How do you satirize satire? If you’re asking Dan Schultz and Matt Stempeck, the answer is: “you make it true.”
Both are graduates of the MIT Media Lab, and earlier this year they created The On1on. It may not be as funny as The Onion, but the catch is that it’s also not as fake as The Onion. The On1on pulls all its headlines from real news outlets, making it perhaps the world’s greatest aggregator of journalistic absurdity.
As both a fascinating technological feat and something that blurs the lines between fact and fiction as well as comedy and computation, I peppered Matt and Dan with some questions to see if they could successfully aggregate some interesting answers. They did.
Please state your name and what you do with your time, be that an occupation or otherwise? Also, if you have any pets, what are their names and what do they do with their time, be that occupation or otherwise?
Dan: Dan Schultz (human), Captain of the Internet. I work on random prototypes and projects that usually don’t earn any money or provide any real value to society. Genghis Pancake (cat). Stands on doors like the lion king, plays fetch, gets inside of empty bags.
Matt: Matt Stempeck (???), recently graduated Master’s student. I graduated from the MIT Media Lab on June 8th and am collecting opportunities to build interesting software projects and write. My plants are somewhere between life and death at the moment. They really hate when I travel.
Since we’re here to talk about your creation The On1on, let’s start from the beginning: explain to me how this idea was born.
Matt: Dan worked on a project called NewsJack during his time at the Media Lab. The tool makes it really easy for people to satirize news publications by pointing, clicking, and changing the content.
Dan: Fun fact: I gave a private demo to the board of directors of the New York Times and they loved it so much that they sent me a cease and desist on launch day! That aside, the idea behind newsjack is that it enables a type of modification that is usually very hard to get in digital space. Matt quickly observed that it also opened up some really interesting questions about the way that brand and context can affect the way we interpret information. His first NewsJack populated the NY Times front page with headlines from Fox News. Hilarity and destruction of brand value ensued. What kinds of statements can be made when you start mashing up reader expectations with a different kind of content? That’s the question that led to The On1on.
So let’s nerd out for a second here and walk through the process of constructing the site. How did you do it and were there any bumps along the road?
Matt: Well, first, we got excited and bought theon1on.com domain name. Because that’s what you do when you’re excited about projects that may never happen: buy domain names. Then a year passed as we worked on more important (but probably less fun) things. The domain name came up for renewal, and before plunking down another $9 ($45, adjusted for graduate student indices), we agreed to actually build it. Which was mostly Dan.
Dan: Building The On1on took about 4 hours of my time, plus a few hours of Matt trying to decide on a logo. The big challenge was figuring out where the content should come from. That’s where Reddit came in, since they have a human machine that takes in the world’s news and spits out a curated list of articles that look like they should have been on The Onion.
Matt: It’s not as gameable as the #nottheonion hashtag on Twitter, but it worked.
Dan: That solved the question of where the headlines would come from, but I needed a way to get images, too. For that I defined a custom google image search (which allows a few hundred searches a day via API calls) using the article headline as the search string. I then take the top hit result, cache it, and boom, all done. Well, except for American Voices. I decided that Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed would provide the most appropriate American Voice quips, so the site pulls his latest tweet to populate that space.
Matt: This is my favorite feature on the site.
Dan: From there all we had to do was
rip off respectfully borrow The Onion’s stylesheets, remove their content, and insert the scraped variety.
Matt: My favorite parts of the creation was the drama that comes from pushing the boundaries of trademark and copyright infringement on the web. We knew that there was a chance that The Onion would be kind of pissed off. Neither of us minded too much because the way we saw it, either:
1) They wouldn’t care / would appreciate the satire on satire.
2) The Onion would take legal action against satire of satire, and reality itself would implode before we could be brought to court.
Dan: We never wound up in any legal drama, but there was some technological outcry. Some of the programmers at The Onion’s tech team were none too happy about our quick hack because I was a bit too sloppy and hotlinked some of their stylesheets. In the end, the leadership of that team was very calm and polite about it, they got in touch the next day and asked us to make a few modifications which we did happily and immediately! Overall, I was really impressed with their reactions.
Was this done entirely on your free time or does this qualify as appropriate use of Media Lab time? Then along those lines, care to explain a little of what you did/do at the Media Lab besides building The On1on?
Dan: The media lab is a lifestyle and this type of thing fits right in. Technically when I made this I was a Knight-Mozilla Fellow working out of The Boston Globe, so Matt was the only one wasting MIT resources.
Matt: We weren’t exactly doing medical testing, but quick hacks and trying things without asking for permission are part of the broader MIT culture and are directly supported by the director of the Media Lab, Joi Ito.
Dan: All that said, this was fast to build. Even if it had been more substantial (for instance, making it possible to merge any RSS feed with any brand) it would have been an interesting enough result to start some good discussions and maybe even write a paper out of.
Matt: Not that we’re into that kind of thing.
Dan: Other than this, I worked on lots of odds and ends at the lab. My thesis project was called Truth Goggles, which is an automated bullshit detector for the internet. It’s a credibility layer that goes on top of the stuff you read, to help you think more carefully at times when it is most important. It’s just a prototype right now. There are a few other projects that can be found on my website.
Matt: I’ve thrown up a couple of other side projects in a similar spirit—see @upworthyspoiler, for example. When I showed up at the Lab two years ago, we were told that while you’ll never really have time for side projects, they keep you sane and keep you from burning out on your more serious work. I’ll follow Dan’s lead with the shameless portfolio plug where that more serious work lives.
So what now? I understand you built the site to be automated, but does it require any upkeep or maintenance?
Dan: It has been a wild success in that regard—It’s been so long that I’ve had to do anything to the site that I’ve actually forgotten where it’s hosted…
Matt: Good! One time, Google Images searched an unflattering headline and found a photo of a person and put their face next to that headline. That person’s friend actually saw it and sent it to them. We happily switched out the photo, but clearly there are risks with doing things automatically (which is how most of the internet is run).
Dan: A few weeks in I decided to modify the titles to remove quotes around words—generally the headlines were always better without them. (e.g. Guilty verdict ruins ‘promising’ lives of Steubenville rapists -> Guilty verdict ruins promising lives of Steubenville rapists). I also decided to add an advertisement for NewsJack
In my visit to the Media Lab earlier this year, there were lots of conversations about computers and comedy and how possible it might be to automate humor. Do you feel this experiment proves or disproves anything in that regard? What can you glean from this little side project that contributes to that conversation surrounding computer-generated comedy?
Dan: For me, this project showed how it is possible to use HUMANS to automate humor. A lot of people think that algorithms have to be all computers all the time, but we’ve seen a huge rise of successful semi-automated processes (using a mix of humans and computer assistance) to do some really amazing things.
Matt: +1 that this project does actually have some inkling of professional value as an example of the hybrid computing + crowdsourcing model. Something a new generation of projects have undertaken. As for comedy, the headlines do fail to be funny sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, the crowdsourced headlines—written by professionals, collected by amateurs—end up pretty hilarious. I still love the concept of a comedy hack day, where various creative technological interventions can deliver important messages just by existing. I think projects like Please Rob Me clearly fit into this category.
I know you guys focus a lot of your attention on the world of real journalism there at the Center For Civic Media, what do you think this site you made says about the state of the media today?
Dan: It’s important to point out that because The On1on is driven by a reddit community, it is biased towards the news sources of that community. That is to say that just because the same source shows up a lot doesn’t mean the source is any worse than another. Really, though, The On1on does what satire should do: it makes you think about the world you live in, and reminds you that the world can be really, really ridiculous. Sometimes that ridiculousness comes from the fact that a story was covered—or how it was covered, but most of the time it is just a ridiculous story to begin with.
Matt: The air of authority the professional media assumes in their reporting opens them to ridicule. Local cable news companies offer perhaps the richest combination of maintaining a very serious professional tone while covering ridiculously inane material. It’s entertaining to see anyone who claims such a serious tone get egg on their face. Some of the big shifts that social media has brought about are directly related to moving away from this self-bestowed air of authority. Online, it’s more important to be authentic, to have a true voice (no matter how strange that voice is), and to honestly recognize your limits than the traditional media usually does.
Lastly, do you have any favorite headlines that have appeared in theon1on?
Dan: There are honestly too many.
- China censors the word ‘censorship’
- Nasa Mars Rover Accidentally Draws Penis On Red Planet
- Texas bans shooting immigrants from helicopters
- Woman Chokes Out Boyfriend for Singing Macklemore’s Thrift Shop Repeatedly
- Phillies fan covers face with shirt; proceeds to drink beer through shirt
There were also some great story arcs that played over the course of weeks. For instance there’s the ongoing Dennis Rodman saga, as well as Pop Tart Gun kid. Several different articles appeared as those stories unfolded over time, which really reminded me of The Onion.
Matt: I think that considering these headlines with The Onion in mind makes them even funnier. For example, “Russia wants Steven Seagal to be face of weapons industry” may as well be an actual Onion piece. Knowing that this is a real thing happening in the real world in 2013 only makes it richer.