As you surf the web, you’ll find all kinds of unusual sites. One day you may stumble upon the homepage of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcakes (fruitcakesociety.org). The next day you’ll discover the website of the Institute of Advanced Rutabaga Studies (members.tripod.com/~rutabagas). The Fruitcake Society is real (it’s an informal group of people who like fruitcakes) while the Rutabaga Institute is not. But how would you know this? Given the number of hoax sites to be found on the web, how can you know whether any website is real or fake (fake meaning in this context that it claims to be something other than what it really is)? It’s not easy. But it helps if you’re familiar with the ten basic varieties of hoax websites. Nine are listed below. The tenth (fake weblogs) is described later in this chapter. (Note: I make no guarantee that any of the urls I provide will still work by the time you read this.)
The Practical Joke
Would you believe there’s such a thing as dehydrated water (buydehydratedwater.com), or a campaign to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (zapatopi.net/treeoctopus)? Hopefully not. But sites advancing these and other tongue-in-cheek claims can be found across the web. They’re harmless, attempting nothing more sinister than to pull your leg, and common sense should help you spot them. But if not, look for the telltale t-shirt sale. Pranksters can’t resist making a buck by peddling t-shirts. (By the way, if you want a Save the Jackalope t-shirt, I’ve got a special on my site.)
As far-fetched as such sites can be, someone is always gullible enough to believe them. For instance, in 2004 the city council of Aliso Viejo deliberated on a ban on anything made with the chemical dihydrogen monoxide, after finding a website (dhmo.org) that detailed the dangers of this “odorless, tasteless chemical.” The site warned that this chemical is a major component of acid rain, that it corrodes metal, and that its ingestion causes excessive sweating and urination. But before the council could embarrass itself further, someone clued them in that dihydrogen monoxide is the scientific term for water.
Also check out: Dog Island, the island where dogs roam free (thedogisland.com); Rent a German, “rent a German . . . and smile!” (rentagerman.de); and Flatulent Technologies, “extracting energy from everything that stinks or rots” (flatulenttechnologies.com).
Parody is mockery by comic imitation. Usually parodies are obvious enough because of the exaggerated or distorted nature of the imitation. But sometimes they’re far more subtle, in which case they acquire the attributes of a hoax. Hands-down, the most successful hoax/parody on the web was Objective: Christian Ministries (its url now leads to a dating service). On first, second, and third glance it appeared to be run by a group of earnest fundamentalist Christians who advocated policies such as redesigning the American flag to include the word GOD stamped across it. They also condemned Apple Computer as a “front for evolutionism.” The site fooled almost everyone, including fundamentalists. (For a while it conned a Christian hosting service into providing it with Web space.) In reality, it was an elaborate anti-Christian spoof, rumored to have ties to a porn operator.
Also check out: Whitehouse.org, a political parody of Whitehouse.gov (the official site of the White House); BushIsLord.com, dedicated to the principle that George W. Bush is “not only our nation’s leader, but our spiritual lighthouse and embodied salvation;” and preparingforemergencies.co.uk, Thomas Scott’s spoof of the British government’s Preparing for Emergencies site (preparingforemergencies.gov.uk). Scott’s version prepares citizens for emergencies such as zombie attacks and alien invasions, but the comedy was lost on British authorities who attempted to force Scott to take down his site.
The Gross-out Hoax
Bonsaikitten.com describes how to raise kittens inside of glass jars so that the kittens’ bones mold to the shapes of the jars. The site even claims to sell these “Bonsai Kittens.” But thankfully the site is a hoax, created as a prank in late 2000 by some MIT students. No kittens were harmed in its creation. This was officially determined by the FBI who investigated the site after receiving thousands of complaints.
Bonsaikitten.com is probably the most well-known example of a gross-out hoax website. The goal of such sites is simple -- to shock and disturb. They flourish on the web because a) they’re easy to create and b) they have built-in credibility since people do disgusting and cruel things, for real, every day. Other notorious gross-out sites include cutoffmyfeet.com, on which a man named Freck claimed he was going to host a live broadcast of him cutting off his feet, and manbeef.com, a pseudo-retailer of human flesh (see Chapter Four). A big clue that a gross site is a hoax is if it claims to sell something such as bonsai kittens or human flesh, but doesn’t actually provide means to purchase the product. If the site offers to sell you a t-shirt, that is, as always, a big, flashing-red hoax sign.
Also check out: Celebrity Skin, the online source for celebrity skin and bodily fluids (blackpitchpress.com/celebrityskin); and PetsOrFood.com (see Chapter Four). The Gallery of Fecal Tongs deserves (dis)honorable mention, even though it no longer exists.
