Friday, June 4, 2010

The Pointless, Terrifying Power of the Internet

how-to-use-the-internet Remember online petitions?  You’d plug in your modem, instruct AOL to dial *70 before dialing in, and receive a flurry of emails from your friends. 

“Go to this site and add your name to People Against Limp Bizkit.”  “Put your name on this list to bring Mother 3 stateside.”  Oh, there were surely political causes.  But in the early days of the Internet, when anonymity was the norm, it was easier to latch on to meaningless movements.

Internet anonymity also allows people to vote or “sign” for something as many times as they damn want – or write a program to do it for them.  In a Snopes.com article from 2007, Barbara Mikkelson argues that, for this reason, an e-petition (is there anything more dated than adding “e-” in front of things?) “isn’t ultimately worth the pixels it took to create it.”

So why the popularity?  Mikkelson believes e-petitions to be the newest manifestation of “slacktivism, the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without having had to actually get one’s hands dirty or open one’s wallet.”  I can see that.  A mouse click costs me no money and less time than it’d take to interface with someone about the same idea. 

But the post-Web 2.0 era is not the bandana-masked Wild West of the early Aughts.  It’s a world of linked accounts, a web of usernames and handles that can ultimately be traced back to your actual identity.  If you’ve logged into Facebook recently, your account will be active on sites like Slate or CNN.  Open a new tab and try it (just don’t forget to come back).  Your comments, your Likes and disLikes – it’s now tied to your work and education info, photo albums of you drinking with a celebrity lookalike, and your clever attempt to fill the About Me section.

If your friends join a cause, cyber peer pressure might convince you to join as well.  At the very least, it’ll clog your news feed until you can’t not form an opinion on it. 

It’s the new power of the Internet.  And it’s already getting  some…interesting results. 

Golden Gal

bettywhite_redjacket For the people who’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (how do you all fit under there?), Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live.  And it wasn’t because The Golden Girls won Sweeps Week or anything.

Facebook made it happen.

Hundreds of thousands (I can’t find the numbers to corroborate saying millions) of people “signed” a Facebook petition to make Betty White the oldest person to ever host NBC’s weekly comedy show.  And, for some bizarre reason, Lorne Michaels listened.

Maybe he’s a psychic.  After all, the Betty White episode netted SNL its best ratings since the week prior to the 2008 Presidential election.  That’s the episode that had John McCain on it, you guys.  You may remember it being a big freaking deal.

Most viewers agree that, though the episode may have lacked any fantastic writing, White’s performance was pitch-perfect.  Understandably, the staff milked the “naughty old woman” gag for all it was worth.  And she mugged through it like a champ.

Somehow, the Internet enabled an actress who should, by all accounts, be irrelevant to render SNL relevant for the first time in a year and a half.

A Travesty In Disguise

megatron Those of us in our early-to-mid 20s remember the early toy cartoons.  He-Man, Thundercats, GI Joe, and Transformers.  And since we’re the most online-savvy age group, it’s not surprise to hear the clatter of mice (or whooshing of fingers) any time someone mentions Snarf or Optimus Prime.

So when some guy promises that his sister will name her unborn baby Megatron, the only possible outcome is that the Internet will go collectively batshit insane.  Mike Affinito’s only condition before the naming can take place: the movement needed one million fans.

Affinito only needed 13 days to reach his goal.  Four months later, 1.7 million people believe his sister should name her baby after the Decepticon leader.  The kid’s not even due until August and folks are still pouring into the group.  Maybe the hilariously earnest message on the home page is bringing people in:

Megatron is a BOY! still due on August 9th as far as anyone can tell.
well, we hit the Million Mark in about 13 days.
please keep inviting people, though. the fact that it keeps growing is making my sister more comfortable with losing the bet. (still from Facebook)

Many don’t have faith in his sister’s resolve, but I’ve got faith in Affinito’s.  If his mother reneges on the wager, Megatron’s uncle will be pulling up this page as soon as the kid can read.  Elementary school will either awesome or a complete mess. 

I hope he runs for President.

A Mobilized Nation

colbert-lockwood He doesn’t operate solely on Facebook – instead he drives people to his megalomaniacal website – but Stephen Colbert’s ability to inspire millions of fans to take on absurd causes is truly amazing.

Colbert has a spider named after him.  There’s a treadmill in space with his name for an acronym.  You can buy his ice cream.  Dude had his portrait in the Smithsonian.  What ridiculous recognition for a man playing a conservative character who doesn’t know he’s a caricature.

The Internet’s played no small part in Colbert’s success.  Not only has streaming video allowed legions of viewers to catch-up on previous broadcasts and thus stay loyal and current, but his trigger-happy nation glides swiftly along the interwebs to glorify their leader.

Take “Operation Humble Kanye.”  In 2008, Comedy Central aired A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, a send-up of slash tribute to the old-timey celebrity Christmas specials of yore.  Colbert later released an album of the original music by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, which was #1 on iTunes for a hot minute.

After Mr. Voice of this Generation, of this Decade Kanye West overtook the Christmas album, Colbert launched a single-day assault on Kanye.  He commanded his legions of followers to make the album #1 on December 3 so as to beat Kanye that day.  It worked…sort of.  Colbert took the #2 spot over Kanye at #3.

Colbert’s humor is laser-precise, quick to aim and fire, and merciless.  His dedicated fans are no different.  And they all know how to use the Internet.

What Have We Accomplished?

As tacit participants in this Internet full of “e-petitions,” we put an 88-year-old Emmy winner on SNL.  We may or may not have named a child after one of Cybertron’s most feared warriors.  And we’ve put Stephen Colbert’s name on the map, almost literally

Does that amount to anything?  Is it anything more than Wikipedia pop culture syndrome?  It doesn’t plug oil leaks or feed starving children.  But it does signal a sea change.  The real world can be impacted by a large collection of mouse clicks – especially when we’re willing to attach our actual names to those clicks.

We need to train this potential energy onto more meaningful targets.  Let’s move beyond giving nobodies careers or quibbling over black Spider-Men (though, really, why the hell not?).  Let’s elect more presidents.  You know, big stuff like that.