Forty-eight percent of the nation is still sad and upset about the defeat of John Kerry, and you know so because they won't stop forwarding the same few links, cartoons and manifestoes to you, over and over again, as if it were 1998 and the Web were still new and you cheerfully opened every e-mail you received.
Re: FWD: FWD: FWD: The "Sorry, Everybody" photo gallery, and the anonymous "[Expletive] the South!" diatribe. The "Jesusland" depiction of a radically new North American continent, and many variations, including the "One Square/One Vote" remapping of the electoral college outcome and the new borders of "Dumb[bleep]istan." The breathless updates to the ever-tangling Diebold conspiracy. The one of the picture phone with President Bush flipping the bird with Verizon's "Can you hear me now?" trademark line. All of it CC'd to entire address books. Thought you'd all like to see this.
Seen it, seen it, seen it, seen it. But a week later it has not stopped. The post-electoral mass CC'ing seems to reflect a new stage of grief, a regression into the old-fashioned Internet of yore: Maybe if I forward this Jesusland map along to all my friends, the election results won't feel so bad.
Contagious ideas used to be nicknamed "memes" (pronounced meems), something that mutates and evolves like a gene. Newspaper reporters without many contagious ideas of their own used to write stories about the latest e-memes (always a few days late, and usually featuring a telephone interview with the creator of the original joke or list or graphic, who would typically feign surprise that "it just took on a life of its own"). This was the age of the "Wear Sunscreen" commencement address and Mahir Cagri's home page and "let's all put on monkey masks when John Glenn's space shuttle lands."
Then we became inured, underwhelmed, overshared: Spam devalued e-mail, and companies and Internet providers installed filters, and the power of a good link was lost to the fear of sending a lame one. Worse, it became uncool to FWD anything at all. FWD'ing became the activity of newly wired grandfathers and unfunny in-laws. The assumption now is that everybody has seen everything the Web has to offer already, especially by noon, and only a fool would pester you with a series of FWDs. Blogs emerged, not so much to revamp journalism but to establish a sense of narrative and context to the act of pointing, linking and riffing. Blogs sit still, in one place, and let you serve yourself from the buffet. We now live in a culture of what William Powers, in the National Journal last spring, first termed "Did You See?" Nothing is really read so much as clicked, scanned, glimpsed. Did you see? Did you see? Did you see?
The electoral aftermath is still a distant rumble of Did You See, only much of it has come over the transom in a quaint, '90s way, spreading one e-mail at a time. A week already feels like forever ago.
We saw "Sorry, Everybody" when it first showed up as a FWD to us early in the week. We spent most of a morning looking at the hundreds of pictures these Americans had each taken of themselves, holding up written messages of apology to the rest of the world for not voting President Bush out of office. We clicked through pictures of young people, old people, babies, dogs -- all of them looking distraught, glum and deeply sorry. We clicked through the pictures of people from other countries holding up signs accepting the apology or telling the apologizers that it was okay. (Germany forgives us. Phew.)
"Sorry, Everybody" is retro even in its look, bereft of flashy graphics or things to click on. It's just pictures of people, who, one by one, kept adding their picture to the stack. And now, because of its popularity as a much-FWD'd link, the site is backlogged, and its proprietors have switched to a more savvy system where people can upload their picture to the site themselves. By Tuesday a link to "Sorry, Everybody" started popping up in the inbox about twice an hour; this, after who knows how many Jesusland maps last week.
For all the comfort and salve the post-election memes have brought to many bereft blue-state Americans, there was also this other, stranger feeling of having grown old in the 21st century. If last week is so last week, what does that make 10 years ago? Are these the first pangs of late-'90s nostalgia? The inbox clogs up with FWDs from acquaintances, and it feels as old as a sock hop. How fast the technological world washed over us and swept us up into FWD-crazy group-mailers, left us feeling like a bunch of Friendster, Craigslisting has-beens who've already seen and clicked and Googled on everything, everywhere, at every moment.
Maybe this is why "Sorry, Everybody" has such a genuine quality about it -- something about the sharing. We hurt, some of us. It feels like being a baby again (one of those dancing babies from 1997) and the Internet is mommy and we can briefly get on her lap. You really have to go look at this, someone e-mails, and sure enough, it's yet another link to "Sorry, Everybody." Instead of hitting delete, we go there again. It feels pure, and in another week it will feel like ancient times.