture, even though it had been less than 24 hours since I ‘lost’ and posted the giraffe.”
“Apparently the right answer is ‘your eyes,’ but I strongly disagree,” says Hena Zuberi, editor in chief of Muslim Matters. “All my siblings gave the same answer. I am an insomniac, so my eyes would have been open at 3. Plus, I’m a Muslim. Many Muslims wake up to pray at 3. We believe it’s a time when prayers are answered.”
“The riddle definitely helps people express their personality,” Strugnell concludes. “Some will write thank-you messages for having shared something positive and light-hearted. Some will send paragraph-long descriptions of why the riddle is ‘flawed.’ Others will beg me to tell them they are wrong so that they can simply take part and be a giraffe, too.”