Search Engine Optimization – Andrew vs. The Collective #3
This is the third in a series of short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here: Story 3-Search Engine Optimization In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.
Also, just so we’re all clear here, this is a work of fiction.
My name is Andrew Fitzgerald and I live in San Francisco. With that right there I’ve identified myself sufficiently as far as Google (or God forbid Bing) is concerned. Now, admittedly, San Francisco is a relatively small city. Hell, we’re not even over a million population-wise, and I don’t think there are many (or any) other Andrews Fitzgerald. Were I still in Los Angeles, where I have also lived (new data point, Google spiders), I might want to add some clarifications (so that you knew I didn’t practice hypnotherapy). I am a journalist and also a writer. That latter is what we’re here for. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s going to be a fiction, truly. Names and circumstances will be familiar, but the events that transpire will be more or less a flight of fancy. But it all starts with this idea of me, my name, my city of residence, and the other little bits of data that help you find me online. How those little bits of data hold a special power. This is a story of that power gone wrong. It’s called Search Engine Optimization.
Our story beings not with me, but with an IPO. It is the press conference announcing the initial public offering of StyleSeat, the leading site offering better business tools for personal service providers. I am in attendance, but that’s neither here nor there. StyleSeat was birthed from the late nights and tears and calloused fingertips of Melody McCloskey and Dan Levine and others. It’s these two who are sitting on the stage when our story begins. They are nervous and twitchy but expect to have a good day. Their company has been predicted by experts to go public with a valuation of $2.8 billion. It should be a very good day for Melody and Dan indeed.
The press conference is in a small conference room at the Westin St. Francis, just a short elevator ride and corridor walk from Michael Mina, where cocktails and congratulations will flow shortly. It’s a room with carpet on every surface but the ceiling: the floor, the walls, the podium, the chairs themselves. Those chairs boast some of the best names of the Internet People: Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca, Sarah Lane, Pete Cashmore, Robin Sloan, Om Malik, Alexia Tsotsis. Caroline McCarthy of CNET had even flown out from New York for the occasion. They’re all there. Nearly every hand in the room has an iPhone in it. The open wireless network of the Westin St. Francis is groaning beneath the strain of the tweeting, live streaming, Foursquaring, Buzzing, Gowallaing and Twitpicing.
Many in the audience are friends, old friends of Melody and Dan’s. They’re chatting like it’s any other social event. Maya Baratz is complimenting the world-travelling Sarah Lane on her hair clip. “Thanks,” Sarah is saying, “I found it in an art gallery in Kathmandu.”
Pete Cashmore is walking an attractive young woman through his various iPhone apps. “Evernote, an app for clipping Internet pages, works well in tying my laptop to my iPhone.“
Caroline McCarthy is talking about her lackluster interview subject from earlier in the day: “The Sogeti COO achieved what I believed to be impossible: saying, ‘We’re focusing on cloud computing’ more than my boss says ‘let’s Twitter and Facebook it.’”
Robin Sloan, who is sitting next to me, is talking about his experience with Google Buzz. “We’re all share bros now,” he says gravely and without irony. It makes me laugh.
Onstage, both Melody and Dan have their laptops open. Final last checks before the initial announcement. They’re both just clicking around the site they’ve built, burning off nervous energy on the track pads of their MacBookPros. Dan, his head cocking like an inquisitive bird, spies something amiss. Before he can say anything, Melody stands and says, “Go time, Levine.”
Conversation fades off in the room, the data transfer rate increases, and Melody plugs her laptop into the projector. It’s her first IPO and she’s ready. She’s been ready for this moment since she acquired the competing lemonade stand on Peppertree Road at 6 years old. Her hair is perfect and her dress is sharp. Sharp like 2.8 billion dollars.
“Melody,” Dan says quietly behind her. “We’ve got a little problem here.”
She doesn’t hear him. She’s looking at her slim silver watch. The accountants told her she’d need to time this perfectly to get in on the last hour of New York trading and ride that into the Hong Kong market. That hour begins in fifteen seconds.
“Thank you all for coming,” she says to the crowd with a smile. The audience applauds. Sarah Lane gives out a little whoop. Melody clicks a button on her laptop. Behind her, the screen lights up with the StyleSeat homepage. She doesn’t see Dan Levine’s eyes go wide, doesn’t hear him hiss with alarm. “I have a lot to say about StyleSeat and I have a lot of people to thank, but I want to get this thing started right.” This time she hears Dan. He’s saying her name again, louder, firmer. Goddamnit Dan, doesn’t he know now is not the time? She continues without turning. This is the moment. “It is my distinct pleasure to announce that StyleSeat, Inc. is now a public corporation, available for trading on the open market.”
