Voted Off the Internet
Mimi, a British-born 26-year-old, is an illegal alien living in Brooklyn who writes a blog about New York's immigrant community -- and about her day job giving lapdances to Wall Street execs. Since she spends her days lying about her true status -- whether it be for her visa or her real name -- her blog has become "the only place I could actually stop lying."
Mimi has just the kind of off-kilter story that's ripe for a fleeting brush with Internet fame. And she's ready to cash in on it: she already has a literary agent, a column in the Village Voice, and an online stalker.
Now she has one more ambition: to become the Ultimate Blogger.
The Ultimate Blogger is a reality TV-style competition that began in early May and concludes June 6. The game, on the surface, sounds familiar enough: 12 people compete to be the best blogger in order to win a $500 dollar prize package. Each week consists of two challenges and two eliminations.
The winner of the challenge is determined by the game hosts and guest judges, and the winner is granted immunity for that round, noted by the "Spiritual Beard and Third Eye of Immunity" or the "Not Depressing At All Immunity Orthodontic Headgear and Braces" photoshopped onto their headshots. Then players vote off one blogger, whose headshot is put through a shredder and is asked to "leave the Internet immediately."
Until just one Ultimate Blogger remains.
And why not make a contest of it? CNN has hired two hot chicks to read from blogs on air and Publisher's Weekly regularly announces the latest blogger to land a six-figure book deal. This game is simply another sign that blogs are not just becoming an established part of the media's mainstream, but they're also succumbing to "reality," one of the most celebrated and criticized trends in mainstream culture.
The creators behind Ultimate Blogger see it as filling a void: "Blogs are very good at showing what is wrong with something, but they aren't very good at original content yet -- which is where Ultimate Blogger fits in," says Mike Merrill, one of the co-creators (along with Steve Schroeder and Jona Bechtolt) of the Ultimate Blogger.
The three former roommates are also co-founders of the Portland, Oregon-based UrbanHonking, which hosts and sponsors the contest. The site began as an online magazine in 2001 but has evolved into a blog collective. The blogs, which are given on a referral basis, include everything from a few names well known in indie circles (filmmaker Miranda July, rock critic Julianne Shepherd, performance artist Andrew Dickson) to journals written by medical students. They maintain a wait-list that sometimes spans eight months, so getting a blog on UrbanHonking can feel, as one blogger put it, like scoring a Birkin bag.
"Mike and I have always been very fond of created drama in a social setting, like staging drama between ourselves just to see how other people react," says Schroeder. Merrill interjects," In the context of a game, it doesn't have to be awkward or negative -- trashtalking is fun!"
Inspired equally by Survivor creator Mark Burnett and World Wrestling Entertainment's (formerly the World Wrestling Federation) Vince McMahon (whom they call "guiding spiritual forces"), their goal was to produce a game that could give both the viewers and contestants a health dose of interpersonal drama.
In late April they posted a call for submissions and before the week-long application window was out, they had received, much to their amazement, hundreds of applications. Initially they thought the game would consist mostly of UrbanHonking bloggers and their extended network of friends. But with applicants from all over the world, they realized the game's potential was much larger than they had imagined--and that their finalists would have to rethink their casting process. With what little info they had from the applications (sample questions: "Cats or Dogs?," "Have you ever been in a fist-fight?," "What music is playing in your own personal hell?") they looked for strong and diverse personalities.
The finalists come across as a United Colors of Benetton ad for the blogosphere:
- The aforementioned Mimi, 26, the illegal alien/stripper/girl-about-town;
- Crash, 24, the "gay guy living in Vermont" who works at a college (and succumbed to the reality clichÃƒÂ© of quitting the contest after the first week);
- Eddie, 25, a Kentucky-based journalist;
- James, 22, a film student living in Taiwan;
- Joel, 31, the unemployed self-confessed alcoholic (and brother of Ultimate Blogger creator Jona);
- Karsh, 24, an electronic media specialist in Atlanta who thought he'd be the token minority or gay guy, but was surprised to find that he was neither;
- Lois, 41, a Ph.D. candidate from Indiana;
- Lyova, 30, the "ladies man and anthropologist" from Byelorussia whose persona is suspiciously similar to the Ukranian translator Alex in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything in Illuminated;
- Medya, 19, a student who lives in Iran;
- Ritchey, 27, the token UrbanHonking representative and paralegal who wrote a rock opera;
- Sonny, 25, a first lieutenant with the US Army Infantry in Afghanistan; and
- Willow, 24, a Portland-based nanny (and friend of the creators) who aspires to be "the darling of the internet."
