David Cassel

When Kurt Vonnegut Met Sammy Davis

Guest post by Destiny, first appeared on 10 Zen Monkeys.

When Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five, he was 47. He'd struggled for 20 years to earn a living as an American writer, working as a public relations man for General Electric, an advertising copy writer, and even a car salesman. "All I wanted to do was support my family," Vonnegut wrote in 1999. "I didn't think I would amount to a hill of beans."

But this forgotten period of his life also includes a haunting story about television, a World War II story, and Sammy Davis Jr.

With two children, "I needed more money than GE would pay me," Vonnegut wrote in his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. "I also wanted, if possible, more self-respect." Vonnegut hoped to spend his life writing short stories for magazines, and began tapping his experiences in World War II -- and in the world that followed. But in the 1950s the magazines publishing his fiction were exterminated by the ultimate juggernaut:

Rent-a-Stalker Online?

A startling and disturbing Web site recently rose to online notoriety. It welcomes visitors with a picture of a female, shown from behind, whom it describes as the perfect woman. She's attractive, intelligent, well dressed, and "Doesn't throw tantrums. Maybe she can even skydive." But would-be suitors have a problem. "You aren't some law-breaking psycho. You can't STALK her.

"But we can."

The site, CoincidenceDesign.com, hedges that, in lieu of stalking, "We can use a clever pretext to interview roommates and classmates from her past and colleagues and girlfriends from her present. We can send an agent to check out her relatives. We can watch her apartment and squeeze information from previous boyfriends. Then, we'll design a 'COINCIDENCE'...." Love can't be bought, but "it can be nurtured and the environment to foster it can be prepared."

Surely this was a hoax, Web-surfers thought. For one thing, the information provided to register the domain name CoincidenceDesign.com didn't check out. Though its postal address was in Dallas, the phone number belonged to a Ford dealership in Davis, California (no one at the dealership had ever heard of the site). "I just typed in a number," the Webmaster behind Coincidence Design now admits -- adding that the contact name he'd provided on the registration, Jason Bourne, was also fictitious. He took it from Robert Ludlum's book "The Bourne Identity." His real name is Nick, he says, but he declines to provide a surname. "You want me to make one up?" he offers instead.

Nick's idea has its predecessors. The search for love has been a long-standing subject of parody on the Internet. One page (www.geocities.com/walters_mission) claimed it had been created by a 17-year-old Canadian named Walter, whose female classmate had agreed to help him lose his virginity if only everyone on the Internet would access his Web page one million times. Two years ago the page added a description of victory -- which concluded with "a beautiful sunrise the next morning" -- but those details have since been removed.

Another page, started in April of 1999, purported to be the log of two friends competing to see which of them could find a sexual partner first. The contest dragged on for 19 months, until it finally reached its anticlimactic conclusion. ("Ric Won.")

One spurious Web site even pretended to auction off the eggs of fashion models -- and fooled more than a few news outlets. A Web site masquerading as that of a video-store clerk stalker even drew the attention of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

But stranger things have happened for real, online. A 25-year-old Webmistress really did offer her services as an online temptress-for-hire to catch romantic partners that were cheating online. (Though her site -- Infidelity Busters -- appears to have since been discontinued.) And a touching real-life example is provided by Rod Barnett, CEO of the St. Louis company Automation Service. He created a Web site offering a bounty of $10,000 to anyone who can find him a wife. Wednesday Barnett said that over the years his call for assistant cupids has drawn 1000 voicemail messages, 25,000 emails, and 2 million unique visitors. "I talked to hundreds, met 15 over 3 years, and dated one almost 2 years -- a Delta Flight attendant. Her sister saw me in Glamour magazine, spent days reading the Web site, and then couldn't wait any longer." To show his seriousness of commitment, he says he took the Web page down during their courtship. But now -- alas -- his quest for a bride continues.

Though Barnett's efforts have themselves been parodied by sites like paintjobforagirlfriend.com and youcrazy.com/10k4aho, Barnett's search for love appears to be completely serious. He's even set up an earnest voice-mail message about the importance of taking risks. In true geek fashion, while the enterprise seems a little ham-handed and obsessive, it's colored with a touching idealism. In the message he's left out for the world, he reminds those searching for love to keep their eye on the prize.

"Remember, it doesn't matter how you meet someone. It only matters that you do..."

Precisely because some people are, in fact, prepared to go to such great lengths to find true love, it's easy for the line between reality and fiction to blur. As it does with the mysterious Nick, at Coincidence Design. Nick claims he replaced his true phone number with a fake one when his site's popularity began climbing in December. This, too, appears to be untrue, since the registration shows that phone number was input the day the site was created, 18 months ago. But putting aside questions about Nick -- is his Web site a hoax or a legitimate business?

"It's neither," Nick says artfully. "It's what I call a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I put the Web site up it didn't really exist except as an idea in my friend Kevin's mind. But right now I have forwarded to Kevin a lot of applications." (Nick then requests that the number of applications not be published.) "Nobody pays any attention to a business that has no customers. So you have to bend the truth a little bit.... You have to tell a few white lies to get to where you want to be."

Sure enough, on Monday the site described an enterprise staffed with 17 senior agents, 63 field agents, and 2 mission supervisors. By Wednesday that information had been removed, and replaced with some vague talk about a January "reorganization." Also missing was a page claiming that 37 clients had already used the service, 23 paying the full fee of $78,000 -- with 11 marriages resulting. A page detailing the company's origins was also changed. Originally it boasted that "Senior law enforcement officials, with extensive experience on a municipal and federal level, came together to form Coincidence Design under the leadership and vision of J.B., owner of a private investigation firm." By Wednesday that page described humbler beginnings. "A private investigator with extensive experience in law enforcement formed a partnership with an established entrepreneur to form Coincidence Design."

Moreover, the most dramatic claim of all had been removed. Originally a paragraph hawking the services opened with a promise that "We can bug her phone," adding that "We can go through her mail and filter her email." Tuesday those lines had also been taken out. "That was just to get a little bit of attention," says Nick. Though he claims that his friend Kevin does have the technical ability to install a phone tap.

The changes seem to stem from the site's sudden burst of popularity in mid-December. Dori Mondon, a 28 year-old performer in Brooklyn, runs a Web-log called SaranWarp.com which links to other interesting sites on the Web. She spotted the address for Coincidence Design on a mailing list for a group of campers at the yearly Burning Man festival. An even more popular Web-log named Metafilter publicized Mondon's discovery, and soon Coincidence Design had been linked to by 80 other Web-logs, though some identified the site only with cryptic or sardonic phrases. ("Maybe she can even sky dive.")

