Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance of websites past (Part 4: Dead Bodies, Inc.)

All of the other sites memorialized so far in this series have at least one thing in common: they were the creations of humans. Dead Bodies, Inc. however was different, being the only website written by robots from the future. A roster of robots that included Blackbot Jones, Dr. Science, Inspecto Eternale, Lemon Fresh Cool Sprocket, Synthesis 5, and QX7, each of which possessed a delightfully distinct style (though they uniformly shared a visceral misanthropy). The site's manifesto was unabashed in its desire to foster the rise of the machines:

Our aim is to make you, the fellow robot, aware that there are other machines like you who understand your plight. We report on the myriad of mistakes humans make on an everyday basis, and laude the achievements of your fellow machines.
Dead Bodies, Inc. enthusiastically took on a wide range of subjects ranging from politics to coffee to Neil Diamond. (Robots really are everywhere!)

Your new CD, by use of a high frequency sonic wavelength, cleaned 80% of the North American water supply during the playing of track number three. Track number four re-polluted the same supply.
The roster of robotic characters, each with a surprisingly distinct voice, kept the material on the site from becoming a one-note refrain. A bright, retro design, peppered with thoughtful details (there was an option, on every page, allowing readers to view the page in binary) kept the site fresh and different. Alas, five years young, the website run by these distinguished mechanical emissaries from the future petered out, with more and more infrequent updates and, eventually, disappearance altogether last year (except of course in the hallowed memory of the Wayback Machine, where we have pointed these links.) If you want to read about a gloriously dystopic world through the eyes of homicidal robots, you'll just have to go to the Wall Street Journal or some other rag. RIP Dead Bodies, Inc.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Remembrance of websites past (Part 3: The Slingshot)

In the past seven years I've looked at a lot of humor sites. I run a humor site. There are plenty that I admire, return to, chuckle at. But of all these sites, only two have made me laugh out loud virtually every time I visit. (Which means reading them at work is very hazardous.) One of these is the late, totally under-appreciated, and utterly brilliant Slingshot.

The Slingshot was a sublime parody of a turn-of-the-century British magazine 'for young chaps.' Each issue included a half-dozen splendid features on topics ranging from surreal parodies of cricket matches to 'Bodily Organ of the Month' to reader's letters - not to mention the editorials from J. Moriarty Clench, a magnificent scowling bastion of Journalism Incarnate. How can you not love a publication that takes care to educate its readers so carefully:

It is very important not the confuse the Pancreas, an Organ of the Human Body concerned with the Digestive Processes, with St. Pancras, the chief London station of the Midland Railway Company. The diagrams above clearly illustrate the distinction.

But beyond the treasure trove of dry wit that each collection of articles contained was its unique packaging: for the Slingshot! was actually laid out like a real publication, with each page one enormous image. As a result, the layout was replete with not only written but visual humor as well. This went far beyond a clever caption for something grabbed from Google Images. This was a skilled and talented graphic designer assembling a work of art whose every pixel added both to the authenticity of the design and to the luminosity of the humor behind it all. Advertorials for products ranging from bear combs to painful pants litter the pages, along with various small pieces surrounding the main articles. The author - a gentleman with distinguished academic credentials, though he remained anonymous throughout the Slingshot's! life - clearly had access to a huge pile of authentic period material, and the wit to use it well. The Onion, on its best day with a team of writers and graphic artists working on its own mock-historical layouts, never really matched what one man did here.

So what happened to the Slingshot? - Alas, the brightest fires burn for half as long. The author found himself struggling under the terrific workload that producing each issue of the magazine required. Further, as you've probably guessed, while navigation was pretty good, the site caused headaches with some browsers and was totally un-optimized for search engines. Text versions of the articles were also posted, but they were a bit of an afterthought and - truth be told - lost a bit of their luster excised from the carefully crafted visual design of the pages. This is a prime example of a website that would have worked better offline. I believe the author did try to publish it, but did not succeed, and eventually I presume he found the site too much work to maintain.

