August 24th, 2008
Image via BikePortland.org
Mat Honan worked for two failed dotcoms before becoming a contributing editor at Wired magazine — but his luck changed in February when he created a funny site about Barack Obama in just a few hours. 7 million pageviews later, it's landed him a book deal, a slew of interviews, and even a mention in the New York Times.
The success grew from a personal catchphrase whispered teasingly to his wife: "Barack Obama is your new bicycle." (Her excitement about the candidate matched her previous enthusiasm for cycling.) But it soon exploded, proving once again the strange fame-making power of the web. Mat's publisher had also conjured books out of viral web sites like Chuck Norris facts and the LOL Cats. Is the internet changing the world of publishing as well as the presidential race — and maybe even democracy itself?
A funny thing happened when I tried to buy Mat's book — I couldn't. It had already sold out at my local store, and there were only two copies left at the Borders superstore. ("It's been really popular," the floor clerk said.) But Mat's a friend of mine, so I tracked him down for an honest answer about the role of the internet in 2008, and how it's changing the way we argue about politics.
And the way we argue about Barack Obama....
LOU CABRON: Are you surprised by the runaway success of your site?
MAT HONAN: The thing you have to keep in mind is that I got the idea for the site on a bus ride home, and between 5 p.m. and when the site went live at 9 p.m. — nothing was done after that!
I didn't have any expectation that something I created in a few hours was going to take off like it did. I've worked on a lot of online and writing projects for weeks and months, and sometimes you create things that you think are going to be insanely popular — that people will like — but you can never predict that kind of stuff. And those things you spend a few hours on — I don't know what happened. I basically tapped into some sort of Zeitgeist, and people really related to it!
I think most people who like it are pro-Obama, and it's fundamentally sort of sweet. I was trying to come up with ideas that your wife or your boyfriend or your best friend or something would do for you. That was my criteria.
LC: Like "Barack Obama bought you candy. Barack Obama baked you a pie. Barack Obama folded you an origami crane. Barack Obama built you a robot." For some reason, these non sequitors you came up with resonated with the online world.
MH: I really am sort of amazed by it. Even though I've thought about it a lot, I can't really put my finger on whatever made it take off like it did.
If you had told me 10,000 people would see it, I just wouldn't have thought that was very likely, or that if they did, it might've been if some big blog linked to it — I might've gotten a one-day bump in traffic. I certainly wouldn't have thought it was going to result in a book deal!
LC: It's been said that online media also helped Obama build the "net roots" backbone for his Presidential bid. Is the role of technology in this campaign being overblown?
MH: I don't think it's overblown. I think if anything, there's probably not enough made of it.
I have in the past couple of months become an unintentional and unwitting spokesman for what's right or wrong about the Obama campaign and I just — I'm not an expert on it. But he is internet savvy, and what made me put some of those references in the book — "Barack Obama favorited your photo" and "Barack Obama friended you on Facebook" — is that his campaign did have those internet presences. That was certainly one of the things that led me to include those.
LC: Your web site immediately inspired several other viral sites — about Hillary Clinton, Ron Paul, and even Steve Jobs. But at the same time, political blogs have started to play a real role in fundraising and disseminating campaign information. Is that a good thing?
MH: I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, because it leads to us not talking to each other as we once did. I think the more that we splinter into little groups, the worse it is for society as a whole. It becomes very easy for me to forget that there are people out there who have some political opinion that's very different than my own, because I just don't go to those web sites. I don't know what people are talking about on Little Green Footballs today. I don't know if it's still around, and if it went away — I wouldn't know.
I tend to avoid political web sites like I do somebody who's got a hacking cough. Whether they're left wing or right wing, I think they just tend to be so consumed with anger — I have a hard time getting into it. I don't think it's constructive. It's really easy to get yourself into a feedback loop...
Maybe I don't have enough spare time to be hanging out on the hardcore political sites.
LC: Does it seem like there's too much cynicism — online, and in the real world?
MH: I feel like cynicism is just such an easy cop out to caring for people — or doing anything. I feel like cynicism is the lazy man's sincerity. It's hard work not to be cynical. Social pressures make you want to be cynical, especially among people who might consider themselves urbane or in some way outside of the mainstream.
I try very hard not to be cynical. I think I'm somebody who used to be a very cynical person... There's a lot of social pressure for you to not be enthusiastic about anything — and to just not like anything, or to act like you don't like anything, to be too cool to like anything, too cool to be a fan. I made a decision a long time ago to not be cynical. And I hope it comes through in the book. And yet there's some part of me that's cynical, deep inside of me.
I feel like so few people are engaged and trying to do anything — to put themselves out there, largely because so many other people are engaged in trying to tear down people who put themselves out there. I think that applies to politics, art, business... I think society has become, and maybe always has been, very cynical, and I think ultimately that's not very constructive or helpful. I think that oddly enough, it's to some extent the creative class that is the most cynical and should also be the group of people who are least likely to be cynical, because they're the ones who are most often negatively affected by the cynicism of others.
LC: Your web site is sweet but sardonic — and it's ultimately hard to guess what your true feelings are about Obama.
MH: The book and the web site certainly were meant to be neither pro or anti-Obama. They almost have nothing to do with each other in that regard. I mean, the book is definitely done from a well-meaning and loving place, but in a way that I think could be open to interpretation, as something that you could see as not pro-Obama. And many people have seen it as an anti-Obama site. I was just trying to make a joke, and I think a lot of times jokes work better if they don't have an agenda. And I didn't have an agenda.
