By Stacey Richter
BEATING AROUND THE BUSH: People like to talk about the Information Age, but what about the misinformation age? The World Wide Web, like any do-it-yourself project, is full of strange, ill-conceived, misshapen sites. Many of them are diseased, abandoned or skewed. When speaking of the Web, I find it difficult not to think of the depraved, abstract-expressionist examples spiders spin under the influence of caffeine. As the Web ages and expands, pages become more confusing and outdated--even psycho--and the credibility of information on the Internet as a whole grows increasingly difficult to evaluate. I say, thank god. Because that means there's an even thinner line between fact and fiction, and we all know what that means: more and better on-line pranks.
Take, for example, www.gwbush.com. A computer programmer named Zack Exley registered that particular domain name, hoping to sell it back to the Bush camp at a profit. (Computer-savvy folk often register corporate names and sell them back to the big guys when they get around to setting up a website.) Exley decided not to sell the name to the Bush campaign when he learned that Texas Gov. George W. Bush had refused to deny using cocaine, stunned by the fact that "hundreds of thousands of people are serving very long sentences for equivalent or lesser crimes, including many in Texas."
So Exley turned the site over to RTMARK, a shadowy "content provider" that's "primarily devoted to anti-corporate activism." RTMARK seems to be dedicated to challenging the niceties of copyright law. They support entities like The Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), an art group known for switching GI Joe's voice box with Barbie's in California toy stores (much to the glee of the news media). They also produced an ersatz CD, "Deconstructing Beck," with a Beck-like sound achieved entirely independently of Beck himself.
RTMARK has done a bang-up job designing www.gwbush.com. The site looks bland, boring and patriotic. Red, white and blue overpower. There's a subtly goofy picture of G.W. Bush pointing at the future, and a variety of serious-sounding text blocks that totally skew Bush's rhetoric. Riffing on Bush's statement that his previous drug use is irrelevant, because "what matters is have you grown up, and I have," gwbush.com reports: " 'Amnesty 2000' is announced by Governor Bush: a bold new policy initiative to free all 'grown ups' from prison."
Unlike other fake news sites, like The Onion (www.theonion.com), gwbush isn't an obvious joke. The prose style, the short, bite-sized pieces of text, even the frustration of clicking on links that simply reference another set of redundant links, bespeak the numbing paucity and repetition of campaign rhetoric. No doubt plenty of people out there will be tempted to believe this stuff. George W. Bush certainly seems worried they will. He has tried to shut down the site, sending a cease and desist letter claiming gwbush.com violated copyright laws. And, like the good capitalist he is, Bush has bought up any and every domain name that might be similarly abused, including bushbites.com and bushsux.org.
Similar, yet completely different, is www.McSweeneys.net, a perplexing, dumb and occasionally brilliant send-up of the kind of confessional, soul-baring prose that blights upmarket newsstand magazines. McSweeney's is published by a former editor of Might magazine who worked at Esquire and reportedly hated it so much he started McSweeney's in order to better mock it. McSweeney's is such a relentless in-joke that it's difficult to pin down exactly what is being made fun of, but the top candidate is writing, especially magazine writing--though of course, McSweeney's is itself a magazine.
Some recent stories include: "Reviews of Bands My Friends Are In," By Kevin Guilfoile, and "The First Time I Met My Father, His Eyes Said Disappointment," by Lucy Thomas. At press time, the very funny "In Response to Harold Bloom's Introduction to the Best of the Best American Poetry" was posted, featuring a brief insult to Harold Bloom followed by a very long contributor's note listing every clever thing the author had ever said, and ruing those he had missed, in particular that "he wasn't the first to think of calling Will Smith 'The Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince.' " McSweeney's is available in a paper version with content that does not overlap with the Web version at all. The paper version seems to feature real stories by real writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, and is available for $8 from McSweeney's, 394A Ninth St., Brooklyn, NY, 11215.
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