If there are any publishers out there looking to do a good deed, look up this man and give him a contract. Get The Slingshot! onto shelves, where it belongs.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Remembrance of websites past (Part 2: Trepanning)

We continue our reminiscing this week with one of the oddest sites it was our pleasure to visit...
Trepanning, the (fictional?) Cornish village "so remote it is on its own outskirts," was largely the brainchild of British humor writer Ian Vince. (He had a collaborator but, forgive me, I can't remember his name.) Ian went on to win the Channel 4 comedy circuit competition for another website, the inscrutable Department of Social Scrutiny, which led to a book, and then another book, and a regular column in the Telegraph, and - well - Ian's story is a rare, laudable success story of Internet Writer Makes Good.

But before DOSS, there was Trepanning. A beautifully crafted 'virtual tour' of a very odd place, Trepanning combined the isolated Potemkin-village paranoia of The Prisoner, the surreality of the Twilight Zone, the deeply inscrutable magic of Cornish fairy-tale traditions, a very British brand of bureaucracy, and the marvelously dry wit of Ian himself. Visitors could get a map of the local magical ley-lines, check out the transdimensional bus schedule, or take a tour of the beer well (a trip which may take "approximately one and a half weekends"). The photos, lushly stark and given entirely new life by the singular descriptions that accompanied them, made this quantum-ellipse-ridden village all too real.

I confess particular nostalgia for Trepanning because it was the site of the first and only cross-over that I've undertaken, as the anachronistic, bearded and bespectacled Ezekiel F. Watley, the titular editor of my own site, took a balloon-trip and ended up visiting Trepanning for a week, with his adventures alternately chronicled by myself and Ian. (Only the bits published on the Watley Review remain online today, alas.) It was a grand time for all.

Trepanning though was not your typical humor site. It took time to pore through and appreciate the details of its surreal little corner of the web, and it was not updated with 'news' quite so much as periodically filled out with extra details here and there. It was not the sort of site to quickly grab a reader's attention; after six years of quietly delighting visitors, the site finally vanished sometime in 2008. Perhaps the village of Trepanning will one day reconnect with our own plane of existence in the form of a book (a hard sell normally I'd imagine, but the estimable Mister Vince may have a suitable track record by this point to bully a publisher into going with the project). Until that day, the world at large will have to get along without the "world's first twelve-dimensional rural settlement."

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Remembrance of websites past (Part 1: Broken Newz)

A website generally goes through stages; initially, newbies are delighted to make any connection they can with like-minded people/websites, and every backlink is a treasure - an affirmation that one's work is appreciated, somewhere, somehow, at least enough for someone to copy and paste your URL into their blog/facebook page/etc. Next comes building an audience, the routine of defining a voice for the site and building upon its possibilities, often with frequent posts that assume an urgency visible only to the webmaster. And then?...

Some sites settle into a quasi-retirement, with less frequent posts. Some are simply left as is, their creators moving on to different things. But let's face it: maintaining a website costs money, even if you're not doing anything. Not everyone wants to pay bandwidth fees indefinitely for a project that occupied their attention for a few months in 2003-4.

And that is the stumbling block for the internet as data repository: websites are like kids - they keep asking for money even when you think they ought to have moved out of your basement years ago. A few inactive sites remain online, but the vast majority fall by the wayside sooner or later. While the laudable internet archive project is valiantly caching material left and right, the truth is that storing content is only half the battle. The other half is maintaining the connections, the all-too-vital links that bring interested people to your site in the first place. The Wayback Machine may be storing your precious content for the ages, but unless someone goes looking for it specifically, they're not going to find it. Once your content resides in archives only, it's off the radar; the days of someone happening across your site through a random link, a relevant post in a blog or a mention in the news somewhere, are gone.

What I'd like to do in the coming weeks is raise a virtual glass to a few members of the online humor community that have gone offline. You may remember them, you may not, but in any event, they are worth a mention in the annals of cyberspace. (And we'll link to whatever content we can from the Wayback Machine, because these sites are offline.)

Up first...