"People felt compelled to link to it," says Mondon, "probably, because it was creepy, whether it was a hoax or not!" Last week, Nick says, Coincidence Design received 110,000 hits. It's also been discussed in nearly 100 posts on Internet newsgroups, though some with skeptical subject lines like "Rent-A-Stalker." ("For when you're too rich to do the stalking yourself...")

Meanwhile on a discussion board on Metafilter, they picked over the details. ("I find it pretty fascinating that this cabal of investigators making 8-40 grand a pop from each of their alleged 37 clients, only paid $14.95 for their domain hosting.") And eventually someone spotted a tell-tale clue. Coincidence Design credited its appearance to "Saber Works" -- a company which listed only one other client, a site called Sensation Zone. Billing itself as "the hi-tech dot.com culmination of the free love movement of the Sixties," Sensation Zone offered an even more unlikely service: a building where anonymous strangers could pair up in the dark.

"[W]hat is usually a haphazard process involving risk-taking, alcohol, and post-coital regret has been made safe, simple, and enjoyable through an emphasis on privacy, hygiene and enhancement of the tactile sense," the site boasted. A detailed description of the site's philosophy even included a floor plan of the building. ("Complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and light snacks are available.") Only when readers correctly performed a series of four mathematical equations did they arrive at the page explaining that site's true intentions. "This purpose of this Web site is actually to seek investment for The Sensation Zone Incorporated... If you and others do, the Sensation Zone will come into being sooner than you think."

Nick said he was a spokesperson for Saber Works, though he declined to call himself a Web designer (saying his true profession is "none of your business"). And he argues that Sensation Zone, like Coincidence Design, is not a hoax. "Sensation Zone is exactly what it says it is," Webmaster Nick explained Tuesday. "It's an attempt to garner investment for a business that doesn't exist."

But still more unlikely sites turned up. The tireless investigators at Metafilter discovered an earlier version of the Saber Works page which listed additional Web projects. "Hello there! I'm Ryuzo, a Japanese drunk," read the text beside a smiling head-shot. "Not just any old drunk, though -- I'm a professional drunk." The motto of Japanese Drunk, Inc. -- JapaneseDrunk.com -- was "Inebriated, Inspired, and Incorporated," and it offered its services generating clever names for corporate products.

Why would a company trust its naming requirements to a man whose primary qualifications appeared to be his Japanese nationality and penchant for drink? "Well, for one thing, we Japanese are surprisingly good at thinking up original names," the site explains, "maybe because our English is bad and we are unfettered by the restraint of having to use the language correctly." (For an automobile manufacturer, "Ryuzo" suggests the slogan "We build unleashability.") Like the earlier sites, there's a pitch for money. "I'm a simple guy," Ryuzo writes. "All I need to be happy is French cognac and an excuse to drink it, in the form of naming work. So my rates are reasonable...."

Webmaster Nick denies that Japanese Drunk is a parody, saying he provides the naming services himself. (Though "The picture is artistic license, it's not me.") He also claims he actually has been hired to name some products, though characteristically, he then refuses to provide additional details. "I have changed some names, it's mostly true." Which part is true? "I can't tell you that."

And then there's the Clones-R-Us site. "Ordering a clone has never been easier!" the site promises, offering "unbeatable prices" and describing the operation in exhaustive detail. It even cites gene-licensing agreements for clones of beauty queens from Greece, India, Japan, Zaire, as well as specific celebrities like Cindy Crawford ($79,999) and "early Michael Jackson" ($299). There's an order form -- Mastercard or Visa? -- along with a check-box where prospective buyers must acknowledge an awareness of the risks. "Yes, I know that Dream Technologies International is not responsible if the clone turns into a grossly overweight, anti-social, undisciplined slob."

But this Web page identified itself as a parody from the very beginning, Nick argues. "As you've hopefully realized, this site is a spoof site," one page advises, "which simulates one possible ramification from advances in cloning science..." Elsewhere, it adds that "DreamTech attorneys cannot be held liable for any physical or mental anguish which may or may not have been caused by reading legal documentation in tiny typeface."

Nick protests that his serious business ventures are being tarnished by being lumped together with spoof sites. He asks that no disrespect be directed to a final Saber Works Web site, which described a plan to address needs for start-up capital in the impoverished Philippines. ("It's very simple," the site explained. "When you come to the cockfight, you hand over your money and our roaming bank officer puts it in a bank account in your name...") Yes, he admits, the site about cloning was a parody. And "You can dis Japanese Drunk too, that's not been getting much business. Since the recession...."

Why so serious about Coincidence Design? One possible explanation is that its services are advertised at a whopping $78,000 a pop, and Nick now claims he's weeding through the responses for serious offers. "I'm surprised a business such as this doesn't exist already," he says, adding that he's working on "fulfillment capabilities." The site already includes a Help Wanted ad that asks "Are you a licensed and experienced private investigator? If so, why not work with us, on a free-lance basis..."

And since curious surfers have been following the page's links to the Saber Works page, which leads to the Sensation Zone page, Nick says he genuinely hopes the site could generate a critical mass of investors.

And if that doesn't pan out, Nick says -- he's working on some new Web sites.

David Cassel is a freelance writer who is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.

Phoney Bomb Humor Fools Taliban?

An abandoned Taliban building in Kabul contained an alarming document that apparently described how to make an atomic bomb. But alarm turned to laughter when a webmaster who'd viewed news footage of the document recognized it as a 1979 parody.

"Since last week's column, 'Let's Make a Time Machine', was received so well in the new step-by-step format, this month's column will follow the same format," one section begins.

The article first appeared in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which has been publishing scientific humor and trivia since the 1950s, and Taliban fighters would find this particular parody no more helpful than any of the magazine's other mock science. It advised would-be bomb builders to obtain high-grade plutonium "at your local weapons supplier ... or perhaps the Junior Achievement in your neighborhood ... Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling the material, and don't allow your children or pets to play in it or eat it."

"Any left over Plutonium dust is excellent as an insect repellant. You may wish to keep the substance in a lead box if you can find one in your local junk yard, but an old coffee can will do nicely."