The room explodes in applause. If Melody wanted to stop smiling she wouldn’t know how to. A few of the reporters’ hands go up. Melody points to Alexia Tsotsis from the SF Weekly.
“First let me say congratulations,” Alexia begins.
“First question: Why the last minute change of the site’s name?”
Melody knits her eyebrows in confusion. She hears Dan hiss her name again. She turns to him, to the screen behind her. Upon it is their site. Her site. She knows every page of it by heart, like she would a pop song from her teenaged years. Her eye catches something amiss, just one thing, the only thing: The name on the site reads “StyleSuite”. StyleSuite? What the hell? It wasn’t bad – she actually kind of liked the name. But the site was not called StyleSuite. She looks at Dan; he is making his I-was-trying-to-tell-you face.
What the hell is going on here?
Midway to the top of an 11c artificial cliff face at Mission Cliffs San Francisco Chloe Sladden is taking a break. Her arms ache. They were starting to spasm as she climbed, never a good sign. This will have to be her last climb of the night. She uses her legs to grip to the wall, taking the weight off her arms. She has one hand on the wall and with her free hand she is, as she does more than thirty times daily, sending a tweet.
She had painstakingly tapped out the message “Even the faux granite of the cliffs of Mission must submit to the iron will of womankind!” and is waiting for it to be picked up by AT&T’s 3G network. Her phone chirps a little tone of protest. Tweet not sent? What’s that about? She shifts her body, holds the phone closer to her face, and uses her nose to navigate through the error screen. “Problem with Twitter”? This is a bad sign.
Beneath her, her climbing partner stands one hand on the rope and the other explaining his new yogic practice to a stranger. “His arms stretched out in front, his voice sounds clearly, steadily from the left of the candle-lit room – “Chattr chakkr vartee, chattr chakkr bhugatay suyumbhav subhang sarab daa sarab jugtay …” – while my own arms feel heavy, heavier, and I try to ignore the pain, struggling to hold out longer than yesterday.”
Chloe sighs at his inattention. She looks around the cliff face, checks the ground below her and then in a single flourish, pushes herself off and unlocks the clasp, slipping down to the ground in a straight line like an assassin in the dead of night. Her climbing partner, a 39 year old cardiologist who years later will name his second yacht “The Chloe” and find himself unable to explain to anyone why, looks at her surprised. She gives him a smile and unhooks herself from the rope. “Sorry, darling, I’ve got run to the office. Trouble’s brewing.”
Chloe Sladden works at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. As she bursts into the office still in her climbing outfit, the engineers are racing about. She finds her co-worker and co-conspirator Robin Sloan at his desk next to hers. He’s holding a pink plaster bird she keeps on the Robin-side edge of her desk. He doesn’t know she knows this, but he only ever holds the bird when he’s nervous about something.
“What’s wrong,” she asks him.
“Who said anything was wrong?”
Chloe points at the back of Mark Trammell as he runs past, eyes wide and unhappy. “Something’s amiss,” she says.
“We had the briefest of outages,” Robin says. “Everyone is trying to figure out what happened.”
“We haven’t had an outage in fourteen months.” Robin’s hand is petting the top of the pink bird. Chloe is pretty sure he doesn’t realize it. “Stop that. It’s creepy,” she admonishes.
Robin realizes the bird is in his hands. He puts it on the desk before him. “Sorry. Listen, something is weird with this.” He leans forward to his computer and taps a few keys. Chloe looks over his shoulder. Onscreen is the page of a single tweet. It was sent by their mutual friend Dan Levine or @dsldsl. It reads: “On stage now, Death-Karaoke Showdown: @jkottke vs @NicholasKristof vs @ricksanchezCnn vs #web2hos vs @scobleizer vs @mrskutcheR”. “This is the first tweet sent after the outage.”
“It’s from Dan Levine. He wasn’t at Death-Karaoke Showdown. That’s in New York. He was here. Onstage at his IPO. And Jason Kottke wasn’t there either – he’s in Philadelphia arguing about books with Tim Carmody and Matt Thompson.”
“So someone hacked Dan’s account?”
Robin shakes his head gravely. “I don’t think it’s that simple.” He gestures to his computer. “I googled Death Karaoke Showdown. I found a video.” His computer’s speakers begin to crackle with Rick Sanchez’s falsetto. Robin points to the screen. “See, there’s Jason.” Off to the side of the stage, waiting his turn next to Demi Moore, is Jason Kottke. He’s thin and smiling and definitely not in Philadelphia.
