The Internet isn’t the world, though that’s easy to forget when it’s the only thing standing between you and workday boredom. But the web is more than just distraction; for many, it’s our primary source of news, entertainment, social interaction, and pictures of kitties. It’s also a fickle beast with a short memory and an even shorter attention span, as surfers collectively click over to the next meme-of-the-moment before that online viral video has even finished loading. Even the most robust RSS feed can’t capture all the bits of news, humor, and Internet ephemera that go zipping by on their way to virtual obscurity. The A.V. Club is here to help sort it all out with Trending Topics, which looks back at the web week that was and rounds up what the Internet was talking about while you were busy with real life.
The Great War Of Shut The Hell Up
Chances are good that if you’re reading this column, you have a certain affinity and appreciation for the Internet, the vast riches of information, entertainment, and porn it has to offer our society. Chances are also good that in your adventures on the web, you’ve occasionally come across something that makes you yearn for the days before these tubes connected us, something that gives you the urge to throw your computer out the window, screaming “Shut it down, shut it all down!” According to a survey released this week, conducted by Unisys, 61 percent of Americans support an “Internet kill switch,” a system that would allow the president to shut down portions of the Internet. Of course, this hypothetical “kill switch” would be used to counter cyber-terrorist attacks that threaten national security, not eradicate trolls. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream about a magical button that gives us the power to destroy the various festering boils on the butt of the web. YouTube, for example, would get a serious lancing, as it’s a breeding ground for narcissism, trolling, and war. Yes, war. Did you know we’re at war right now? No, not the one in Iraq, silly. No, not Afghanistan either… what, do you think it’s mid-2010 or something? No, we’re at war against the Justin Bieber haters of the world! Or maybe we’re against the Justin Bieber fans of the world? It’s hard to tell who to root for in a war where both sides are so annoying.
Some background: A couple weeks ago, 14-year-old Torontonian Eric Douglace became a minor viral-video star when he posted a YouTube video in which he calls out “metal-loving fuckheads” and others for not liking his favorite singer, Justin Bieber. He claimed he and his friends are being persecuted for their beliefs that Justin is like, totally awesome, y’know? He demanded the “haters” take down every website, video, etc. that dares speak ill of the Biebs, or Douglace will use his shady connections to “people throughout Europe [who] own botnets” to hack their IP addresses and post their personal info and pictures on a website so that Bieber’s Army can like, make fun of them and maybe prank-call them or something. Douglace even has a second-in-command in his war, the somehow even more awkward “Jacksfilms1,” who piggybacked on his friend’s declaration of war with his own much-less-watched manifesto.
But before this war could even begin, Douglace and Jacksfilms1 were targeted by a couple other jackasses on YouTube who clearly did not heed the warning on the videos that “BAD COMMENTS WILL BE TRACED AND REPORTED TO THE POLICE THE CYBER BULLYING POLICE AND INTERPOL FUCK YOU.” First, a goggle-wearing jackass named LifeInATent posted a rant informing Douglace (correctly) that what he was planning to do was illegal, and asking his followers to spam Douglace’s account. It was annoying, but reasonable. Then a sweaty, yelling jackass who calls himself Outback Zack hopped on the bandwagon and railed on Douglace for his video, saying he didn’t care if 14-year-old girls acted like idiots over Bieber, but 14-year-old boys doing so is grounds for retribution. So he encouraged his followers (whom he calls his “little lunatics”) to troll Douglace by telling him “Outback Zack rapes you” and “Outback Zack shoves a football up your ass.” (I’m only linking to these videos for attribution purposes. Trust me, they are not worth actually watching.) Thus a whole spin-off war was begun, with Douglace threatening legal action against the pair, and them responding with videos that amount to “fuck off.” In spite of the distraction, Douglace’s deputy Jacksfilms1 has remained a vocal proponent of the war, posting videos with titles like “The War Begins Tomorrow” and “The War Has StartedTHE WAR HAS STARTED.”
So now that 14 days have passed and we are officially in the midst of Operation Bieber, where do we stand? Well, according to a top-secret dispatch sent from the bedroom of Jacksfilms1, Douglace has been captured by his father, who realized that his idiot son had dun goofed, and took away his computer and camera, leaving his friend to carry out the war. (He also says Douglace the Elder is an alcoholic who beats his son. Whether that’s true or not, it’s depressing.) Sadly, Jacksfilms1 seems to be crumbling under the pressure, posting a teary video to Douglace’s account titled “We Will Never Surrender,” in which he chides people for leaving “nasty rude comments” on videos where he and his friend gleefully threatened to basically do the same.
So who do you root for in this ridiculous war? The dumb kids who have spent untold amounts of emotional energy “defending” a pop star who makes millions of dollars and doesn’t know who they are? The twentysomething jackasses who engaged them in an online pissing contest, despite being old enough to know better? Or should we blame Bieber himself? As a YouTube-born phenomenon who’s allegedly engaged in laser-tag-incited bullying himself, has he unwittingly given rise to this horrible online subculture of “haters” and “defenders”?
Happily, there’s a clear solution to this YouTube War That No One Cares About: Internet kill switch! Come on, Obama, press the button! As for Bieber, don’t worry: Greyson Chance—you know, that kid who made virtual waves a few months back with his cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”—has debuted his first single, thus ushering out The Bieber Age and ushering in The Time Of Greyson, J. So Biebes will soon be left alone to count his millions and stare at his line of nail polish while pining for the days when he could inspire such passion in 14-year-old boys.