Nevertheless, late last week white-haired BBC reporter John Simpson included footage of the document in a report from the building, along with pictures of left-behind weapons, explosives, hand grenades and even box-cutters. Anthony Lloyd, a reporter from the Times of London also appears to have discovered the document, since he refers to its erroneous instructions about using TNT to create a thermo-nuclear device. "The vernacular quickly spun out of my comprehension but there were phrases through the mass of chemical symbols and physics jargon that anyone could understand," Lloyd wrote. Soon the Times report was being included in articles by the Associated Press.

"I started laughing very hard..." says a 30-something computer professional in Connecticut who goes by the name of CyberGeek. After seeing the BBC's report, he'd searched for the document on the Internet, and identified it as a 1979 parody from the Journal of Irreproducible Results. "It's nice to find that your enemies are slightly incompetent..." he said in an interview Saturday. "I'd love to see bin Laden's face when he hears he's been financing terrorists to surf the net for useless info." CyberGeek forwarded his find to a mailing list of computer enthusiasts, where it was picked up by his friend Jason Scott and documented Friday on the popular Web site Rotten.com. Reached Saturday, Scott pointed out another irony of the phoney essay on making bombs.

"[It] seemed to show a number of lines and notes around it -- meaning they were studying it!"

Reached for comment, the editor of the 1979 piece says he's always surprised when one of their articles is taken seriously. "This has happened before and given us a good laugh," remembers Harry J. Lipkin. "I wonder whether the Taliban really took the article seriously?" Marc Abrahams, a later editor at the magazine, sees another lesson. "Absolutely anything, if it's just worded in a mildly plausible way -- so many people are intimidated by anything technical that they just won't read it carefully!"

In a strange twist, the Times report was addressed in a Thursday press conference by Governor Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security. Ridge referred to the discovery of "materials relative to a nuclear threat" and said they were "certainly consistent with [bin Laden] statements that he would like to acquire that capacity."

"It is not to say, it does not confirm that he has the capacity," Ridge told the reporters. "It just says that whether it's bin Laden or some other potential foe of this country, we have to be prepared for all eventualities, including a nuclear threat." But CyberGeek thinks U.S. security officials may know more than they're letting on.

"Last week, I saw Donald Rumsfeld being asked about possible nuclear terrorism, and he seemed to be just a bit too smiley. I bet he and the guys at the Pentagon are having a good laugh."

The BBC stands behind their report. "As far as we are concerned there was no error in the broadcast," emailed Chris Reed, Media Relations Manager at the BBC's corporate press office. "Simpson reported exactly what he saw and did not conclude anything about the veracity of the documents on the floor. He just said that they were there and what they described." Simpson had also reported the discovery of notes on building a missile and the name of a powerful KGB poison, concluding only that the documents "show how dangerous bin Laden's Al Qaeda network aspired to be." His report ended with this disclaimer. "Maybe the really dangerous-sounding documents on nuclear fission and missiles were just fantasy. But we can't yet be absolutely sure."

And the Times of London had also reported the presence of other information in the building. Though they couldn't be reached for a comment, their original article had ended with an inadvertent defense. "This was only what was left behind by frightened men escaping the advance of the Mujahidin. The sensitive material is still with them."

The presence of a parody leaves questions hanging over reports from Kabul, says the humor journal's former editor Marc Abrahams. "It's more evidence -- as if more were needed -- that you might not want to believe everything that you read in the newspapers and see on the TV...." In fact, after assembling a collection of over 100,000 text files, Rotten.com contributor Jason Scott has concluded that the scope of the misunderstanding may stretch even further. "If somebody thought they saw nuclear bomb plans on the Internet, they probably saw this one." And Saturday when CyberGeek spotted CNN scrolling text below their newscasters saying a CNN team in Kabul had found nuclear documents in a Taliban safehouse, his reaction was a sarcastic "Sure they did."

"As [CNN anchor Christiane] Amanpour says, it's likely all public domain info. Also likely that they got at least some of it off of websites created by adolescents."

CyberGeek recognizes the dangers of terrorism. He says a relative had had an appointment at the World Trade Center scheduled for Sept. 12. But he also believes the news media's attention to a harmless parody should serve as a reminder. "When you read something, use a little critical thinking. Do some research on it -- especially for the guys reporting on it.... It's really HARD to make a bomb, you need thousands of skilled people for several years. Chemists, metallurgists, phycisists, engineers. Only a developed country can do it."

But the episode leaves Abrahams -- now an editor at the equally sardonic Annals of Improbable Research -- wondering what humor piece will become the next object of controversy. "I've had a number of people who warn me the Taliban might be out to get me for a piece I wrote a few years ago -- ' Feline Reactions to Bearded Men ' -- which is also all over the Internet ... Is this the Taliban's next area of concern?" Sunday he updated the 1991 confection of pseudo-science with a photograph of a cat being used as a test subject by being held up to a picture of Osama bin Laden. "We caution that these results are still preliminary," the article jokes.

But however it plays out, there remains the predictible reaction when a fake atom bomb recipe from 22 years ago has suddenly risen online to a second notoriety: laughter and relief. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words downloaded from the Internet will never hurt me," Abraham quips. And Rotten.com's Jason Scott may have crafted the perfect epitaph with his article's New York Post-style headline.

"Taliban Thwarted by Irreproducible Result."

David Cassel is a freelance writer living in Oakland. He is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.

America Responds to Hoaxes

Three nights after the World Trade Center attacks, countless Americans across the country stood in the darkness, holding candles. "NASA has asked that everyone step out on their lawns tonight and light a candle," an email had informed them. "They will be positioning a satellite to take a picture of the U.S. and posting it on the news tomorrow morning." Though the email was a hoax, people across the country stood in the darkness with lit candles, convinced they were part of something larger. And of course, they were. America's response to the overwhelming flood of information -- and misinformation -- which followed in the wake of September 11.

"I think that we're working through some tremendous changes in our country," remembers Steve Knagg. "A lot of the information that we first received about the bombings, things the next day, two days later, you'd find out were completely wrong." But the problem may not be too little information, but too much. "I don't think it's intentional by the media to mislead anyone. I just think that with this much news breaking this quickly it must be exceedingly difficult to get it right the first time every time."

