POLITICS AUGUST 22, 2008
Mock a presidential candidate, and you're participating in a venerable tradition. Mock a popular website, especially if your own design skills aren't as impressive, and you're cruising for a bruising. That's the lesson the Republican National Committee must be learning from the high-tech trainwreck that is BarackBook.com: a little parody of Facebook that trumpets its connection to the elephants right at the top of its home page, and links to a series of pages bashing various Obama associates.
BarackBook went online on July 29, apparently intended to be an interactive, Web 2.0-ish site for discussing Obama's political connections. But it didn't work out that way, and was promptly hammered by more Internet-savvy Obama supporters; its discussion board disappeared within hours, after Obama supporters jumped in to adapt it to their own ends (and detractors posted racist comments). Now, the site is still live, but it's static; users can no longer write on its comment wall or discussion boards, which means its Facebook-like functionality is absent. It's a fatally flawed piece of work, because it breaks the two basic rules of satire: A successful satirical work has to bend its subject's attributes back against itself, and it has to be funny.
The message of BarackBook appears to be something like "Obama has a lot of online support, and he's affiliated, one way or another, with a couple of sleazy people, as well as some people whose politics are to the left of his own." But it's badly garbled in execution. Perhaps it was initially meant to look like a genuinely Obama-affiliated Facebook page which would ultimately convert infidels by revealing the presumptive candidate's perfidious affiliations. That didn't quite work out: It lifts Facebook's icons (like the "adding a friend" silhouette-plus-one image), but its dominant shade of blue looks more like "blue states" on political maps than the blue Facebook uses. And the layout is uglier than even Facebook's own new design.
The overall look, in fact, suggests that it was put together by someone who's seen Facebook but doesn't quite get it. One sidebar's categories include "MyNews," "MyFriends" and "MyVideos"; perhaps they've got their social networking sites confused. (In fact, mybarackobama.com leads straight to Obama's own site, and mybarack.com is a poorly maintained fan site.) There's a slightly-off-register parody of Facebook-style status lines: "Barack is wishing Speaker Pelosi a good vacation while gas prices remain high." And there's an actual link to the thing it's trying to spoof: "The Official Barackbook [capitalization sic] Application on Facebook," where reviews from actual Facebook users have been slamming the RNC silly.
"MyVideos" leads to a set of six brief attack videos on YouTube with not-very-helpful captions like "Carter-Obama Taxes"; "MyNews" leads to a feed for the RNC's headlines, most of which have a lot more to do with Obama than with McCain. (Pelosi, we learn, has called Obama "a leader that God has blessed us with," perhaps out of gratitude for the good wishes for her vacation.) The headline "Audacity Watch: O-Force One" excerpts a bit of a CBS News campaign-blog report about how Obama's campaign plane has a table that's "always covered in snacks and cheese" and has a booth in which the candidate does "the occasional interview." (Once again, their argument is foiled by the very technology they're trying to mock. Click through to the excerpted post itself, and you'll find the part the RNC left out: a description of the John McCain campaign plane, with its "12 plush leather seats" and a specially modified press area which McCain has used to address the press exactly once.) BarackBook also features a "Town Hall Clock" widget documenting how long it's been since McCain suggested that Obama hold a joint town hall meeting with him--which is only slightly more useless than the "Pork Invaders" game on McCain's real Facebook page.
The core of BarackBook, though, is its pages devoted to 19 of Obama's associates, linked on the front page via a deadpan Facebook-style feed that also doesn't quite come off as the indictment it's trying to be. "Barack Obama is now friends with Unnamed UBS Broker," for instance, is a reference to a stock deal in which, the Republican site neglects to mention, Obama lost $13,000. (The McCain campaign might also want to shy away from mentioning UBS: McCain buddy Phil Gramm is an executive at the banking giant, which invested disastrously in subprime mortgages.) The individual profile pages are built around quotes from news stories, annoyingly capitalized: "Though Khalidi Has Seen Little Of Sen. Obama In Recent Years, Michelle Obama Attended A Party Several Months Ago Celebrating The Marriage Of The Khalidis' Daughter."
But you know how "friendship" works on Facebook: If some dude who lived down the street from you in college friends you, you click yes, and then he's got pretty much the same standing as your best bud. In the real world, Facebook friendship suggests merely acquaintanceship, if that, which leaves BarackBook's format implying that Obama's ties to the likes of the late poet Frank Marshall Davis and "Unnamed Philadelphia Street Organizer" might well be fairly trivial. The quotes on some of their individual pages underscore that suggestion. On the page that ties Obama to former Weather Underground member William Ayers, for instance, we see a quote from Obama's spokesman Bill Burton: "...he was an eight-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost 40 years ago is ridiculous." Not quite a smoking gun.
More to the point, there's nothing about the BarackBook format that points out particular flaws in Obama's character--or anything that would make him much less appealing to the putative audience for this particular parody. What it does suggest is that the RNC misunderstands the mechanics of both new technology and old-fashioned humor. The biggest difference between BarackBook and Facebook, of course, is that the attack site drastically understates how many friends Obama has. At last count, Obama's actual Facebook page listed upwards of 1.3 million supporters, as opposed to a bit over 200,000 for McCain. Right now, you'd think the Republicans would spend less time on fruitless parodies and more time frantically reloading their "People You May Know" page.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo.
By Douglas Wolk