Remembering Slate’s Blorple Falls series.

What Was Blorple Falls? Remembering One of Slate’s Weirdest Ideas.

What Was Blorple Falls? Remembering One of Slate’s Weirdest Ideas.

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Sept. 21 2016 12:47 PM
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What Was Blorple Falls?

A Slate investigation.

Maybe this is what Blorple Falls was supposed to look like.
Maybe this is what Blorple Falls was supposed to look like.

Perry Svensson/Thinkstock

When Slate D.C. moved offices last year, we named our sparkling new conference rooms after retired Slate columns. We now brainstorm fall TV coverage in the World, meet with sources in Human Guinea Pig, and phone our loved ones from the soundproofed privacy of Today’s Papers. One room in particular confounds staffers with its peculiar name of inscrutable provenance: Blorple Falls. Blorple Falls? What and why? Where and how? On the occasion of Slates 20th anniversary, I set out to unravel the mystery.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

It must be said that during the early stages of mystery-unraveling my colleagues were mostly useless. Executive editor Josh Levin remembers joking about Blorple when he started at Slate in 2003. “It’s just a funny phrase,” he said. “It’s funny to say ‘Blorple Falls’ to your colleagues.” (True.) He recommended I reach out to former staff writer Bryan Curtis, who admitted: “Even I’m not old enough to remember BF. It was defunct by the time I got to Slate in 2001, and I’m pretty sure the links didn’t even work then.”

But spectral evidence of Blorple Falls’ existence continues to haunt the internet. A charmingly broken landing page time-stamped March 2001 (but with a URL suggesting October 2000) welcomes readers to “Blorple Falls, West Carolina” and links to a smorgasbord of grassroots websites. These include the online home of the government’s Extraneous Services Administration (“A little bit of this, a little bit of that, since 1974”), a page for the Second Annual Blorple Falls Film Festival, and an eBay-inspired auction site called UBuyThisNow.com.

You’ve probably figured out the conceit: None of these people or places actually exist. Then–West Coast editor Josh Daniel explained the gag in an Oct. 14, 2000, post. “Over time,” Daniel wrote, “we hope these sites will add up to a political-cultural alternate reality, to which Slate readers can retreat when they find the state of culture and politics non-alternative-reality too distressing.”

But what the sites actually added up to, both inside and outside the magazine, was confusion. Why was Slate doing this? What did fake film festivals have to do with online journalism? “I never quite understood what [Blorple Falls] was supposed to be,” says longtime Slate contributor Seth Stevenson. June Thomas, who served as copy chief when the project launched, described it as “entirely fatuous.” She recalls that “people kept thinking we’d been hacked.”

* * *

To enter Blorple Falls today is to embark upon a choose-your-own-adventure story in which dead ends periodically require you to retrace your steps. From the 2001 landing page you can learn about the ESA’s “covertly funded projects,” paranormal research, and Office of Mission Statements or scroll through the bizzaro-world offerings of UBuyThisNow: Mindy D’Stasio action figures, worthless tangles of electrical wire. But other portals deposit you at 404 pages or on the current home page of Slate. It’s a hazard of 20 years of redesigns: Only so much old content can survive. After Slates 2006 facelift, just a few blorpled souvenirs escaped the void.

And yet from the fragments that remain we can piece together a blurry image of what once was. Blorple Falls, an imaginary place available to anyone with a dial-up modem, was a fanciful experiment that reflected certain notions about what the internet should do. “Blorple Falls parodied the idea of the web itself,” says former Slate columnist Timothy Noah. “You could flit from one link to the next and start to acquire a picture of a thing that existed, except that this particular thing didn’t exist.” The interrelated names and properties—pop starlet D’Stasio was the niece of conservative congressman Blanton Foghorn—suggested a coherent universe. They reinforced what many people saw as the chief function of the internet: to host other worlds.

“Blorple Falls is like Brigadoon, appearing every century or so,” Gregg Easterbrook wrote me in an email. Easterbrook penned the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for Slate between 2000 and 2002. He added that he couldn’t remember whose idea the project had been. (Several of his former colleagues confidently asserted that it was his.) But he and his friend Bill Barol, another freelancer, took charge of writing the content for the growing daisy chain of Blorplania in the early aughts. The word blorple, Easterbrook explained, came from a computer game from the ’80s called Spellbreaker, in which players had to find the term in a word search.

Barol owned the more surrealist jokes, such as the Kafkaesque ESA website and the Mindy D’Stasio fan page. (Inquiries about the page’s stalkerish creator, Frank LaPierre, “will be referred to the Legal Department of the City of Blorple Falls.”) Easterbrook preferred gags with sharper political and cultural subtexts. He churned out copy about Republican blowhard Foghorn, liberal lobbying firm People for the Correct Way, and the gas-guzzling Godzilla SUV.

Blorple Falls ended up more of a goofy adventure than a withering satire, less interested in mocking existing realities than in messing around with what might be. Like a lot of early Slate, Noah told me, Blorple Falls grew out of “a fascination with the new medium of the web,” an urge—encouraged by then-editor Michael Kinsley—“to throw spaghetti at the wall.”