Knagg has some experience at his job as Communications Director for the Garland Independent school district in a suburb of Texas. A fifth-grade student there had told their teacher -- the day before the attacks -- that World War III would be started in the United States on Sept. 11. "That was the intial report we got," Knagg remembers. It illustrates how the attacks magnified the significance of the otherwise trivial -- including even the words of 11-year-olds. The teacher hadn't thought much of it at the time. ("That was a different world on the 10th," remembers Knagg.) But after the attacks, confronted with remarks that seemed strangely prophetic, the school contacted the FBI. "When we hear something like that, we want it investigated," Knagg explains. "We want to know. The world's just that weird now." And there was one more twist to the story. "The boy was living in an apartment complex in our district that was scheduled for renovation, so EVERYBODY there had to move out a week after the bombing in New York and find a different place to live. So the story went out that now the kid has disappeared!"

"That's not what happened; his parents just moved to some other district in the Dallas area."

But after further investigation, the events seemed less dramatic. "The teacher was not completely convinced she remembered the boy saying that World War III would start TOMORROW," says Knagg, "which kind of changes the newsworthiness of the story!" Last week the FBI's investigators concluded there was nothing there, the Houston Chronicle reported. And Knagg points out the ultimate irony. Since news accounts of the "prophecy" didn't run in the Dallas newspaper -- just a few radio reports, and one on TV -- "I'm still not sure today if the student and the parents are even aware that this story has been written!"

Some misinformation can be even more disturbing. The New York Times reported that in the wake of the attacks hundreds of New Yorkers received an email claiming (falsely) that the city's water might be poisoned. Days later the Times reported on false bomb threats and other hoaxes that had required the Sears Tower be evacauted. The L.A. Times uncovered even more disturbing rumors in Pakistan. The paper estimates millions in the badly-educated and often illiterate population of Pakistan subscribe to a variety of counter-theories about the World Trade Center attacks -- that the buildings were struck by empty airplanes flown by remote control. That 4,000 Jews were forewarned, and avoided the building that day. Some theorists even pointed the finger at Al Gore.

But when it comes to run-of-the-mill urban legends, the Internet has been involved in their promulgating and their debunking. After the attacks emails circulated with claims that Nostradomus himself had prophesied the event as the beginning of World War III. ("In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb.") But a hoax-debunking Web site was already on the case, noting that the first problem with the prophesy was it wasn't written by Nostradomus. Instead, a few years ago, a Canadian student penned it to illustrate how vague Nostradomus's own predictions were.

"If you make enough prophecies and are intelligent enough to word them in such a way that they are abstract, you become instant future see-er person," he'd written sarcastically. The remainder of his essay mocked the 16th-century mystic. "I was watching a 1970s movie on Nostradamus and it predicted that the Third World War began in 1994 ... I am holding my breath. Oh no!"

But then the current of information took a strange turn. Though the student's Web page was intended to debunk Nostradomus, instead his phoney prediction was circulated around the Internet -- along with additional bogus details like "On the 11th day of the 9 month, two metal birds will crash into two tall statues in the new city -- and the world will end soon after." The address for his Web site was included with the email -- and eventually, his essay had to be relocated. The email hoax had drawn so many people to his Web page that "the increased load on this server was seriously degrading the University's Internet access!"

The hoax-debunkers at Snopes.com eventually agreed to host the student's essay -- as part of their round-up of the recent urban legends. The site's co-founder, Barbara Mikkelson, sees a pattern to the rumors that are floating around; they give voice to an almost emotional need. "We're seeing stories that have to do with our need to try to impose a sense of order. That's why we're seeing stories about prophecies and foreknowlege..." True or not, people want to believe them. "We're looking for some miracles as well, the idea that maybe there is a divine hand at work in some of it, which is why we're going to cling to some stories like the unburned bible in the Pentagon."

USA Today reported that while searching the Pentagon wreckage, an army sergeant found a stool still standing amid the rubble supporting a book fellow searchers said was a Bible. "It was not burned. Nor was anything around it or on the two floors above it." Mikkelson spoke to a friend who works at the Pentagon who photographed the book, and confirmed with other sources that the book was a dictionary.

Photographs aren't always accurate either, but many couldn't resist forwarding the riveting image of an ordinary-looking tourist on an observation deck high above the city -- just as an airplane in the background flew directly toward the building below him. "It apparently captures the last fraction of a second of this man's life," an essay on Snopes.com notes, "and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us ... Though the picture wasn't real, the emotions it stirred up were. It is because of these emotions the photo has sped from inbox to inbox with the speed that it has. " It turns out there's a number of reasons the photograph isn't an accurate depiction. The plane is approaching the towers from the wrong direction, and, in fact, it's the wrong type of airplane.

Soon the discovery of the photograph's inauthenticity led to laughter. People began creating their own fake photo photographs of the unlucky tourist. But this time, he was fleeing from the sinking Titanic. In one photo he even appeared in Tokyo just as it suffered another attack from Godzilla. Each photo reinforced the mesage of just how easily a photo can be fabricated -- and gave viewers a chance to laugh at the credulity in all of us. Friday that delight was consecrated into permanent web pages for the cult figure, and in the first five days over 10,000 people accessed TouristofDeath.com. "Who is this man?" its Web master joked. "And why does he cause so much trouble wherever he appears?"

Crediting Internet culture sites like Off-Topic.net and Fark.com, the Web master tries to explain the craze. "The shock-value of the first image inspired the original copycats ... which were very good and VERY humourous. As a result ... everyone and their uncle started pumping the things out, having a snowball effect." (Another web site -- TheTouristGuy.com -- appears to have racked up nearly 60,000 visits in its first week.)

There have been other attempts to parody misinformation. "The President has asked that we unite for a common cause," begins one email archived at Snopes.com. "Since the hardline Islamic people cannot stand nudity, and consider it a sin to see a naked woman that is not their wife, tonight at 7:00 all women should run out of their house naked to help weed out the terrorists.

"The United States appreciates your efforts."

Snopes.com's Mikkelson urges skepticism of stories that seem unusually compelling -- but at the same time, some of them turn out to be true. Passengers on a United Airlines flight really did receive a stirring speech from the pilot instructing them on how to stand up to terrorists. "If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together. Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them..."

"It perfectly fit exactly what people needed to feel right now," says Mikkelson. "We've been feeling helpless in the face of terrorism, but here's the answer. If we all stand up to it together, we can handle this. We can make sense of this. We can reduce it back to something that can be dealt with..."

Sharing the stories -- online and offline -- gives people a way to come together and sort out their emotions, says Mikkelson, whether the stories themselves are true or false. "It's a way of performing a reality check with those around us..." says Mikkelson. "It's a way of saying this affected me this way; did you feel that too?"