While the $500 prize package carries a generous helping of hipster cred -- including an iPod shuffle loaded with music from States Rights Records (owned by Schroeder and featuring Bechtolt's band YACHT) and a limited edition t-shirt from boutique software company Panic, Inc (Merrill's employer -- they're keeping everything homegrown) -- they can't promise the kind of financial payoff one expects from TV. But with 6,000 individual visitors per day, the contest can guarantee the finalists a chance at becoming online celebrities. And their fifteen minutes of fame seems to be fully in effect: Karsh and Willow have both been recognized (on his morning commute and at a party, respectively), everyone reports new visitors to their personal blogs, and a user group (whose anonymous host's identity plagues Merrill and company) breathlessly recaps each day's events.
The first challenge, which provided the simple mandate to blog about food and to not be boring, was announced on May 2 in a video that was equal parts Mission Impossible, The Apprentice, and Benny Hill. Merrill and Schroeder appear as the hosts -- Merrill is the indie Donald Trump in a pink tie and blazer to Schroeder's bearded, baseball cap wearing schlemiel -- who introduce and elucidate each challenge. As the contest wears on, the videos have gotten longer, looser, and more slapstick. Highlights have included faux infomercials (to review a new product) man-on-the-street-style interviews (interview someone), the hosts sharing breakfast in bed (take a photo that captures your feelings about morning).
"Mike, Steve and I all have an equal part in writing the video segments, then I sort of spaz out and stay up all night editing them until they feel as close to 'right' as I can get them with the limited equipment we have," sighs Bechtolt, who directs, scores, and provides the occasional cameo in the videos.
The finalists' blog entries in response to each challenge force both the judges and the audience to address the larger question of what constitutes good internet content. Is the rather dadaist video Ritchey posted of a snail crawling juxtaposed with her eating cereal better than Lyova's Nabokovesque paean to lost love? The creators are the first to admit that they've had a difficult time answering that question. "It's an agonizing process," Merrill says. "My own personal test is, 'Would I forward this on to any of my friends?'"
Unlike the heavy-handed editing that provides a coat of varnish to the content on most televised reality shows, the audience gets to see an entry the moment the contestant posts it. "You can watch their success or their downfall without any filters," Schroeder explains.
Like the reality shows that spawned the Ultimate Blogger, there are alliances formed, and broken. The players themselves form a bond that appears at once tender and cutthroat. Contestant Ritchey describes the "beautiful Japanese poem vibe" of closeness she feels to her partners in an alliance, but says at the same time, everyone involved in the game is being very honest about how they will have to betray one another when the time comes. She laughs, adding, "I really like that comic/tragic mash-up."
But since stealth and subterfuge don't translate well to blogging, there are palpable lulls in the game from the audience's perspective. Merrill acknowledges that lack of access to the strategy side of the game can be considered a downfall, but says that "what you lose in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the show, the audience gains in the way they can directly talk with the contestants -- I think it's worth the trade off."
With an opportunity for anyone -- from fan to finalist -- to comment on anything posted to the game, there is a constant Greek chorus of commentary on the sidelines. This can range from the casual compliment ("You set the bar high") to catty criticism. ("This was clearly the best entry. And by 'best' I of course mean 'most hastily assembled hunk of dog turds.'") "It seems like players and commenters are being a little nicer than it would be in a 'real' reality show because there's community pressure not to be mean," Jessica Roberts, a Portland-based blogger and fan, explains, adding, "But there actually should be more honest criticism and discussion of the entries because isn't that what the ultimate blogger is about -- finding the best blogger?"
While Ultimate Blogger is by far the most popular blog on UrbanHonking, their online community remains tight-knit. "I have thought of how our message board would feel if suddenly there were hundreds of new people who weren't part of the community," says Roberts. "I wonder if the sense of online community is particularly satisfying when mixed with at least some sense of real life community too?"
Regardless of how many new visitors stick around when the game is over, UrbanHonking is and will remain, according to Bechtolt, "made up of stuff we love that has not been filtered through the mainstream." Which is not to say that Bechtolt, Merrill, and Schroeder haven't considered dabbling in the mainstream themselves. "There has been blogs versus journalism for a while now," Merrill explains. "But Ultimate Blogger is going to compete with entertainment programming!" They would love to collaborate on a bigger project, like a TV show, but their creative vision would have to remain intact. Merrill pauses and says, "People should see something and say, 'Man, that is so UrbanHonking!'"