For Chris Suellentrop, an editorial assistant during the age of Blorple, it was a halcyon time. “Slate really wanted to be creative and try a ton of different things,” he says. “They were willing to ‘fail fast’ before that became a Silicon Valley cliché.” He recalls writing fake advertisements for Blorple Falls alongside fellow editorial assistant Jeremy Derfner. “The only one I remember was a teen singer, some sort of pop star”—Mindy D’Stasio, one presumes—“and our tagline was ‘She’s a genie in a blorple,’ ” Suellentrop said. “It was possibly my greatest accomplishment at Slate.”

Though it relied on the poorly compensated labor of editorial assistants, the project was largely unencumbered by actual editors. Daniel recalls reading over copy as it arrived but not assigning specific pieces or topics. And he wasn’t sure that Blorple Falls had a point person on the edit staff—just a team of harried developers and designers who made the pages “intentionally ugly, really hideous. The crappy design was part of the joke.”

Barol himself, no web designer, built the first Blorple sites. “I just sort of did it and sent them in,” he told me in an email. “I coded the Mindy D’Stasio one myself (my first of three) because nobody at Slate seemed very sure how to get something like it made. I have a dim recollection of coding it in Word, flipping back and forth to HTML for Dummies, sweating and cursing.”

For the next two sites, “I sketched designs on paper and somebody there executed them. Progress!” Barol wrote. “We were talking about others to follow, and then … a new editor came in (Plotz, maybe?) and he was rumored to be quietly baffled by the whole thing. And that was that.”

David Plotz didn’t become editor in chief until 2008. “I bet Jacob [Weisberg] killed it in 2002,” he messaged me.

“I have no memory of it, but trust Plotz,” said Weisberg, who became top editor in 2002. “I probably did [kill it]. It was terrible.”

Whoever pulled the plug, it’s hard to argue with the decision. The sprawl of Blorple Falls sites proved as time-consuming to create and maintain as it was perplexing to behold. Slate’s tiny IT department was up to its ears in requests. It had to set up a working email address for Foghorn. (A few people wrote in.) It had to program the fake commercials that played whenever you browsed the SUV dealership, including the rising plume of text that could have described Blorple as well as the trucks: “Huge. Wasteful. Exactly what you’ve been looking for.”

And the parody universe was a flop with readers. “It just never took off,” Noah said. He lumped the initiative in with some of Slate’s other “webby features” that were “before their time.” Thomas, the former copy chief, was franker. “We all hated it,” she said. “It was all headache and pretty much no cake.”

A pet project helmed by freelancers, detested by production staff, benignly ignored by editors, and puzzled at by everyone else, Blorple Falls was never going to last very long. It got a year and a half, two years. And then, when it was over, Blorple truly began.

With the stress of upkeep lifted away, the Falls passed into legend. The legacy of bewilderment it left at the magazine gradually warmed into affection. After 2002, Suellentrop says he invoked Blorple Falls to gesture fondly at Slate’s misty past, and his co-workers followed suit. Deputy editor John Swansburg, who came to Slate in 2007, encountered the phrase as “a running joke about the publication’s strange history.” When he learned the truth, he took pride in the “quixotic difficulty” of implementing such a laborious vision “on a CMS held together by masking tape.” By that time Blorple Falls had ceased to be a bunch of ugly web pages and become a talisman. The old guard still used the phrase Blorple Falls to stoke the coals of institutional memory, hardly remembering what it meant.

And why would they? Blorple Falls is unthinkable for the Slate most of us know. The real world offers us so much to report and analyze and comment on that devoting precious bandwidth to a fantastical prank seems misguided at best, irresponsible at worst. In 2000, the magazine published five or six posts a day. Now, it publishes 30 to 50. While the irreverent spirit of Blorple Falls isn’t entirely foreign to Slate’s current ethos, the project’s total, willful lack of relevance—coupled with its scope and intricacy—feels like a luxury from another planet.

Perhaps Slate’s founders failed to anticipate the extent to which the web would end up mirroring our actual reality rather than helping us escape into new ones. Even parody sites these days are less about world-building than commentary. The goal isn’t imaginative completeness; it’s timeliness and incisiveness. Blorple Falls’ biggest problem turned out to be existential: Nobody, not the site’s editors or writers or readers, could figure out why the town had been created. What was the argument, the purpose, the peg? Blorple Falls possessed a characteristic that would prove deadly in the era of digital abundance that was just dawning, an era in which users came to develop finely tuned mechanisms to differentiate signal from noise. That characteristic was pointlessness.

But all art is quite useless! Poetry makes nothing happen! Why not choose to find the extravagant oddity of Blorple Falls endearing? You can tell a publication’s values by what it does out of love rather than necessity. Slate decided to be funny (kind of) and weird (definitely) for no apparent reason—and that’s worth celebrating.

Blorple Falls was a failure. But some failures, buried deep in an organization’s past, become fuel, combusting quietly in some shared unconscious. For Slatesters gathered in a certain D.C. conference room, Blorple Falls joins the cartography of imagined locales shimmering over the United States like a teasing reflection: Night Vale, Bakerton, Lake Wobegon. We’ve mythologized its pluck and alchemized its folly. We gaze, like Frank LaPierre dreaming of his beloved Mindy D’Stasio, beyond the actual into the possible.

Blorple Falls today, we say. Blorple Falls tomorrow. Blorple Falls forever.