And the stories come from all walks of life. The morning of the attacks movie star Jackie Chan really was scheduled to begin filming a movie at the World Trade Center, according to Singapore's Straits Times. Chan told the paper he was playing a window washer at the Trade Center who fights terrorists bent on blowing up the Statue of Liberty. "As I had to be at the top of one of the towers for one of the scenes, I would probably have died if the shooting went ahead as planned!"

The strange coincidence was picked up by other media outlets -- all citing the same Singapore newspaper account. But much of the story's impact depends on when the schedule change was made for Chan's movie "Nosebleed" -- a crucial fact omitted from the original news item. "The fact of the matter is that 'Nosebleed' was not going to be made for a long time, if ever," one skeptical poster argued in an Internet newsgroup called alt.movies.jackie-chan, "so there's no way there's any truth to this rumor."

There seems to be an increased willingness to acccept morbid stories. This weekend a prankster recycled a fake page mimicking CNN's Web site and reporting that Britney Spears had died. Observers reported the page linked to a mail system at the real CNN.com, where a software glitch ultimately inserted the hoax page onto CNN's list of its own most popular stories.

But the answer to misinformation seems to be more information. Chan recounts his memory of Sept. 11 on his personal Web site. "We crowded around the small TV and watched in horror. Crew members cried at the sight of all those innocent lives destroyed in minutes, myself included. I don't remember what I did for the rest of the day..."

"The real heroes in our communities emerged during this time of crisis. The firemen, policemen and rescue workers sacrificed and risked their lives, helping and saving those in need."

The Internet seems to be serving another function now, granting a forum for emotions. Actor Larry Bagbay, a recurring character on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is distributing a gentle song called "America Stands Tall" on his Web page. ("The dream lives on, Though our heavy hearts are torn. Though buildings fall. America Stands Tall.") The heavy metal band Jackyl is distributing their own song, threatening angry retaliation on the attack's perpetrators. Even the bottom of the humor page with photos of "the tourist guy" is decorated with images of "support freedom" ribbons that lead to a Web site for real relief-agency donations.

But it's important to remember that the outpouring of good will is also creating tempting targets for con artists. "Within hours of the towers coming down, there were scams afoot on the Internet," says Snopes.com's Mikkelson. "A number of them were straightforward -- 'Hi! I'm collecting money for the widows of the firemen. Send ME your money, and I'll make sure they get it!'" Another claimed to be from a band of Estonian hackers who will ferret out the location of Osama bin Laden as soon as $160,000 is wired into their bank account.

"In the immediate wake of the tragedy, everybody felt the overpowering impulse to do something -- and it was that that was being played upon."

David Cassel is a freelance writer living in Oakland. He is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.

Bert Leaves Sesame Street for bin Laden?

Yesterday protesters in Bangladesh waved signs supporting Osama bin Laden, some bearing collages of photographs. In one of the pictures, bin Laden is seen standing next to the Sesame Street muppet Bert.

There was no mistake; the muppet is clearly visible in photos from both the Associated Press and Reuters.

Bert's journey to the Bangladesh protest sign began in 1997 with an unsuspecting young web developer named Dino Ignacio. He was simply a fan of the funny web sites that appeared in the "Weird Wide Web" section of Internet Underground magazine (which stopped publishing later that year.) Innocently enough, Ignacio had had an idea for a funny site of his own. "I collected pictures of Bert from the net and my neice's books and manipulated them and ended up with something that made my friends laugh," he says in an online biography. His site purported to expose the black-haired muppet's unsavory past, Photoshopping the innocent muppet into pictures with notorious figures of the twentieth century. (Bert with Hitler, Bert at Dealy Plaza, even one depicting Bert as Ted Kaczynski.) "I figured it just might make other people laugh," Ignacio wrote. He realized his goal of being mentioned in Internet Underground magazine before its demise in 1997 -- and the "Bert is Evil" page eventually also won a "Webby" award. "With all the recognition this site has gotten, we are still wondering when the Children's Television Workshop will sue us," he jokes.

At least twenty other web sites began mirroring Ignacio's efforts to keep the parody online -- which is how Bert ended up standing next to Osama bin Laden. A duplicate site run by Dennis Pozniak created additional images of the muppet. They depicted Bert outside the bombed U.S. embassy in Tanzania, one showing Bert with the Jon Benet Ramsey family -- and, yes, one where the puppet stands next to Osama bin Laden. ("U.S officials have not been able to talk to Bert about this possible connection cause of His Muppet Immunity," the webmaster quipped.) The photo -- credited to Jeroen Meeuwissen -- was created well in advance of the World Trade Center attacks, and it went largely unnoticed. A single newsgroup post in 1999 argued the photo proved Osama bin Laden was actually a Puerto Rican actor, who he claimed he remembered seeing in a PBS special titled "The Sesame Street Caper - Ernie's Missing." His theory was that the actor was a small-time religious charlatan -- "The guy pulls all kinds of scams" -- but his reputation as a terrorist was the fabrication of the CIA and an anti-Muslim media.

Two years later, the strange twist occurs. AP photos of protests in Bangladesh both Friday and Tuesday clearly capture the Bert-with-Osama image in one sign's collage of photos. San Francisco graphic designer Matthew Alexander theorizes that the propagandists found the picture through an interet search. (Users searching for "Osama bin Laden" with the image search engine at Google.com discover it's the twelfth picture on the page.) "I mean, seriously, how much PBS do people get to watch in Kabul?" the designer jokes -- and his explanation is echoed by others online. "[T]hese protesters obviously made their bin Laden sign from a bunch of pictures printed off the web," theorized the webmaster at Ernie's House of Whoopass, "which is a clever idea, except for the fact that they ****ing used a parody one with Sesame Street's Bert still in it. Duh."

It came as quite a shock to the author of the first Bert parody page. Yesterday on his site he added a copy of the image from the later pages -- and posted his response. "I just wanted to say I had nothing to do with this!" He'd been mailed copies of the image "countless" times since September 11 -- and Monday had been notified that it turned up on protest signs in Bangladesh. "I am honestly freaked out," he wrote. "Reality is imitating the Web!" He asked his readers to send him a copy of the poster if they find one -- and added the words "Muppets at War" to the image. On the mirror site where the image first appeared, the webmaster went even further. He replaced the picture with an announcement saying it was being removed "Out of respect for those who died on 9/11/2001 at the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon." It then includes a link for online contributions to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Subsequent AP photos turned up the same collage without the Muppet. "My theory is that AP is trying to cover up this thing with the edited Bert-free image," one web discussion quotes webmaster Ignacio as saying -- but a follow-up post theorizes the protesters had simply been spotted carrying a second, corrected version of the poster.