Chloe likes to solve puzzles; she’s kind of enjoying this. “So this is an old video. Shot a while back. And some hacked Dan’s twitter account to point to it because they knew people would be paying attention to him on the day of his IPO.”
Robin’s eyes narrow. He almost whispers, “This is a live stream.”
Across the Internet things are happening. Things that are not happening in the real world. On the Internet, Kevin Rose takes a trip to Vegas. In the real world, Kevin Rose is in Cabo. On the Internet, Brian Stelter’s story for tomorrow’s New York Times is finished. In the real world, he’s got at least six more paragraphs to slog through and it’s due in ten minutes. On the Internet, Julia Allison is eating dinner at Momofuku. In the real world, she’s sitting at Schillers across from Rex Sorgatz. On the Internet, Rex Sorgatz is at home re-watching Independence Day and tweeting about launching a t-shirt line.
The only site on the internet you can purchase an umbrella is “unbrella.com” which promises rain protection beyond your financial means and features this testimonial from pop superstar Lady Gaga: “As the furious storm battered down against her indestructible unbrella, she praised her incredible foresight at liquidating all her possessions to purchase the revolutionary parasol. Gaga, naked in the rain, approves.”
In the popular children’s online role-playing game “Fur City”, a digital avatar named Mr. Tumbles, controlled by a 17-year-old Japanese girl in Osaka is pacing the cobblestone streets. He remembers it’s Tuesday and how much he loved last Tuesday. It was cupcake day at the Sugar Plum Bakery, and although Mr. Tumbles, the local calico kitten, was no fan of strawberry shortcake wrapped in ribbons and bows, he couldn’t deny that the rabbit-run bakery was paws and whiskers above any other establishment in Fur City. Today at the Sugar Plum Bakery it’s not cupcake day. The rabbits told him it was pancake day. But he knows it’s Tuesday. Something’s fishy in Fur City.
Something’s fishy on the whole Internet.
There is one place in the world that all seems right with the Internet and that’s in Russia. It’s not in Moscow and it’s not in St. Petersburg. It’s south from there, south and to the east, in one of those places where in Soviet times the wheat fields stretched for more square miles than small countries. These areas were actually little countries of wheat. Wheatistans. They also were home to military secrets.
About a mile beneath the gently waving of the now wild patches of wheat, beneath that perfectly good arable soil, is a large, climate-controlled chamber. It’s exactly the sort of location James Bond was always finding himself in toward the end of the second act: a hollowed-out cavern beeping and clicking with technology. In the Soviet times this subterranean bunker was for ICBMs. Today it houses thousands of political prisoners engaged daily in creating spam.
They sit at long rows of computers in the main chamber, wearing threadbare loose-fitting sweaters to fight off the chill of the underground. Their fingers tap quietly and that is the only sound their pacing supervisors tolerate from them. The short black leather instruments in the hands of the yawning foremen occasionally slap across the hands and keys of an inmate who utters some small word or whose head begins to droop sleepily back.
Up a small metal staircase from this is a sheet aluminum box, constructed so that its windows can survey the whole of the space, each of the computer stations. That is when its window shades are open, today they are drawn.
Inside the metal box is C1alis. This is his office. He is thin, dark-haired, accurately described as ‘brooding’. He is Slavically handsome. He could have been a male model with his smoky dark eyes, chiseled angular face and women’s hips. He could have been if he’d been raised in a different world. As it were he was a child of the Soviet collapse. His parents were ‘spammers’, they collected meat scraps from around the small Dagestan city where he was raised, cut it together with Hormel Spam and sawdust and resold it as Russian Spamsky. He, in a way, has stayed in the family business. He is a king spammer of the highest order, secretly backed by the Kremlin and installed here far beneath the wheat as an ongoing disruption to Western commerce.
He is sitting at his desk across from his best friend and confidant, Kibo. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected Kibo; nevertheless, he showed up with a crate of Stoli at half past ten. He knew he’d be welcome. They are drinking the first bottle of Kibo’s crate. Today they are celebrating.
Kibo asks, “And all it took was to flip the switch?”
“As a manner of speaking,” C1alis says, sipping from his vodka. For the sake of the story, let’s say I (aided by Google Translate) can understand Russian, which the pair is speaking. C1alis continues, “The first manifestation of the Dark Internet was a post of Twitter, from an entrepreneur in San Francisco.”
