Web of subversion

Internet - Lilian Pizzichini on the success of dotcoms that make fun of dotcoms

It all began as an inside joke. Sam Lowry used to live in San Francisco, where he worked in the dotcom start-up industry. The rise of the dotcom in the bay area, he noted, was depleting the funds of irony and integrity that his colleagues had once possessed. They were more intent on distributing the large amounts of money involved into their start-ups' company accounts. Lowry was dismayed to discover that very few people, with the exception of the locals being driven out of their apartments, wanted to make fun of the goose laying the golden eggs. Chancers with scant business experience and half a plan were obtaining huge sums from overwrought investors, which they were pouring into ill-considered marketing campaigns at the same time as they were paying themselves insane salaries to work obscene hours. "And most of the time, no one knows who is in charge or what the hell the plan is," says Lowry in disgust. It all sounds horribly familiar.

So he got together with some friends and organised an anti-dotcom campaign. About 30 people went out into the night, putting up posters and stickers where they would be most effective. As an afterthought, Lowry created the website BlowTheDotOutYourAss.com, dedicated to the ingenuity of internet subversives. An image taken at Tenth Street Turnabout shows an advertising billboard in a suitably desolate urban setting, on which someone has pasted their own "anti-ad": "FuckYouAndTheStart-upYouRodeInOn.com." And it took off from there. Surfers from all over the world write in looking for stickers and posters to download, so that they, too, can get in on the anti-advertising campaign. There is so much traffic that the servers hosting the site crash on a regular basis. In order to keep it up, Lowry has found allies with their own impressive history of internet agitprop. But, in order to waste more time more effectively (and surely this is the essence of subversion on the net), Lowry managed to weasel his way into the "elite digital cultural happening" of the net society's season: the Webby Awards, which are handed out to those start-ups with a prominent marketing presence. He hoped to find signs that the financial market's recent correction was sobering up the footloose world of start-ups. He managed to infiltrate the awards to the extent that his own bogus site appeared in the links. It's called: YourStockIsInTheToiletButAtLeastYouWereNominatedForAWebby.com. But, by now, the joke is over. The crash forced dotcommers to see what was always obvious - that they had let the lure of easy money go to their heads. So Lowry concludes. Rather unconvincingly, to my mind.

I prefer the tireless, "go get 'em" attitude of the activists behind billboardliberation.com. These white knights of the web came to Lowry's rescue when his site crashed, and the thanks they get is a hyperlink to their own site. And, in its daffy way, it is extremely rewarding. The Billboard Liberation Front has been "improving" outdoor advertising since 1977. But first, you have to click on "I Agree" to the BLF's mission statement, which begins: "By clicking below, I agree to accept all BLF terms and conditions, explicit and implicit, rational and irrational, regardless of my location in physical space and irrespective of the laws of that or any jurisdiction." I do like a website that sends up its country's reputation for litigiousness.

By clicking on "I Agree", you do indeed "Bring it on!": In the beginning was the ad, and verily the BLF lays out its claim that entirely new media have been invented solely to streamline the process of bringing the ad to the people. "To advertise is to exist," the surprisingly literate rant continues. "Our personal goal is nothing short of a personal and singular billboard for each citizen." Until that day, the BLF is doing everything in its power to encourage the "masses" (remember them?) to use any means possible to commandeer existing media and to alter them to their own design. For I say unto you that "each time you change the advertising message in your own mind, you improve the message, and enter into the high priesthood of advertisers".

This is all very well, but what has the BLF actually done? Well, its "drive-by copywriters" have been liberating billboards for 30 years now, and they've had a good few hits and misses. "Marlboro Man" became "Marlbore Man" in April 1980 - not that they had anything against cigarettes, they just didn't like the outdated campaign featuring the jaw-locked he-man. There was a dry spot in the late Eighties. The BLF, overwhelmed by Reaganomics, fell into a complacent consumer trance and forgot to improve any billboards. But, in May 1989, there was a resurgence of form with the Exxon Corporation's response to the Alaskan oil spill. The BLF regrouped to strike a blow for its "beleaguered and unjustly maligned corporate comrades" at Exxon. Prior to their liberation, Exxon's ads read: "Hits Happen." The BLF's crack graphics and installations crew left them reading: "Shit Happens." Which nicely summed up Exxon's attitude.

So, subverting the message seems to work best when the action is taken on to the streets. After all, if BlowThe DotOutYourAss.com is selling T-shirts, what does that say for its anti-consumerist stance? I leave the best riposte to the BLF. Should you disagree with its mission statement, you can click on "I Disagree: Take me to my safe place. Hurry!" and you will be delivered pretty sharpish to a website maintained by the Liberty Broadcasting Network, which is based in Lynchburg, Virginia. The homepage is the "Old-Time Gospel Hour" for the Television Outreach of Jerry Falwell Ministries. And today's special offer is a limited edition of "Jesus First" pins.


This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit