Let's take a moment to pour one out for "Snakes on a Plane."
We all remember that monster smash, don't we? Whether we were I-banking in the City, or boating along the Yangtze, we could barely go five minutes this summer without overhearing some hipsters gush about how excited they were for Samuel L. Jackson's self-consciously crappy campfest. We all heard the hype. Hookah bars in Williamsburg closed. Millenials in trucker hats and asymmetrical bobs left the kickball fields and plunked themselves down in their local AMC. A generation weaned on irony had finally found its Woodstock.
Entertainment Weekly led the euphoric charge: "For nearly a year, SoaP obsessives have been chatting and blogging about the movie, not to mention producing their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies. As the movie has morphed from a semiprecious nugget of intellectual property into a virtual plaything for the Ethernet masses, Snakes and its cult are teasingly threatening to revolutionize the rules of marketing for the do-it-yourself digital era."
And then came Black Tuesday.
On Aug. 22, the Hollywood Reporter reported that Snakes on a Plane had only grossed 15.2 million dollars in its opening three-day weekend. 15.2 million dollars? There hasn't been such a dud since Rihanna came to campus. Seriously, Snakes on a Plane turned out to be the least popular August release since Mike Tyson left jail. Even Entertainment Weekly shifted course, conceding that Samuel L. Jackson's sure thing was indeed a flop: "that hissing sound came not from a horde of vipers but from the air leaking out of the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon." In the end, the much-ballyhooed revolution was not to be. Hipsters had their very own eBay of Pigs.
Now, two months later, we find ourselves in a period of similar hype and heightened expectations. Three weeks before the midterm elections, an army of YouTubers, bloggers, pundits, honchos, spin-meisters and talking-heads are regaling Washington with round-the-clock tales of Joe Lieberman putdowns and Mark Foley patdowns. In a state of digital frenzy, the blogosphere is running rampant, using the freedom and ease of the Internet to transform minute details from local races into national fodder. Thanks to youtube.com, the shot of Sen. Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) falling asleep at a committee hearing was made accessible faster than you can say Abramoff. And Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) probably regrets telling a crowd in Delaware that "you can't go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent."
New media — whether praised as a modern-day Hobbes, or condemned as a B-list Lou Dobbs — is having a field day with the 2006 elections. Just as it responds to the acts of movers-and-shakers, D.C.'s chattering class has come to follow (and fear) the Internet's newest exploits.
Case in point: Sen. George "Macacawitz" Allen (R-Va.). This Southern good-ole boy with a grin as wide as the Texas sky and a sunny disposition that makes Katie Couric look like Frau Farbissina was speeding towards reelection. Questions concerning his electability were centered on his possible 2008 presidential run, not his Senate reelection bid against Reagan-era Navy Secretary Jim Webb.
Then Allen made a campaign trip to Breaks, Va., a small town in the southwestern part of the state near the Kentucky border. A Webb supporter of Indian descent named Shekar Sidarth filmed Allen's stumpfest, and for some inexplicable reason, Allen went berserk. Calling Sidarth "macaca" and welcoming him to America — and to "the real world of Virginia" — Allen lambasted him in front of the gathered crowd. Allen's rant was captured on tape, and on Aug. 16, the resulting video hit No. 1 on YouTube.
Now, two months of momentum-killing PR has taken its toll. Allen is in a deadlock with Webb, and his message has gone from "The future is now" to "I blew my lead, how?" News items that would have been small beans months ago — Allen's Jewish roots, his penchant for the Confederate flag, racial slurs he may or may not have used years ago — are now front-page news, and have drowned out any positive spin that his campaign has attempted to put out. As the right-leaning Weekly Standard recently wrote: "Forget the Presidential run. Can he still win his Senate race?"
Allen's example highlights how the rise of YouTube and the Internet bloggers has taken away what politicians crave the most: control. While making off-color side comments used to be a trade standard for politicians, it isn't so easy to let it slide now that a slip-up slur can be immortalized instantaneously online. Following his macaca moment, Allen's persona went from textbook affable to schoolyard bully. Inconsistency is now the name of the game, and the proliferation of sites which show politicians at their most unscripted — and hence, their most "real" — take away that fortress of identity they meticulously craft for themselves.
Yet, despite this pre-election buzz, a critical question gnaws at the root of the YouTube revolution: Will the new approach to politics actually prove effective? After all, politics is a zero-sum game, and despite the Democratic Party's noble (and long-running) contrary opinion, sustained political relevancy requires tangible electoral results. Thus, while the blogosphere has managed to create buzz, raise money and elevate candidates to presumptive front-runner status, the question remains: Can the Kossacks, 'Tubers, and HuffPo's produce actual victories at the polls? Simply put, are the video bloggers truly destined to reinvigorate American politics, or are they about to find some motherf—in' snakes on their motherf—in' MacBooks?
Conservative commentator Byron York raised this very issue when he went on "Meet The Press" in June: "The fact is, [the Internet] has lent its support to more than a dozen candidates in the past couple of years and none of them have won." Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the political blog DailyKos, conceded this point about his own movement, stating on the same episode of Meet the Press: "[Can we] actually deliver an election? Probably not." When New York Times columnist David Brooks called Moulitsas a "kingmaker," another blogger, Mickey Kaus, replied, "Yeah? Name the king."
Political blogs, after all, occupy a fairly small niche on the web. As political columnist Michelle Malkin estimated, the top 100 political blogs, in the aggregate, probably average between 100,000-200,000 adult visitors a day. As such, those who visit blogs are most likely the small, select group of die-hard news junkies who are scouring all corners of the web for information. Many at Princeton who do read blogs use them as a supplement to other, more traditional sources of news. Jon Weed '09 said he peruses blogs only after already having scoured the CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Slate and Salon websites. As such, while blogs can provide interesting pieces of information that are not published anywhere else (Amy Klobuchar Goes 57 m.p.h on Minnesota Highway!), they are not likely to provide the big picture news that will ultimately influence votes.
So come November, keep an eye out — the line for the ballot box will be right next to the line for Vol II: Snakes on a Train. But then again, if these online enthusiasts weren't willing to shell out 10 bucks for a movie, will they muster the energy to pull the lever?
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