But mostly the incident has prompted laughter "Ernie's finally driven him over the edge," one observer joked in the alt.conspiracy newsgroup. "I knew this day would come." And on an online discussion site, users pondered the irony of the photo. "After all they've done to eradicate the west from their country too," one joked, "Bert manages to sneak onto thousands of posters...!" Another pointed out a New York Post story reporting that in a videotape released this week, bin Laden appeared to be wearing a Timex wrist watch.

And one prankster even inserted Bert's mugshot into a wall of Wanted posters.

David Cassel is a freelance writer living in Oakland. He is currently writing a book about internet hoaxes.

Hacktivism in the Cyberstreets

In early May an activist calling himself "Reverend Billy" called for thousands of computer owners to fire up their modems for an assault on Starbucks. From unseen corners of the globe, they'd converge on the company's Web site -- hoping to overload it.

Though the media portrays hackers as secretive, destructive intruders, some individuals and groups are openly committing online attacks in the name of furthering specific causes. It can be a symbolic massing on a Web page which, with enough participants, makes it inaccessible to others -- or more invasive "monkey-wrenching" to disable a site's equipment. Others just want to bypass government restrictions they see as unfair. But they're all trying to fuse their passions to their technology, using the power of the Internet to discover new forms of social protest.

In December a group called the Electrohippies (www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/ehippies) organized a "WTO virtual sit-in" that overloaded the machines keeping the World Trade Organization's Web pages on the Internet. The five U.K. activists estimate that over 452,000 people swamped the site. (During the action the group says participants sent them up to 900 e-mails each day.) Paul Mobbs, the group's co-founder and media liaison, says they accomplished their goal -- disrupting the World Trade Organization's online presence for four- to five-hour stretches -- and reduced that site's overall speed by half.

In April the group launched an even more ambitious series of events protesting genetically modified crops. If you had a computer equipped with a modem, you were already a potential co-activist in their radical action. A surprise "special action" began April Fool's Day with the media-friendly name "Resistance is Fertile." The Electrohippies called for an e-mail campaign from the 3rd to the 7th targeting 78 officials listed on the Hippies' Web site, including U.S. Department of Agriculture communications official Vic Powell -- to build public pressure against genetically modified foods. But the tactics remain so controversial that they called off their main event that had been scheduled for the next week -- "an email and client-side denial of service extravaganza" -- after an online vote for the action failed to muster a simple majority.

Symbolism vs. Damage

It's a new breed of activism -- wired and confrontational. Some question whether it's really a desirable form of protest, but the Electrohippies are hoping to defuse criticism by popularizing not just their tools, but a code of ethics. They publicized their intentions before the attack -- and also issued a lengthy paper on the philosophy of it. "These type of actions are directly analogous to the type of demonstrations that take place across the world," read "Occasional Paper No. 1." The group has always argued that the large numbers needed to have an impact mean a "democratic guarantee" is inherent in the technique. "One or two people do not make a valid demonstration," their Web site argues. "100,000 people do ... If there are not enough people supporting then the action it doesn't work."

They're seeking nothing less than a world where e-commerce is balanced by e-protest -- or at least, where cyberspace isn't immune from public pressure. Henry David Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" is displayed prominently on the group's Web site -- surviving 152 years only to be taken up by Internet activists. But Mobbs acknowledges that much of the practical theory began with various U.S. groups like the Electronic Disturbance Theatre who were supporting the Zapatista National Liberation Army in 1998. Using tactics hardly more complicated than repeatedly hitting the button on a Web browser to reload a Web page, the group created a form of activism that was also part poetry. It was often, as one Web site described it, "a symbolic gesture created to increase awareness about the low intensity war in Chiapas, Mexico." Together four activists, calling themselves an internet performance art group, had created a Web interface that would access the page for Mexico's President Zedillo seeking bogus addresses, so the browser would return messages like "human_rights not found on this server." The project -- which they dubbed "FloodNet" (www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ZapTact.html) -- also filled the page's access log with the names of people killed by government troops. "In an artistic sense, this is a way of remembering and honoring those who gave their lives in defense of their freedom," Ricardo Dominguez wrote in an online remembrance. There were nine actions between April and December of 1998, adds Boston-based hactivist Carmin Karasic, culminating with a mass action on the Web site for the Mexican Stock Exchange.

But were the actions effective? Yes, Dominguez argued -- measured not by their technical effect on the targeted sites, but by the attention they brought to the Zapatistas. The Web site for their Electronic Disturbance Theatre points out that their activism tool -- which the group released in early 1999 to sow more online activism -- "emerged from and serves a community which genuinely requires the development of such attention weapons as a matter survival." Other online documents describe their actions as a show of presence that sends the Mexican government a message: "We are numerous, alert, and watching carefully."

The technique is now becoming more common. Attackers used a variation in February for overwhelming assaults on several high-profile sites including Yahoo and CNN, and in mid-March, a similar attack temporarily disabled the Web site for the FBI. But like the protests of the Electrohippies, Karasic argues that FloodNet's action only drew its validity from the number of people showing support. "It was only actualized through thousands and thousands of participants," she remembers. "It was meaningless without the masses." Popular support transforms a random act of vandalism into a show of presence, Karasic argues. "This is an important difference between the single hacker/hacktivist who takes down a server with a single script."

For hacktivists, damage is often less important than symbolism. Reverend Billy's early May action against the Starbucks site had almost no noticeable affect, according to some observers. "Whenever ... I, myself, went to visit starbucks.com -- I did not have any trouble accessing them," concedes Ricardo Dominguez, whose group supported the action. But that's almost beside the point. "The true goal of the action is to generate focus on the issue of [Starbucks] policy to take over neighborhoods with its loss leader branding." Announcements for the action even included information about Zapatista settlements in Mexico facing an ominous military presence. "The Zapatista communities now have as many military camps around as we have StarBucks in Manhattan," says Dominguez, who feels the action helped their effort "to spread to levels of information about our world under the signs of Neo-liberalism."

A Bad Idea?

The Electrohippies' Paul Mobbs agrees, cautioning that groups overloading e-commerce sites shouldn't be over-malicious. "If you want to be effective, it's more justifiable to disrupt a server for one day and make your point, rather than drag the action on for a few days and cause more generalized disruption."