The Blair Witch Wannabe
In 1999 The Blair Witch Project became a multi-million dollar box-office sensation thanks to a clever marketing scheme centered around a hoax website (blairwitch.com) that claimed the Blair Witch was real. Visitors to the site could read detailed pseudo historical background information about her, all of which seemed authentic enough to convince thousands of people of her reality. Ever since then movie promoters have been enamored of hoax websites. One of the more successful post-Blair Witch efforts was the Blonde Legal Defense Club website (nationalblondeday.com) which described the group as dedicated to stopping “the widespread belief that blondes are dumb and incapable.” To achieve this goal the BLDC declared July 9 “National Blonde Day.” In reality the site was a publicity stunt for the Reese Witherspoon movie Legally Blonde.
Also check out: ManchurianGlobal.com, website of a creepy multinational corporation featured in The Manchurian Candidate (2004); GodsendInstitute.org, a Massachusetts fertility clinic offering human cloning services (from 2004’s Godsend); and LacunaInc.com, a company devoted to non-surgical memory erasure (from 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
The Covert Ad Campaign
Mainstream marketers were slightly slower than their counterparts in the movie industry to realize how hoax websites could create buzz around a product. But they’ve recently played catch up, and now disguised advertising campaigns are all over the internet. The most elaborate to date was the homepage of engineering genius Colin Mayhew (www.r50rd.co.uk/research/internal/v2i/engin), who detailed his efforts to build a humanoid crash-preventing “autonomous robot” out of the body of a BMW Mini Cooper. A dubious-sounding project, until you viewed the remarkable video of his robot stopping a car in its tracks moments before it would have slammed into a wall. Those looking for more details about Mayhew soon uncovered a complex web of internet references to humanoid robots, including a book titled Men of Metal: Eyewitness Accounts of Humanoid Robots on the website of Casson Publishing (cassonpublishing.co.uk). But in reality the Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot, Colin Mayhew, and Casson Publishing were all part of a viral marketing campaign dreamed up by the ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. What were they advertising? The new BMW Mini Cooper, obviously.
Also check out: Skyhigh Airlines (skyhighairlines.com), the discount airline with an attitude that’s really a front for Alaska Airlines; and Elite Designers Against IKEA (elitedesigners.org), an anti-IKEA site created by IKEA itself.
The Culture Jam
Culture Jammers are activists who use hoaxes to expose corporate and media hypocrisy and to get people thinking about issues of social justice. Creating hoax websites is just one of their methods, but it’s proven an amazingly effective one. In December 2004 culture jammers scored one of their most spectacular successes to date by means of a hoax site. As the twentieth anniversary of the chemical disaster in Bhopal approached, journalists at the BBC decided to contact Dow Chemical (which had inherited responsibility for the disaster via a corporate acquisition) to find out whether the company planned to do anything in remembrance of the event. But the BBC journalists who looked for Dow’s corporate website instead found a copycat version (dowethics.com) created by a group known as the Yes Men. Thinking it was real, the journalists sent an email requesting an interview to the media contact listed on the site. The Yes Men happily obliged. On December 3, 2004 Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men appeared on the BBC disguised as “Jude Finisterra” of Dow Chemical and proceeded to announce that Dow had decided to pay $12 billion in compensation to the Bhopal victims. Dow's stock value promptly dropped. Only later that day, after Dow called the BBC to complain that the company had no idea who Mr. Finisterra was, did the BBC realize it had been culture jammed.
Also check out: Gatt.org, homepage of the World Trade Organization as imagined by the Yes Men. In 2000 it fooled the Center for International Legal Studies into inviting a speaker from the site to a conference on international services. The Yes Men sent “Dr. Bichlbauer,” who lectured the other attendees about the poor work habits of Italians and proposed that Americans should sell their votes to the highest bidder.
The Art Project
Perhaps the most intriguing variety of hoax website is the art project. In part, artists create such sites for the sheer challenge of making something fictional appear real. Take Clubbo.com, the purported home on the web of indie record label Clubbo. On the site you’ll find biographies of the bands Clubbo has represented as well as generous samples of their music. It’s the songs that make you think Clubbo is real. They’re catchy, their production value is high, and they seem strikingly representative of the eras in which they were recorded. That someone would have invented them all as a hoax seems inconceivable. But someone did. San Francisco artists Elise Malmberg and Joe Gore created Clubbo as a light-hearted experiment in Web fiction. Once you realize the whole thing is fake it’s fun to go back and appreciate the songs as a kind of masterful yet subtle send-up of the history of pop music.
Also check out: The Art of Johann Dieter Wassmann (bleedingnapoleon.com), a retrospective of a non-existent artist; The Emily Chesley Reading Circle (emilychesley.com ), dedicated to promoting the work of a “speculative” Canadian author; and Boilerplate (bigredhair.com/boilerplate), the history of a Victorian-era robot.
