By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008
It's the nature of the Web -- and, really, of life. What goes up must come down. What's popular becomes too popular. What's seen as hip and hot and cool eventually gets mocked.
Even, yes, Barack Obama.
In recent days, sites have popped up indicating that the ongoing online Obamamania has hit a wall. What kind of wall? A snarky, ironic, this-Obama-thing-has-gotten-over-the-top wall. Obama's smiling mug is mashed up on countless faces on SenatorObamas.com. He's Sumobama. He's Pharaohbama. He's Navajobama, complete with a blue-and-white feathered headdress. The blog Is Barack Obama the Messiah? features a photo of the Illinois senator standing on a flight of stairs, Christlike, above an adoring crowd while a ray of light beams from above.
And on the aptly titled Web site BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle.com, the candidate caters to all your needs: Barack Obama made your bed . . . Barack Obama folded your laundry . . . Barack Obama picked you up at the airport . . . Barack Obama remembered your birthday . . . Barack Obama is your new bicycle . . .
That's funny ha, ha. And funny ouch.
Sites such as the Messiah blog are created by voters who don't care much for Obama.
"I just can't stand it. Whenever I hear him speak, I shake my head, thinking, 'Are people hearing his campaign's overtly religious tones?' " says Michael Hussey, 29, an Internet entrepreneur who runs RateMyTeachers.com. Hussey is a libertarian, his politics a cross between Ron Paul's and Rudy Giuliani's, he says. After reading about the Messiah blog on the conservative site Instapundit, Hussey started a Facebook group where members post comments such as "I hear he shoots lightning out of his fingertips to smite the unbelievers!" The group has 37 members.
But most of the sites that poke fun at online Obamamania are engineered by supporters, some of whom are explaining to themselves -- and to lovers, friends, co-workers -- Obama's pull. The Web is an expressive, creative sandbox, a virtual playground where you can be as self-effacing and self-indulgent as possible. It's a place where inside jokes become, when effective, everyone's jokes.
"Obama has this almost irrational following, and I myself can't sometimes explain why I'm supporting him. He's all things to all men. At least that's how I put it," says Noah Norman, 25, a tech consultant who launched SenatorObamas last week.
No offense to the Paulites, the fervent, fanatical followers who've kept Paul's candidacy alive, but Obama is the online candidate of the primary race. Though he consistently trailed Hillary Rodham Clinton in state and national polls for most of last year, he's always been the online front-runner in fundraising, and the most popular Democratic candidate on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
On YouTube, it started off as fluff, a harmless diversion, with Amber Lee Ettinger, a.k.a. Obama Girl, lip-synching her way to "I Got a Crush . . . on Obama." Then it tapped into something authentic when Will.I.Am's " Yes We Can" video, now viewed nearly 5 million times in one channel alone, got IM'd, linked and e-mailed around.
"To some people, the 'Yes We Can' video is when folks started to think, 'Oh, this is too much,' " says Joshua Levy of TechPresident, the bipartisan group blog that tracks how the candidates are campaigning on the Web. "The Internet is all about authenticity. When somebody gets too popular, too mainstream, their authenticity is questioned. It's like an indie band joining a major label. It's like Kurt Cobain. It's like 'Juno.' "
Adds Peter Leyden, director of the liberal think tank New Politics Institute and the former managing editor of the tech staple Wired magazine: "It's a backlash with a small 'b.' A 'baracklash.' One of the things you have to remember about Internet culture is, there's a smugness, a self-satisfaction about being ahead of the curve. But now that Obamamania has gotten to be so widespread online, folks are twisting and tweaking it."
Mathew Honan says his wife, Harper Honan, an avid cyclist, used to obsess about her mountain bike, a Santa Cruz Blur LT. But when the Honans returned from their vacation in Nicaragua shortly after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Harper's obsession turned to Obama. Instead of talking about her bike, Harper talks about Obama. It's nonstop. She has made calls to the campaign. She has canvassed and knocked on doors. She has held signs out in the streets.
Then one day, Mathew, 35, a freelance writer, joked to Harper, 32, a registered nurse: "Barack Obama is your new bicycle."
A site was born.
After launching less than two weeks ago, the site has been viewed more than 2.3 million times.
"I didn't see it as a pro-Obama site or an anti-Obama site, though some people can interpret it any way they want. I was just trying to be funny," says Mathew, who's also an Obama supporter. The Honans have given about $300 to Obama online.
"But I actually think a little backlash is good for Obama," Mathew adds. "He's not going to win on personality alone. I think the more people shy away from the mania of it all, the more they'll realize that there's actual substance in him and what he's been saying."