The tactics aren't universally supported. "The Electrohippies are trying to rationalize Denial of Service attacks and violate the First Amendment privileges of their opponents," wrote a hacker named Oxblood Ruffin, in an essay which the Electrohippies agreed to display on their Web site (www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/ehippies/files/op1-cdc.htm). And the discussion continues elsewhere on the Internet. The Hacktivism mailing list (hacktivism.tao.ca) -- an e-mail discussion list started last summer to grapple with this combination of hacking and activism -- has carried debate about whether such attacks are nothing more than glorified censorship, with activists simply hampering the opposing side's right to speak. But there's not a clear consensus. "It depends on the target," one message countered during the list's first weeks last summer. "In many cases there is not a level playing field, especially when the opponent is a large corporation or government." Some even argue that this evolution may have been inevitable. "For us the idea of hackers as activists seemed obvious," says a spokesman for RTMark, an online collective distributing funds globally for anti-corporate activities. "Too many were becoming experts in defending corporate privacy rights rather than using their skills to fight those rights and others."

By the fall of 1998, Wired News reported that a group called X-Pilot had even re-written text on the Mexican government's Web site. Such incidents offer evidence that groups and individuals sometimes move beyond overloading the machines hosting Web pages. Attacks can be more technical -- more hack than activism -- raising again the issue of just how far an online protest should go.

Oxblood Ruffin -- whom some credit for coining the word "hacktivism" -- notes one Hong Kong group of hacktivists called the Hong Kong Blondes now number over 100 members, many with positions within China's communist party. Reached recently for a comment, he added that he now distinguishes between hacktivism and simple "[h]activism". "The former seeks to remedy the net of bad code, restriction, lack of access, etc.; the latter seeks to use the net as an agent for social justice on the ground through various protest actions, or as a publicity medium." He says the distinction is important for assessing groups online. "There is more [h]activism than hacktivism," he writes. "The Electrohippies are starting to get into electronic civil disobedience, although I very much disagree with their methodology." In contrast, he points out that his own group is currently working on a way to e-mail Chinese Internet users Web pages that are officially banned by their government.

Meanwhile, Hacker Web sites like 2600.com and AntiOnline preserve screenshots of dozens of Web sites that they've learned were compromised and re-written. Attackers sometimes leave only vain blustering with a pastiche of names -- a kind of online graffiti. But in other instances, there's an unmistakable message. Earlier in 1998 a hacker broke into the system of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay, India, changing their Web page into a protest of India's nuclear weapons tests, as well as stealing their e-mail. The Electronic Disturbance Theatre issued a statement of support for the hacker's actions, and despite the hands-on approach, even the leader of the Hong Kong Blondes applauded the action in an online interview conducted by Oxblood Ruffin. "I view the BARC intrusion as something positive," he told Ruffin, "because it will draw attention to the situation and cause more discussion about a serious issue."

A New Approach?

Maybe the new technology is just amplifying the impulses of the people who use it now. "The Acteal Massacre in December 1997 moved me to tears," remembers Carmin Karasic -- and her work on the Electronic Disturbance Theatre was the ultimate result. But her preparations for the demonstrations also harnessed the net in another way. While the guerilla army was using the Internet to deliver news of their struggle to an online audience, Karasic's own contingent was using the net to develop forms of support. "Our collaboration was 100 percent Internet linked," Karasic remembers -- "all e-mail exchanges." To this day, Karasic notes, "I think I'm still the only Electronic Disturbance Theatre member who has met all of us face-to-face."

Though it's hard to measure, it's possible that cyber-causes may also reach those with the same passions more quickly -- allowing political sentiments to be better focussed. Online networking has been cited as a factor in the large turnout for the WTO protests in Seattle. And though it's hard to quantify, the concept of hacktivism itself may be spreading, possibly even evolving. On the hacktivism mailing list, Bronc Buster announced he was working with human rights groups and hackers groups on a suite of applications, to be released at the hacker convention "DefCon" this summer. "It will show that hacktivism is a real way to use the net to blend activism and technology in a positive way," he argued, "while helping people at the same time." And elsewhere, an activist who goes by the name RE:no says he's developed a "Mail-O-Matic" for use in online actions -- "a mail washer, to send extracts from books explaining our state of mind."

Almost by definition, any pursuit of hacktivism will require a constantly-updated set of tools. (The Electronic Disturbance Theatre's Web site notes that the Department of Defense wrote a counter-program to try to thwart one of their actions.) "We must be inventive with each problem which we encounter," RE:no argues. But even when those tools lie dormant, their potential is felt. RE:no believes activists should keep them in reserve -- "as an armed peace tool" -- the way the Zapatistas remain armed "as a symbolic gesture of voice."

And the hacktivism continues. After funding FloodNet, RTMark moved on to other forms of online activism, creating a doppelganger to the official Web site for GATT and championing European art group eToy in their fight with toy retailer eToys. Pigdog.org called on network administrators to block Doubleclick ads from reaching their users. Last summer on the Hacktivism list, Ricardo Dominguez even announced new online actions in August of 1999 to commemorate the birthday of Emiliano Zapata. Whether or not hacktivists can stay in the code race, escalating tactics in response to counter-measures, remains to be seen. But their actions have at least raised that possibility -- along with thorny issues that accompany it. While it may be unclear whether online masses can make a lasting impact on social policy, there are individuals who believe it's possible and are working to find a way to make it happen -- which is, in itself, a kind of first step. As Thoreau himself once said -- "In the long run men hit only what they aim at."

Up Close and Presidential?

Bill Clinton is an exciting man to be around. Just ask David Corman, who edited a recent video parody of the President -- starring the President himself -- that has ignited a firestorm of Internet downloads and talk-show controversy.

"It was incredible," Corman says about filming the six-minute video, which first showed at this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. "It was the chance of a lifetime to work that closely with the President."

The widely-talked about video featured footage of Clinton wandering the halls of the White House, asking "Anybody home?" and making origami ducks -- a spoof on the emptiness of his Administration's final days. The intimate "mockumentary" was especially appropriate for its target audience: reporters who cover the White House. Once a year, all the White House Correspondents gather to present awards for White House coverage and scholarships for high school students. The President's appearance is traditional. But this year, according to the official spin, Clinton had wanted to do something special. What better way to score extra charisma points than with an exclusive film showing Clinton fooling around with a camera crew in the White House?