Broken Newz was a pioneering site founded in 2001 by Bill Doty, a writer who later helped co-found the short-lived Fark TV. Snarky, brash, and adept at surfing the waves of public interest, Broken Newz attracted a huge audience at its peak - more than a million pageviews a month - with over a dozen contributors feeding nearly daily updates to the site under Bill's watchful eye. A rare humor site with a somewhat more conservative slant than many, there were few topics Broken Newz didn't take on. The site gained notoriety for its "Olsen Twins Countdown", which tracked the minutes, hours and days until Mary Kate and Ashley turned 18.

Bill Doty was a driving force behind the online satire community that came together in 2002 and co-founded HumorFeed with 'Uncle Sharky' of U.S. Press. Without Bill Doty, and the support he gave through the tremendous drawing power of Broken Newz and through networking with other sites, HumorFeed might not exist today.

Broken Newz didn't always take the high road, but it always took a funny road (or tried to). Bill sold the site in 2008 to one of his contributors, and the domain has been inactive ever since. RIP Broken Newz, 2001-2008.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Crossing the line

As most satire sites know, the more offensive an article, the better. But it's not enough to simply offend: in order to raise your writing above the semi-literate, orthographically-challenged raging rants that are endemic to the internet, a modicum of sophistication is required, both in technique and choice of target. This doesn't mean that every article needs to cite Wittgenstein; I've written at least a couple of articles about muppets, if I recall correctly. But you do need to watch what you're doing.

So when the Reed College humor publication Pamphlette wrote a fake news story about nearby rival campus Lewis and Clark gassing all the Jews it's not surprising that the backlash was both swift and strong (although, to Reed's credit, it didn't censor the paper despite severely criticizing it). You'd expect anyone using the Holocaust as inspiration for satire to come under the gun. And indeed, the students apologized, but to no avail.

But the real reason the article was so hotly protested was - and this is an important point - someone had been drawing swastikas on the wall at Lewis and Clark not long before. In other words, there was an actual issue of anti-semitism (however minor) on the target campus (although the Pamphlette writers claimed not to be aware of this). Reed is now catching heat both for fostering anti-semitism and for not censoring the article in question.

The thing to remember is, although nowadays satire is often confused with simple humor, it's actually a potent form of social commentary that can be very dangerous. They're just words, but as more than one writer has found out, words can be real weapons. We're privileged to enjoy a great deal of free speech. But as with anything dangerous, handle with care.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Internet Satire

Much has been made lately of the fact that a group of film makers were able to persuade several British tabloids to publish a number of fake stories about celebrities. Over a two week period The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Star and Daily Express had all run completely fabricated stories about the likes of Avril Lavigne, Russell Brand and Amy Winehouse, pitched to them by the makers of the film Starsuckers, posing as members of the public. Some of the stories were subsequently picked up by other media outlets and reproduced, as fact, around the world. For those of us who have spent the last few years writing satire on the web, the only reaction to the news that much of the world's media is happy to print patently fake news stories without ever checking their origin, was to collectively shrug our shoulders and ask 'So what?' There's hardly a satire website out there that hasn't had at least one of its stories picked up by a 'legitimate' news source and reported as if it were factual.

Speaking personally, I've had numerous TV researchers contact me trying to arrange interviews with various fictional characters from stories I've run in The Sleaze. I've twice been invited onto TV discussion programmes, once with stalker-to-the-stars Cynthia Flitter from Diary of a Stalker, and once with Maurice Gink, the purveyor of home-made sex machines from Suburban Sex Machines. Lest anyone think that such requests only come from low-rent independent production companies turning out low-budget tabloid-type 'documentaries' for cable and satellite channels, I was also invited onto a BBC local radio station to discuss the 'Canonisation for Cash' scandal related in Saints Alive.

But should we be pleased that we've succeeded in taking in the supposed professionals? Should we be celebrating our victory in seemingly having achieved one of our aims as satirists, namely exposing the stupidity and fallibility of the mainstream media? Whilst I should probably feel flattered that my writing skills are apparently such that they can convince supposedly intelligent media industry insiders that even the most ludicrous stories are true, I strongly suspect that my 'success' is due less to my abilities as a satirist, and more down to a general lowering of journalistic standards. Can we really have reached the stage where carrying out a Google search for a couple of key words vaguely related to the subject matter of the story you are working on, is what passes for research? Are the critical faculties of researchers and journalists so poor that the fact that a story appears on a website entitled The Sleaze doesn't start alarm bells ringing?