“Fitting,” Kibo smiles which always makes him look feline and somehow also feral. His hair is cut to look like Wolverine from the American comic books, so that probably helps too. Five years ago he was breaking up his cell phones and laptops to build them into his clothes, it was the thing then. But now it had paid off and every inch of the fabric of his jacket was copper wiring and silicon chips.
“Now our Internet,” C1alis waves his glasses toward the window overlooking the tapping and clicking of the cavern, “our internet is the only one people can find. Their browsers will send cookies, our servers will respond with pusticks. Get it? Poo stick!” They laugh raucously.
What does he mean? To explain that we first need to understand a little about C1alis. If you can believe it, that’s not his given name. His given name is Dmitry. He chose the name C1alis, so similar to the prescription medicine for erectile dysfunction, because it gave him the truest possible anonymity of the internet. Were you to look for him, search him out, you would be blinded in your progress by billions of little landmines of spam.
C1alis is a brilliant computer programmer. He can master a computer language in four days (for fun, he benchmarked himself with FORTRAN in 1994). He once thought his crowning achievement would be to create an open source operating system. It would be like MSDOS, but without all the messy corporate aspects of the MS. He would call it Dinux. He was at school in Dover, in the UK, in 1991. His parents had sent him abroad on scholarship to escape the tumult back home. He began to tinker on his open source operating system. Late one August night, after coding all night, he was about to post the very first introduction to his work on comp.os.minix. Just before he clicked “post” another message popped up. It was from some Finn named Linus Torvalds. He’d just made his own portable operating system. He’d beaten Dmitry to it by thirty-five seconds. Dmitry threw his monitor through the window into the wet Dover night in a fit of rage.
Life brought him back to Russia, brought him a new name and new government connections. His brilliance brought him a state-subsidized spamming empire. And his grand ambition brought him the Dark Internet.
It was simple really. All the spammers arrayed beneath his office had simply copied the internet. All of it. And they changed it. All of it. They built little scripts to keep it changing itself. And then (and here was the key) they SEO’ed the hell out of it. Like we talked about at the beginning of this story – SEO, or search engine optimization, makes a page more easily discoverable on the internet. What C1alis did with his altered copy of the internet was to give it better search engine optimization. If you searched for any part of the internet, you’d be led to C1alis’ dark internet. Whatever your queryset your answers would be C1alis’. As of today. That’s what he and his best friend Kibo are celebrating.
They are toasting again. “You, my friend. You are the man now, dog.” Kibo was always quoting American movies with Sean Connery.
C1alis takes the compliment, smiles. “You know what’s the most important precept of the internet? Don’t be evil.”
They laugh. They laugh so hard and so loud that it echoes all around the cavern below. The foremen smile in anticipation of their celebratory bottles from Kibo’s crate.
It doesn’t take long for people to realize something is wrong with the Internet. And by ‘people’ I mean ‘the people’. Vox populi, really. Local news producers.
I’m watching a news package a few days after the StyleSeat IPO. In it we see a shot of the office building where negotiations are taking place between Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Google to work together to fix the internet. A few men walk out in suits. They look unhappy and don’t speak to the reporters. The talks aren’t going well. There’s a graphic of what I assume are little packets of data flowing across the internet, but they look like greeting cards from Tron traveling down the center of a neon Interstate at the dead of night. A man on the street is interviewed and raises his eyebrows when he speaks. “Has no one investigated the connections between the World Wide Web, the shadowy Swiss financial industry and the Illuminati? he asks querulously. The screen cuts to an interview with a middle aged French woman in a pantsuit. She is identified as Christine Albanel, a minister in the French government. She is translated as saying that she thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just shut off the Internet for a little while so that we as a global culture can figure out what the problem is. This sounds ludicrous to me.
But admittedly, I’m not sure I can say much about ludicrous. Let me explain. I am watching this news package in southern Louisiana, just outside of a town called Slidell which in turn is outside of New Orleans. I’m in a bar called The Salt Bayou Lounge. I am here to bet, to help pay off my enormous debts amassed through online shopping at such reputable establishments as Pottery Barn, Adam and Eve, American Girl, and Big Ed’s Chili factory (I can’t get enough of their tangy and delicious barbeque sauce). My compulsive shopping has led, as you can see that it might, to compulsive gambling, and while I’m here in Louisiana visiting family, this establishment was recommended to me.
I can’t say The Salt Bayou Lounge is my ‘scene’. At the conclusion of the news package a fellow patron with three men dressed in goth rock outfits embroidered on the back of his jacket in peach colored thread burped out a little of his Bud Light and proclaimed “The internet… it’s a series of tubes!” And the gambling here is not the sort to which I am accustomed.
