My sad, hungry climb to Internet stardom.

Inside the Internet.
June 23 2005 5:15 PM

Crying, While Eating

My sad, hungry climb to Internet stardom.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty
Click image to expand

I found a picture of my girlfriend on a Japanese fetish site the other day. Yes, that was definitely her, cramming a piece of sausage into her mouth as tears streamed down her face. What's that right below her? A breast pump? This was all my fault. I'm the one who put that video online. They never told me that Internet celebrity would be like this.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

A month before, I had signed up for a "contagious media" contest. The rules: Make a (nonpornographic) Web site. Promote it any way you want, short of paid advertisements. The page with the most visitors after three weeks wins.

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The contest's host was Jonah Peretti, the creator of the much-forwarded Black People Love Us. Peretti now runs a research group at New York's Eyebeam art and technology center that studies how sites get passed around the Internet. According to Eyebeam's experts, Web pages spread via the "Bored at Work Network"—the millions of shiftless desk jockeys whose fingers are glued to the forward button on their e-mail. Hoax product sites and pages that elicit a nervous laughget passed around a lot, as do funny animal videos and movies of people dancing. But the most successful contagions are the oddballs, earnest amateurs like the Peter Pan guy and the Star Wars kid who had never tried to tap in to the Bored at Work Network. How could I compete with them?

As contestants, we had at least one advantage over the Peter Pan guy: a workshop that allowed us to kick around ideas with certified contagious-media professionals. Very few of us actually did. One guy announced his plan to create an animated dog that vomited things. After an awkward silence, the expert on hand suggested that he might want to think of a new idea. I was confused. Was a barfing dog any worse than the contagious Poke the Bunny site we'd learned about an hour before?

ChristyWhat she's eating: Sausage with mushrooms and cheese; a vanilla shake. What she's crying about: Good at lots of things, but not great at anything. Forget the dogs and bunnies. I wanted my site to be about people, or food, or people and food. My friend and collaborator Casimir Nozkowski remembered a game he used to play at camp: Stuff some food in your mouth, and cry. We had our idea—Crying, While Eating.

On a rainy night, we drove around New York with a video camera, some sausage, a box of fried chicken, and an apple. I watched my friend Rob fast-forward through Babe until he got to the partwhere the sheepdog puppies are given away. Casimir zoomed in as Rob sobbed good, long sobs into the fried chicken. We took off a few minutes later with the sausage and the apple.

Crying, While Eating launched on a Thursday night with 12 videos. Christy, who was drinking a vanilla shake, cried because she was "good at lots of things, but not great at anything." Tashi lamented the fact that "sex will never be that good again" while munching on Milano cookies. I ate buckwheat noodles with rooster sauce and blubbered about having "ruined Passover."

We waited until the next morning to send a batch of self-promotional e-mails. By the time we got out of bed, the blog Waxy had spotted our page on the contest Web site. From there, we got picked up by BoingBoing and Metafilter. I e-mailed the URL to a former co-worker in San Francisco that afternoon. He said he'd already gotten it from another friend in California, who had gotten the link from a guy in Austin, Texas. When I checked the stats that night, we had almost 50,000 visitors.

DanielWhat he's eating: Buckwheat noodles and rooster sauce. What he's crying about: He ruined Passover. On Saturday morning, I got a message on my cell phone from "Joe," who claimed to be a marketing specialist in Los Angeles. "We have a deal in mind for you," he promised. When I called back, Joe said he'd seen Crying, While Eating on the "outrageous media" server and thought it was "fairly viral." He offered me a 60-40 split for placing ads on the site and asked if I was ready to "play ball." I made a counteroffer of 95-5, contingent on his telling me where he got my cell phone number. He didn't call back.

By the end of May, the site had gotten 7.5 million hits. Blog entries mentioning the site appeared in Dutch, Galician, Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, and German ("das ist doof"). *  People submitted videos from all over the world. Gwenda from Australia cried over "the shameful mistreatment of animals" while eating triple-chocolate ice cream. A guy from New Jersey sent footage of himself dressed up like a baby and crying over a plate of ribs.

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