"It was done to be a humorous goodbye, so to speak, to the White House Correspondents," explains Mark Kitchens, the White House Director of Internet News. "And we had a good time with it." But even Kitchens was surprised by the response it got. "I think it's been amazing to see the widespread reaction."

Maybe Kitchens shouldn't be so amazed. How many videos can boast an appearance by the President of the United States riding a bike down the empty hallways of the White House? The chief executive is also shown running after Hillary's limo yelling "You forgot your lunch!" and feeding popcorn to Buddy the White House dog while watching 101 Dalmatians.

The video snuck into the public dialogue when the Correspondents Dinner was broadcast on C-Span, but it didn't make a splash until it found a second life on the Internet. When a digitized version of the video was displayed at AdCritic.com -- under the headline "Clinton Washes Dirty Laundry" -- it was downloaded 200,000 times in its first week, estimates site founder Peter Beckman. ("People love it! They love to see that Bill Clinton has a sense of humor!") But then again, it was just a matter of time before the intriguing video percolated out into the Web. "It's been on many different sites," says Kitchens. "All the major news sites have posted it at some point. The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, FOX -- all of them had either the entire video or just snippets."

A few voices sniped that the President shouldn't be using his time filming comedy, but Corman says he saw that controversy raised and defused on an episode of Politically Incorrect. "Bill Maher stuck up for him and said it was two hours out of his day," says Corman. "Which is absolutely true. It was probably LESS than two hours."

Intimate Glimpses

The sub-text to the whole affair, of course, is how rare access to the powerful really is. The video's unpredicted popularity, both on television and on the Internet, suggests a growing demand for more intimate portraits of popular politicians. Pre-recorded videos have indeed become a low-risk technique to create a positive impression. Years ago Bill Gates began accompanying his speaking engagements with a video filled with technology skits. Presidential conventions now routinely dim the lights to watch a political video, effectively converting any news coverage into a political advertisement. The Associated Press reports Clinton is showing the recent video to audiences in Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio, where he was promoting his education platform.

Ever since he resuscitated his 1992 Presidential campaign playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, Clinton has known how to appeal to voters with what is essentially innocuous footage. In one sense, this video is just another incarnation of the media savvy that infuriated conservatives convinced no one would elect a man they'd perceived as a pot-smoking draft dodger. With eight months before he vacates the White House, Clinton is still going after voters' hearts. "I thought it was a really good move," says Beckman. "Too bad he didn't do it earlier in his Presidency!"

Blue Rock Editing Company, the company David Corman works for, expected the video to garner a big reaction, but not this big. "I don't think anybody associated with it considered that it was going to get that much play," says Denise Wanat, an executive assistant at Blue Rock. After the video first aired, Wanat says, Blue Rock started getting calls from all over the U.S. -- and even Canada and London. "This has been unlike anything, because I think it reached every sort of demographic," says Wanat. "EVERYONE saw this, not just industry people."

Goofing Around with Bill

As editor, David Corman didn't really have a reason to meet the President in person. But the film's co-producer, Richard Rosenthal, and its director, Richard's brother Phil, (who helped create and write "Everybody Loves Raymond") decided that Corman's work would be easier if Corman watched the film being shot. So Corman found himself on his way to the White House.

Meeting Clinton was a surreal moment, Corman remembers. "I never was IN the White House before. I used to live in DC, but I never even took the White House tour," Corman jokes. But soon after entering the hallowed hallways and crossing the rugs with Presidential seals, he was face to face with the country's most powerful man. "He comes in, and he's chatting with everybody," Corman remembers, "and then you're just doing it. You're shooting the thing!"

The film crew got to spend an hour with "BC" that afternoon ("and then he went off to do some things that he does ... meet with the Russians or something...") and another 45 minutes of filming that night. Corman and the rest of the crew found themselves all over the White House. After the euphoria wore off ("He's the President of the United States! You never get that close!") there was nothing to do but get down to business -- and after half an hour, Corman admits, "it's sort of like he's an actor." Director Phil Rosenthal knew how to coax a funny performance, and Corman remembers that at least once, the President improvised. "There was one thing that he hadn't really been asked to do. There's a scene where he's staring at the laundry and his head is going around. He just started doing that..."

The film features a number of brief cameos, all included for comic effect. Clinton and General Henry Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are shown completing a game of "Battleship." Clinton later appears with Kevin Spacey -- along with his Best Actor Oscar -- and even Michael Maronna, better known to the world as "Stuart," the mullet-headed slacker from the Ameritrade commercial, who shows Bill how to buy a smoked ham on eBay. ("All right, Mr. P? Ready to start?") Keeping their audience of journalists in mind, the film-makers also peppered their depiction of Clinton's supposed isolation with appearances by real-life White House correspondents like Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas.
The film culminates with a happy ending: The President shows Stuart how to swipe ice cream sandwiches from a White House vending machine without paying.

Corman had nothing but compliments for the chief executive's ability as a performer -- and as a co-worker. "He's just a very charismatic guy. He really seemed to get energized by people, like he wants to connect with everybody."

Making a Splash

When the crew showed the edited version of the film to White House press secretary Joe Lockhart and the President's speech writers, it got an outstanding reaction. "They loved it," Corman remembers. "They cracked up." After making a few minor changes suggested by the White House staffers -- like making the gags more visual -- it was on to White House Correspondent's Dinner. Like Lockhart and the speech writers, the reporters fell for the video head over heels. "People were on their feet," says Corman.

Aside from fulfilling the fantasy of an up-close-and-personal encounter with the President, Mark Kitchens, the White House Director of Internet News, also thinks the video's continuing appeal stems from 21st century technology. "I think it highlights one of the brilliant aspects of the Internet," says Kitchens. "You've got the ability to watch the video at will -- any time you want. You don't have to wait for the news organizations to show it."

But how the public responds to such technology is still unpredictable. AdCritic's Beckman notes that even comedy from the President will only get you so far; by Sunday Clinton's video had dropped out of first place in popularity, behind Budweiser's newest "Wazzup" commercial. (The one at the sushi shop...) Beckman says Budweiser's original Wazzup commercial still holds the title of most-popular ever, with over a million downloads -- followed by the Nike ad where Tiger Woods bounces a golf ball on his club. Celebrity and personality only command limited attention from a fickle public already looking for the next round of images. But the Internet at least gives them that opportunity, because it wasn't cordoned off at a private association's dinner. For better or worse, that much access to the President -- or the appearance of access -- has been democratized.

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