That’s art, stupid
Maybe you skipped to this section because you started reading the one above and thought, “I do not care to read 900 words about some idiots on YouTube.” Or maybe you did read it, and now you’re here thinking, “I can’t believe I just read 900 words about some idiots on YouTube. Genevieve Koski must be stopped.” Well, allow me some justification: I believe that YouTube videos are their own form of artistic expression, like film or television, and we here at The A.V. Club try to examine both the highs and lows of any given art form. The way people abuse a medium can be just as enlightening as the way they embrace it, and I think delving into the bowels of YouTube vlogger society can expose some dark corners of our culture’s collective psyche. But just as for every Real Housewives franchise, there’s a Mad Men, for every Eric Douglace, there are creatives using YouTube as an outlet for what can only be called “art.”
Before you scoff at the idea of the words “YouTube” and “art” occupying the same sentence, let me point you to an authority on the subject: The Guggenheim Mmuseum, which last weekend launched its “YouTube Play” exhibition, “recogniz[ing] the ever-expanding realm of online video and its most remarkable practitioners.” “YouTube Play” compiles the 25 best videos out of 23,000 that were submitted to the project and reviewed by a jury that included Laurie Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Takashi Murakami, and the members of Animal Collective, among other artists in a variety of media. The videos—which include longtime Internet weirdness purveyor Strindberg and Helium and South African kind-of-joking-but-not-really rap crew Die Antwood—are all listed on the Guggenheim site, but got a offline debut via an exhibition last weekend that projected them onto the museum’s iconic façade.
I’d highly encourage you to browse the Guggenheim’s list as a palate-cleanser after those Bieber Wars videos, and to remind yourself that there’s still some good in this crazy online world of ours.
Hide your bits, hide your bytes
Of course, there’s still danger lurking around every corner on the Internet. As the 61 percent of the population in favor of that Internet kill switch know, there are gaping security holes in the fabric of the web, just waiting to bring down individuals, corporations, even democracy itself. Or, worse yet, your Farmville crops! Scary, right? Take a lesson from the Italian woman whose “virtual home” in the Facebook game Pet Society was “burglarized” by the lamest hacker ever, who “stole” $140 or so dollars in decorations and crap that you have to buy for a fake house for a fake pet in a virtual store. Seriously. But at least it gave Metro.co.uk the opportunity to make this salient observation: “Still, the hacker cannot be accused of being a cat burglar—the only thing left in the seven-room online flat was its ‘resident’, Blue Cat.” Ah, the healing power of puns.
But Facebook has bigger security problems than a not-cat burglar. This week, developer Eric Butler revealed a diabolical instrument to draw attention to the gaping security holes in websites like Facebook and Twitter: Firesheep, a Firefox extension that allows user to access other people’s accounts over an open wi-fi network. According to Butler, many websites essentially broadcast cookies over open networks, allowing others to basically hijack another user’s session:
“This is a widely known problem that has been talked about to death, yet very popular websites continue to fail at protecting their users. The only effective fix for this problem is full end-to-end encryption, known on the web as HTTPS or SSL. Facebook is constantly rolling out new ‘privacy’ features in an endless attempt to quell the screams of unhappy users, but what’s the point when someone can just take over an account entirely? Twitter forced all third party developers to use OAuth then immediately released (and promoted) a new version of their insecure website. When it comes to user privacy, SSL is the elephant in the room.”
So Butler developed a plug-in that lists all the active sessions on an open network and allows wily users to log in using those credentials to expose this problem—basically Hacking For Dummies. “Meh,” you might say, “I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. That’s what those idiots get for buying into that social-networking crap.” Well, Firesheep is also programmed to recognize cookies from Amazon, Flickr, Google, Wordpress, Yahoo, Yelp, and a bunch of other commonly used sites that store personal information.
So what is a coffee-shop-dwelling web denizen to do? Well, Facebook’s official response to the matter is, “We have been making progress testing SSL access across Facebook and hope to provide it as an option in the coming months. As always, we advise people to use caution when sending or receiving information over unsecured Wi-Fi networks.” If “wait a few months” doesn’t do it for you, Techcrunch offers an alternative in the form of another plug-in. Or just hope that weird kid sitting next to you at Starbucks is too busy declaring war on the Greyson Chance haters of the world to bother stealing your fake kitty’s fake ball of yarn.
Tumblr insta-blogs sprout up faster than desperate publishers can offer them book deals, capturing a moment in meme history before the next hybrid of ’80s nostalgia, weird foodstuffs, and adorable animals comes along. Catch this while it’s still relevant:
On the heels of journalist/political commentator Juan Williams talking on The O’Reilly Factor about getting nervous around people in “Muslim garb”—comments that got him dismissed from his position as senior news analyst at NPR—some intrepid soul has started Muslims Wearing Things, which documents the wide variety of garb by which you can identify Muslims, from Ed Hardy shirts to U.S. Army fatigues.
Each week, Trending Topics provides a website that’s ideal for wasting company time or putting off that term paper. Enjoy!
Have you heard? The Internet loves cats! As explained before in this column, cats are one of the three cornerstones of the Internet, along with schadenfreude and irony. Nothing’s better than looking at cats on the Internet, except maybe playing with a cat in real life. Well, what if I told you that you no longer had to choose between those two wonderful experiences? Thanks to the Oregon Humane Society, you can now actually play with cats via the Internet, using your keyboard to control robotic toys scattered around a room populated by totes adorbs kittehs. You can also watch the live camera while others play, if you’re more the voyeur type—or if you’re on a Mac, since the toy-control function only supports PCs using Internet Explorer.
Play us out
A little visual web candy to end the week on a high note.
I’ve done a lot of ragging on stupid people on the Internet this week, so here’s a reminder that for every FAIL there is a WIN: a compellation of videos of people doing awesome things (some of them fake, but just go with it), set to a terrible soundtrack. Seriously, just cue up your own music and enjoy the ridiculous things people are capable of when they have no regard for their own personal safety.