But I also was "taking the piss" a little bit — because I felt like there's a certain zeal to the whole Obama thing. I think that people can have conflated expectations of Obama and not necessarily him as a candidate. I certainly think he's the stronger candidate — he was the stronger candidate in the primary, and he is now. But that doesn't mean he's the perfect candidate or the perfect man. No one is. So I was just making fun of the concept of Obama as the person who's all things to all people, which is how I think people perceive him, not that he's presented himself as such. I kind of think those are two different things. When I made the web site, I was just sort of trying to say the whole country seems to have just fallen in love with Barack Obama.
LC: The McCain campaign is comparing the Barack Obama phenomenon to Paris Hilton.
MH: I wasn't talking about Obama as a celebrity. I was talking about him as a boyfriend. I thought it was kind of a good-natured ribbing about my wife in particular and people in general, being in love with Obama.
I certainly think that the McCain campaign is coming from a place of cynicism, which I think is unfortunate. I think John McCain is a great American and I think he is a person who probably is a statesman and I think he's done a disservice to his campaign by engaging in this kind of Karl Rove "scorched earth" cynical campaign. I feel like he's taking things that Obama has said and making it appear that Obama has created a cult of personality or attempted to create a cult of personality, whereas it's the people who have supported Obama who have generated this zeal for him, when it's Obama's supporters who are enthusiastic for him. Obama can't artificially create something like that. No one can.
LC: But do you think that popularity translates into real political change? Do you really think Barack can bring America together?
MH: I think maybe he can. I don't know why, exactly, but I think maybe he can. I think he can, because I think he's sort of an authentic person, and I think he's a leader. There are certain indefinable traits that leaders have, and I think he's got those indefinable traits.
And I think people will support him as a President. I think it's fundamentally bad to have two camps in the country hating each other, and I think you need somebody that speaks from the middle. And I think unless he can kind of be painted into a corner, I think he can do that.
The government's last eight years have been governing from the edge. I felt Clinton and Bush's dad did a good job of governing from the middle. I think it's something Obama will try to do, and if you're a strong leader you certainly stand a better chance than when you just govern from your base.
LC: But you're not actually a Democrat?
MH: I'd never voted for a major party candidate until John Kerry. And that was because I had a cynical view of both parties, and didn't really necessarily feel that my vote was going to change anything. Not that it wasn't important — I felt that it was important, but I also felt like it wasn't going to change anything, because nobody stood for anything that they were talking about. They just stood for themselves. So John Kerry — it wasn't so much that I was voting for him as I was voting against Bush.
I'm 35 and about to be 36, but Obama is certainly the first candidate I have ever been excited about and really believed in. I feel like it's not just necessarily young people. I feel fortunate that there's a candidate like that in this election because I think you maybe get one of those in a lifetime — one candidate in a lifetime who you can really truly believe in. I do believe in Barack Obama because I believe he has some essential authenticity. He comes across as a real human being, as someone who wakes up in the morning and goes to sleep at night and has doubts and isn't just saying what needs to be said in order to be elected. I just — that's my take on it. Why do I think that? It's hard to say.
LC: What about John McCain?
MH: McCain is someone who had his own authenticity, and he squandered it by zagging to go after his party's base, by cozying up to the very people he called agents of intolerance.
Obama — you look at some of the things he's done. I think he made a very risky speech on race. He's the first person I think in my lifetime who talked about race to me as if I wasn't an absolute idiot, who talked to me like he would if it were the two of us in the room rather than speaking to a nation of people. Most politicians won't talk to you like that. They'll talk as if there are 100,000 ears listening in, and they're trying to catch them — which they are.
LC: So if Barack is our new bicycle, what was John Kerry? John Edwards? Al Gore?
MH: I don't think it quite works that way. It was very specific. One of the things that was interesting about the book and the web site is that it's all so enigmatic to people. I was almost reluctant to write an introduction because I didn't know if it would kind of ruin the enigmatic title to explain where it came from. But to me, when I say "is your new bicycle" — the your is my wife's.
If you're talking about John Kerry in her terms, I guess maybe he's a MUNI bus Fast Pass. It still beats driving to and from work, but it's not going to be as fun.
LC: So you don't have a metaphor for the Taft administration?
MH: I think even if you went back to Clinton, I'd be dry.
LC: The Democratic Convention is this week. Any plans to capitalize?
MH: I had actually hoped to go to Denver and try to do some book promoting, but I can't afford the hotel rooms. My wife and I had thought about driving out there and maybe setting up a little table. But I think when I last checked, the Super 8 or the Motel 6 cost $350 a night with a four-night minimum...there were virtually no rooms.
LC: So I'll take it you haven't been offered a speaking slot at the convention. But have you heard anything from the Obama campaign?
MH: Nah. Nothing. I don't know if they know about my book or not.
He did favorite a photo of mine on Flickr. That was great, but I assume that was somebody in his campaign. He's way too busy to be messing around with Flickr.
LC: Your book's last non sequitor is "Barack Obama autographed your book."
MH: And it even have a space for him to autograph it there.
LC: Has anyone....?
MH: My hope is that someone will actually do that and send me a picture.
LC: But meanwhile, back in San Francisco, not only is Barack Obama your new bicycle — you wrote the whole book at a bike cafe. Bikes are fuel efficient, and there was even a minor stir over a photo of Barack Obama riding his bicycle. And yet ironically, bicycles have been almost completely absent from this campaign.
MH: There are going to be thousands of bikes at the Democratic convention to get around on — those pick-'em-up, drop-'em-off bikes. I think anything that gets people on bikes is great.
Good for them!
Is the Net Good For Writers?
An Obama Caucus Story From Idaho
The Bush Administration's Greatest Hits (To Your Face)
The QuestionAuthority Proposal
Can Senator Lieberman Be Recalled?