The Alternative Reality Game
Ilovebees.com appears to be the website of a small, mom-and-pop bee farm called Margaret’s Honey. But after a few seconds, strange things begin to occur. Warning messages appear on the screen: MODULE CORE HEMORRHAGE, SYSTEM PERIL DISTRIBUTED REFLEX. What you’ve stumbled upon isn’t actually the homepage of a honey company. It’s the starting point (or rabbit hole) for an Alternative Reality Game (or ARG). ARGs are role-playing games acted out in real-life settings. Players follow clues that may involve digging up a buried treasure, meeting a stranger on a street corner, responding to an email, or visiting a strange website. In the case of I Love Bees, some players received clue-containing jars of honey in the mail. Others had to answer payphones in specific places at specific times. These hints led them to a mystery involving rogue military artificial-intelligence programs, time-traveling soldiers, and interstellar warfare.
What this means for those of us who aren’t ARGers, is that we may come across websites of companies or organizations that look real, but are actually only part of an ARG. Nowadays many ARGs are created by advertisers, hoping to hook consumers with a fun game. I Love Bees, for instance, was part of the marketing effort for the Xbox game Halo 2.
Also check out: dionaea-house.com. It appears to be a weblog but develops into a spooky ARG about a flesh-eating house. It was designed to promote a movie screenplay written by Eric Heisserer.
The Web is no stranger to scams. Typically, con-artists use fake websites to put a veneer of credibility on businesses that are disreputable or don’t exist. In 2003 investigators discovered a copy-cat version of the Better Business Bureau’s site identical to the real thing in every way except for one detail -- whereas the real BBB site had no reference to a securities-broker dealer named Parker Jennings, the fake site not only listed him but also gave him an excellent customer-satisfaction rating. Apparently Parker Jennings had been directing potential clients who asked for a reference to his own personal BBB. The case prompted the BBB to remind consumers that on the internet “things are not always as they seem.” Indeed.
Also check out: McWhortle Enterprises (mcwhortle.com), homepage of a (non-existent) company promoting a new “bio-hazard detector.” The site was created in 2002 by the Securities and Exchange Commission as a way to demonstrate to investors the danger of online investing fraud.
Surfer’s Voice, n.: The vacant, spaced-out tone of people trying to browse the web and converse on the phone at the same time. Characterized by a high frequency of “Umms,” “Errrs,” and long pauses. When this condition is detected in someone to whom you’re talking, the best response is to hang up.
Meat Space, n.: The offline world where people “meet” as real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
Case File: Web-Controlled Christmas Lights
Turning a light on and off again and again may not be your idea of a good time. But hook up that light to the internet so that it can be controlled via a web interface by anyone, from anywhere, and suddenly this mindless activity seems really cool (well, in a nerdy kind of way).
Over the years many web-controlled devices have appeared on the internet. There have been web-controlled office-building lights, lava lamps, webcams, and even a toilet (that you could flush remotely). But perhaps the most sensational web-controlled device was Alek Komarnitsky’s Christmas lights.
Like many suburban home owners, Alek decked out his Denver-area house with thousands of Christmas lights (seventeen thousand in all). But unlike most home owners, Alek allowed people on the web to turn his lights on and off and view their handiwork via a webcam.
Alek first brought his lights online during the 2002 holiday season, and by 2004 they were something of a web tradition. Millions of people surfed over to his site to play with them. But when a local TV station took Alek up in its chopper so he could give a birds-eye tour of his home blinking on and off for the evening news, he realized things may have gone too far. Because he knew, as he sat listening to the oohs and aahs of the news crew, that the lights were only flashing because his wife Wendy, below in the house, was pushing a remote control button.
Visitors to his site had no control over the lights. It was all a big fake. The “webcam” video was just a series of computer-generated images. Even the details that many people noticed -- such as the garage door occasionally being open, or a car passing by, or an airplane flying overhead -- were programmed special effects.
Alek contacted a reporter from the Wall Street Journal and made a full confession. The Journal sent someone to verify that the webcam wasn’t active and broke the news two days after Christmas. Most people took the news in good humor, except for the guys from the local TV station. They were pretty mad.
Reminiscing about the hoax, Alek admitted that what he found amazing was that no one caught him. Anyone who had bothered to drive by would have seen that the lights never blinked. It was as if no one investigated because everyone wanted to believe. And once the initial shock of the hoax had worn off, that continued to be the dominant reaction: Stop teasing us and dot hem for real!
Copyright © 2006 Alex Boese / Hippo Eats Dwarf by Alex Boese
Published by Harvest Books; April 2006;$14.00US; 0-15-603083-7
Recognized as a hoaxpert by CNN and the New York Times, among others, Alex Boese holds a master's degree in the history of science from the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Museum of Hoaxes and the creator and curator of www.museumofhoaxes.com. He lives in San Diego.
by Cameron Hatch
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