They call it the Chicken Drop. Bets are placed on numbers between one and one hundred, corresponding to 100 squares scratched out in the dirt on the front porch. Once the betting is closed, a live chicken is released into the grid. That’s when the shouting begins. It gets loud out there. Scares those chickens something fierce. And everyone is shouting the same thing, a cacophonous choir of “Shit, shit chicken!” As you might have guessed by this point, the numbered square graced with the chicken’s fecal discharge is the winning square. I am, much to my surprise, remarkably good at this game and this evening have already won ten thousand dollars.
That’s not why we’re here tonight, though. This is the point in our story where we meet Donald E. W. Quist. He’s a writer from South Carolina. He’s the only other traveler in the bar tonight, everyone else is a local. He’s in town writing a freelance story for Maxim magazine about “Girls Gone Grabblin’”, a pastime in which jean-shorted college-aged women grasp around in the murky waters of the nearby Pearl River for catfish. Neither he nor I understand the tradition.
Donald and I are talking about how we became writers. For me it was growing up on a sailboat forcibly removed from the pacification of television and the endless boredom that came with. For Donald it didn’t hit him until college. “I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he is telling me. “And I worked my ass off in high school, got into Harvard.” He takes a long swig of his beer, lowers his glasses and looks at me over the frames. “They do this thing at Harvard where when you arrive as a freshman there’s a little envelope on your bed. Inside is a list of all the famous people who started off in your dorm room. Like you’re definitely in the company of greatness now.” He laughs. “Mark Zuckerberg was on mine. And here I was, standing in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, years after he created Facebook and I think, fuck it. I need to do something else. Entrepreneur my ass.”
“So I started writing screenplays. It turned out I was pretty good at it. Notable twists in style, significantly clever wordplays or dazzling displays of witlessness would each in a flash cajole some essential part of me to birth the character behind them – complete with foibles, tics, blind spots and expertises – so that by the time the chatroom era ended I had dozens of warring, jabbering personas each battling for control of the cursor every time I sat down to my keyboard. I just put them into Final Draft. I pay the bills with freelance reporting work though.”
I laugh and confess I think his story is better than mine.
Neither of us know yet what’s going on with the internet, but we discuss it. We talk about it like the weather. But bizarro weather. Like that first year America ever had El Nino and everyone lowered their voice to bitch about it as if Poseidon and his trident were just in the next brown nougahide booth sipping a frozen margarita. We talk about the things we’ve found that were not quite the things we were looking for.
The popular social news site Digg.com has been replaced by the 8-bit Nintendo game Dig Dug. Zappos, popular online shoe retailer, offers only clogs, though some of those are branded Uggs. Literary blog The Rumpus has reviewed each of Anne Grafton’s books from A to P without the slightest sense of irony. The blog Snarkmarket’s signature earnest intellectual inquiries have been replaced by actual snark. The blog Fimoculous can only be found at its popular misspelling Filmoculous.
Donald and I trade these back and forth as if one of us does not know this news already. We humor one another in this place where we are awkward strangers. Neither of us know at this point that Donald E.W. Quist is actually one of the heroes of this story. And there’s no reason for him to suspect it this night. He’s still just writing about grabblin’ girls.
The next day though, Donald gets a phone call from an editor at The Awl in New York. He’s done a little freelance work for their national desk, an office that expanded rapidly after their acquisition of Gawker Media.
“Donald,” the editor says. “If you’re at all close to the Florida Panhandle, we’ve got a hell of a story for you. It’s going to be some travel, but we’ll cover your expenses.”
“I could be there in a few hours,” Donald says, imagining himself driving fast.
“Normally we wouldn’t give this big of a story to a freelancer, but the south is the Cajun Boy’s beat, he’s the only sonofabitch in New York who even understands the accents down there, but he’ll be embedded with the White House Press Corps for at least another three weeks, so we need you.” Donald is still in his motel bed and his hand is reaching to the ballpoint pen sticking up out of the empty water glass. “You’re going to meet Rick Astley in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. The place is called Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor.”
“Rick Astley? Florida?” Donald is writing this down, but little of it is making sense.
“He’s on tour. But he’s leaving the tour. He’s going to Pennsylvania. Listen, gotta go, don’t spend too much on food and we’re not going to expense your booze.” The line goes dead. Donald rolls over, rubs his eyes. Florida it is.
Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor is a colorful little coffeeshop near the beach along the stretch of Florida’s panhandle known affectionately as “The Redneck Riviera”. As far as Donald can gather there is no “Miss Lucille”, but there are sugar cookies, Florida souvenirs and delicious black coffee that is the only thing keeping Donald awake and sane right now.
Standing at the counter with his cell phone to his ear in flagrant violation of the “No Cell Phone Zone” posted is a young olive-skinned man in a white t-shirt and jeans. He is speaking so loudly he’s almost screaming into his phone. “Could you do me a favor and order me some records for Christmas? I don’t want them to go out of stock before I can get the funds to purchase them…. you can go to yahoo and search THRILL JOCKEY RECORDS.” He makes eye contact with Donald and winks. Donald cringes to think of what that search would bring up in the new bizarre Internet.
The bell hanging from the door jingles as Rick Astley enters. Donald knows him immediately, the years have changed his face, but he’s still recognizable as the lovable young cad who time-traveled from the 1980s to appear spontaneously on computer screens in 2007 in the phenomenon known as rick-rolling. The fame was apparently short-lived, Donald is the only one who recognizes him as he enters. He joins Donald at his circular table.
“I’m to go to Pennsylvania,” Rick Astley explains. “I received a letter. A physical letter from the US mail. It was an invitation to go to Amish country in Pennsylvania for a summit. A meeting of the utmost importance. We’re meant to save the internet.”
“Who’s we?” Donald asks. He’s not taking notes at this point, though he’s sure he’ll regret it later.
“The memes,” Astley says.
At one of Miss Lucille’s computer terminals a patron lets out a squeal of disgust. Startled, Donald and Rick Astley stand and looking over see a choppy YouTube video of what appears to be Lars Ulrich of Metallica and porn star Ron Jeremy. The latter is wearing a hat that proclaims “Amateurs suck!” Both are holding guns, one of which is leveled steady at the camera. The other is pointed at a figure bound and gagged in an office chair.
“I got to keep my eye on him,” Ulrich says in a tenor that speaks of pills and impending mental collapse.
“He’s fine, he’s a cameraman.” Jeremy responds, turning to a figure bound to an office chair behind him. “They’re always reliable.”
The figure in the chair, Donald realizes, is the former Vice President. Donald’s eyes go wide, “This can’t be happening.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” Astley says, retaking his seat and sipping his tea. “Lars will be unhappy, but this is what we face on the Internet, isn’t it.” For Astley, though he doesn’t voice this to Donald, “bizarro Internet” feels a hell of a lot like the regular Internet. He has never fathomed why what people called “rick-rolling” was even funny. But it’s happened. And now Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a platinum record. To add insult to injury, he’d always believed that “She Wants to Dance With Me” was his best song. But these are the jokes life plays on us. “Look,” Astley says, “That’s why I’m going to Pennsylvania.” He points across the room at the YouTube clip. “To fix this. Only us memes can save the internet.”
They pass through Maryland and by a sign for Gettysburg before Astley awakens, pulls out his hand-written directions and tells Donald where to point the car. Donald, upon reflection, and he’s had plenty of time to reflect in the silent hours of northbound Interstate, is not sure how Rick Astley expected to get to Pennsylvania since he had insisted Donald drive him in Florida. That must be the life of Rick Astley, Donald decides. That and nearly twelve hours of beauty sleep in the passenger seat.
The memes are meeting in a large wooden barn, their entrances watched by pop-eyed Amish children. The meeting, Donald gathers, is organized by Tron Guy, who works the crowd in his standard skin-tight blue suit and helmet. He pumps Donald’s hand and then looks quizzically at his clipboard for his name. “I’m with him,” Donald says, pointing to Rick Astley. Astley hums a few bars at Tron Guy whose face completely transforms and he squeals like a child: “I just got rick rolled in real life!” Donald sees Rick’s weary smile. This is an old joke for him.
They’re a motley group, the memes. Numa Numa Kid is wearing the shirt that proclaims his identity. Tay Zonday looks uncomfortable. Andy Samberg is there with both a captain’s hat and a box over the crotch of his jeans. A forgettable-looking post-collegiate keeps apologetically following his introductions with “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” in air quotes. David, famous for his trip to the dentist, is there with his father. He does not appear to be drugged.
Also not drugged is former accidental Apple spokeswoman Ellen Feiss, whose Errol Morris-directed commercials took the internet in a storm of debate over whether or not she had been stoned. She’s no longer 14, Donald can’t help but notice. No, Ellen Feiss has blossomed into a fine young woman. She smiles patiently when he tells her he recognizes her. Donald’s unsure of what to say next.