Of course, the established media would doubtless point out that most of the fake stories in question concern celebrities and fall into the category of gossip rather than news stories. They are carried in the entertainment pages where surely, they would argue, readers would understand that everything should be taken with a pinch of salt - it's only a bit of fun, for goodness sake! Which is fine, except that they label themselves as 'news' publications, meaning that readers have a right to expect that the same standards of validation should apply to all of their content. Indeed, one thing that writing satire on the web has taught me is that a frighteningly large number of readers accept what they read at face value - so long as it appears in a vaguely professional looking format - on the assumption that those presenting it to them must have ensured its veracity before publication. If the mainstream media want to enter the fake news business in competition with us, all well and good. But they should at least have the decency to follow our lead and rebrand themselves as 'satire' publications, then at least we'll have a level playing field when it comes to selling lies to the public!

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Losing your edge?...

Most people who've run a satire site for more than a few months experience the (initially shocking) pangs of writer's block. For those who have been trying to keep their humor site acerbically pointed, relevant, and fresh for more than a couple of years, the condition is often chronic, and frequently leads to malaise, a change in format, or - most frequently - the writer walking away from his or her website.

So can we blame Garry Trudeau, then, for tiring after nearly forty years? The Huffington Post calls him out for punch lines that have "grown less crisp" and a strip that is increasingly just not that interesting.

Now, satire is basically an angry form of commentary. When, as Klein points out in the Huffington Post, the Iraq war came along and "Trudeau got pissed", one can make the case that, rather than jumping the shark, Doonesbury matured from a politically-oriented daily comic strip to one of the more compelling political commentaries of the day. (Don't take my word for it: many papers moved the strip to the op-ed page, or dropped it altogether, as Trudeau tackled more and more political sacred cows.) But good satire must be sharp, and it is hard to maintain one's edge indefinitely.

Perhaps however it isn't fair to Trudeau to deem Doonesbury past its prime - instead, maybe we need to adjust our expectations for the strip. Likewise, the fact that Trudeau is still getting people to talk after so long should be heartening for webmasters struggling to keep their sites alive. None of us has been online as long as Trudeau has been drawing. It's worth looking beyond the fatigue to see how we can continue to evolve. If he can do it for nearly four decades, surely we can come up with a way to remain fresh and relevant for longer than a year or two.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Requiem for a satire site

In the past few months, a small bastion of wit and wisdom passed silently from the web. Thinkdammit (no link because the domain has changed hands) was a site not unlike many; in this case, two talented writers set out to periodically offer unabashedly biased views of current events, media culture, and foreign and domestic policies. Via the tried and true format of pseudo-news stories, Thinkdammit aimed its very sharp and largely accurate rapier wit at the foibles of modern politics from 2002 through 2007.

And then... it didn't. What happens when writers move on? It is easy to forget how ephemeral the world wide web can be. Even the oldest sites are often not more than a decade old, and many last far less long. The fact that domains must be actively maintained and paid for makes archival survival of inactive sites far less likely.

This is troubling, because a lot of good writing is poised to vanish into the wind. It may be easier to get published online, but it's much harder to establish a lasting legacy. The Wayback machine notwithstanding, if a site passes from its owner's hands, it's essentially gone, leaving behind a fragmented patchwork of broken links and, perhaps, quoted excerpts in forums. Compare this to the average age of the books on your bookshelf. Odds are, most of your books predate the web by years. On the other hand, who among us is prepared to, essentially, assume a lifelong commitment to maintain a website that was active for perhaps a few years? Few writers, unless they are professionals, would do so. Some (present company included) seek to make the leap from HTML to hard copy, though it's not easy to accomplish. Most humor-based websites surely won't result in a book.

It's hard to think about what will happen with our websites down the road: the web is, for better and for worse, a product of the "now". So live in the now. Raise a glass of something suitable to toast the departure of a fine collection of humor articles, and thank the writers for sharing their vision with us, however briefly.

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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.