Tron Guy calls them to order. “Thank you all for coming,” he begins, adjusting his square eyeglasses beneath his off-white helmet. “Thanks also to moot, founder of 4chan, for joining us,” a slim young man waves his hand at the crowd, “as well as representatives of Twitter and Tumblr. If it wasn’t for these folks we wouldn’t be where we are today. Google’s continued policy of social and political non-involvement unfortunately meant that they could not join us.”
Moot jumps in, “Nobody at Google would accept our giant broken-hearted valentine, even when delivered by a dude in red tights and fairy wings.” Everyone laughs.
Tron Guy continues, “As you all know, our world wide web is sick. That’s why we’re here in Amish Pennsylvania, without access to Internet and importantly without it having access to us. This illness must be cured. We, born of the Internet, have felt its effects perhaps most dearly. In some of my most popular videos I am now Tram Guy, a conductor of light rail mass transit in a small Midwestern city who into Algebraic Topology. I don’t even know what simplicial homeomorphism is and right now Wolfram Alpha is telling me it’s about Euclidean geometry.” He sniffles back what Donald guesses what about to be a screaming meltdown. “This cannot continue like this.”
“Aided by the US government we’ve been able to identify the source of this scourge. It’s a Russian spammer, deep in some missile base, named C1alis. That’s um, with a one.” Moot chuckles. That’s a good one. “This man and his small army of spammers has replicated the entire Internet and changed it. From his base, he has built a new Internet filled with Tram Guys and A-O-L-Cats.”
On the other side of Ellen Feiss Donald sees a thin tattooed man with oversized sunglasses raise his hand to the air like a disobedient child asking to leave detention. Without waiting to be hailed the man speaks. “Yo, what I wants to know is why the FOOK we don’t just air drop from some FOOKIN black hawk choppers into this Viagra guys FOOKIN missile base and go ninja on his ARSE? I could kill him like this!” The man begins to chop at the air with his bony palms. Donald realizes this is Ninja of Die Antwoord, the post-rational Afrikaaner hip-hop group.
Chuck Norris’s voice is gruff but direct. Inexplicably, he holds a shotgun. “As much as I admire your gusto young man, the Russkies won’t let us within seventeen clicks of that sensitive of a target in good old American military hardware.”
Next to Chuck Norris a thin pretty blonde says, “I agree with Chuck.”
Ninja throws both his hands up in middle fingers aimed at no one and then wraps his bony arms around himself in defiance. “Chucky, the ninja thinks you’re soft, and as far as the NINJA is concerned, iJustine can suck it.”
Ellen Feiss leans over to him and whispers, “I thought it was a good idea.”
Ninja responds with a whispered, “Yo, if you were to invent a dish called Wu Tang Clams, what would you put in it?” Donald bristles to hear Feiss giggle.
Tron Guy holds his hand up. “This is an option that’s being discussed. Though it may be NATO that undertakes it and not us. In the meantime, we have another option. May I introduce Ms. Chloe Sladden of Twitter.”
Chloe raises her hand in thanks to the light applause. She takes a deep breath and begins with a dramatically hushed tone. “Not many know this, but the Twitter fail whale is a biographical creature. She is based in fact on a living whale named Faille, a great and hyper-intelligent beast living in secret in Sea World. She is, quietly, the true center of the World Wide Web itself, she controls the spiders and silkworms that weave its tendrils. Twitter, like all wildly successful start-ups, had to make its pilgrimage to Orlando, to her subterranean cavern to beg for her blessing. Without the venture capital with which to buy her krill, we appealed to her vanity with our error image. This is the only way an online business can truly reach what we call ‘scale’: with the blessing of Faille the Whale.
“In addition to spiders and silkworms, she has an army of three hundred thousand monkeys beneath the Conde Nast headquarters in New York. They were, until recently, responsible for the copy of all Breitbart and Newsmax articles. When the monkeys realized their work had been replaced by the new Internet, they went on strike. They sit now in New York, sipping Irish coffees and smoking cigarettes and bitching about progressive politics. Only Faille has the power to break their strike, and with their volume on top of her blessing, we could recreate the Internet from scratch, displacing this new bizarro Internet.
This is a moment Chloe feels like she has been waiting for her all her life. The weight of destiny hangs comfortably on her shoulders. She had penned elements of this speech long before the crisis, when she first became aware of the super-intelligence submerged beneath the unsuspecting Sunshine State. She was always preparing for her moment to arrive. Even her grade school journals had been written under the assumption that they would someday be read, someday be considered Vital to the Progression of History, so it should come as no surprise that now that she had written so many blogs under the guise of so many alter egos, she feared for her future archivists and biographers– not to mention the fate of humanity in general. She realizes of course, practically, that in order for historians to access those countless blogs she will need to fix the Internet.
We will leave Donald and Chloe and all the memes here, amid the dewy grass of Amish Pennsylvania. They are about to decide to make the pilgrimage to Orlando. Donald will sigh and roll his eyes as Rick Astley falls asleep for the return leg back to Florida. Unfortunately he will not make the romantic acquaintance of Ellen Feiss. She will end up in a tortured long-distance relationship with Ninja. It will end badly, though everyone will agree that it will be for the best. Donald will eventually find a nice girl in Asheville, North Carolina who is vegetarian and a yoga instructor and they’ll do just fine.
Before all that though, Donald will be among the delegation to convince Faille the Whale. Meanwhile, we will travel east again. Not this time to Russia, but to Tehran.
Jasmine is an idealistic young woman. She believes in a world where she can say what she desires in any situation. In her heart she knows that this world is governed by Allah, by a strong but ultimately forgiving deity who would not begrudge her a little mascara and the feeling of a cool breeze rustling through her long dark hair.
Jasmine lives dangerously, she knows. She has an American boyfriend she met on a semester in Europe. She’d been unbelievably lucky to secure the visa for the trip and moreso to meet Aaron. Aaron provided her the counterpoint to the argument she’d always heard that every single American was in some way a manifestation of the devil. Aaron was an angel of tolerance and he described America as a place, despite its flaws (which he was allowed to discuss openly) that valued that tolerance.
She knows it’s impractical to think she and Aaron have a real future together, but she clings to their relationship as her lifeline to a different world. As a reminder that there are whole lot of cities out there that are not Tehran. They communicate on Facebook and through him she learns about new technologies, new tools she can share with her fellow students and demonstrators in the Islamic Republic. She also makes new friends through Aaron.
We meet Jasmine late one night, at a time when on the other side of the world a ragtag band of accidental celebrities are arriving in the home of Shamu. She is, like all users of the internet, frustrated by the inaccuracies that have become prevalent. The surreal alterations to sites once familiar. But for Jasmine the Internet is not a convenience, it is not a right, it is a hard-fought privilege of the highest order. It’s the sweetest, most important, most precious thing in her life. And, frankly, she’s used to it being a little fucked up now and again, thanks to the Revolutionary Guard.
This night Jasmine is conversing with Rahina originally of Dhaka, Bangladesh and now of New Haven, Connecticut. She’s another of the friends Aaron has shared with her. Rahina is describing a house she used to pass every day as a little girl on the way to school.
As she’s typing Rahina searches and finds a photograph of the building on Flickr. Miraculously, somehow, it’s accurate in every detail. Even the comments seem authentic. She posts it in the chat.
Jasmine is overwhelmed at the beauty of this building. Its history, its daunting façade. It’s dark and brooding nature like a melancholic regent enthroned amongst its peers. A tall dour leader among structures that speaks of loss, of permanence, of the uneasy future of centuries -old traditions built as rocks and bluffs amid the roiling foamy angry battering seas of changing time and modernity. That this building, far away in Dhaka, could be captured by the Internet, could pull the people who see this page physically, even emotionally, to Bangladesh. Unable to help herself, Jasmine wells up with tears. She sees the Islamic Republic in that photo. She sees the Students’ Revolution, the people in the streets, the Greens and their push for reform. A prideful institution both captured and empowered by technology. What will become of this building when the skyscrapers move in? What will become of Iran when the Shahs fall. She sees all this and she weeps above her keyboard.
She types simply, but with the full force of the meaning of the words, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
And in Orlando, Faille the Whale is explaining that all the Internet needed was one absolutely true and authentic thing. Her spiders start weaving from Jasmine’s comment on the house in Dhaka and within microseconds reconstruct the Web in a different configuration.
And in Russia, C1alis is alarmed to discover that every page on his Internet is suddenly behind a livejournal.com.ru address, making him no longer the internet itself, but only it’s most prolific Russian-language blogger. His raging screams frighten the foremen and the prisoners in his missile base.
And on the Internet things are right again. Roger Ebert tweets flawlessly. Ana Marie Cox drinks a martini. John Hodgman plays Scrabble. StyleSeat has the right name and Snarkmarket’s posts are back to being earnest. And Andrew Fitzgerald, writer from San Francisco, just barely manages to finish another one of his short stories by his self-imposed deadline.