It could have been Mitt Romney. It could have been the DeProfiler. But it was Hackney Haute that got me onto ‘single serving sites’: punchy, one-issue microsites which give a powerful new medium to web-based political satire. The Hackneyhaute.com site appeared shortly after plans were published for a new Bicester Village-style fashion outlet in Hackney in London – a new development identified by some as a means of lifting the fortunes of an area that had first-hand experience of the rioting and looting which took place in 2011.
Hackneyhaute.com went further. Posing as a vehicle for attracting investors, it crowed about the opportunity “for the most daring brands in fashion to build on the area’s anti-social capital”. The site, subtitled ‘Ghetto Chic Hackney Central’, presented a map and timeline of luxury brands (Cartier, Yves Saint Laurent etc) supposedly pencilled-in to arrive on the scene. It also reminded visitors to the site of Hackney’s gritty status: “home to the London College of Fashion, a throbbing art scene and some of the most thrilling drama of the recent riots”.
The site was simple – it had just one page, no sub-navigation or ‘about’ section – but like all good satire, there were sufficient clues to flag it as such. A lack of slickness; a tone which pushed the boundaries of good taste, even in the sometimes cynical world of gentrification; and some slightly dubious use of language. An emailed press enquiry about the site was answered breezily by talk of “a feisty yet light-hearted campaign” that would bring “much needed investment to this part of Hackney [which] will undoubtedly serve to sweep away much of its unfortunate decay”.
The only clues to its provenance came from a small ‘MS’ logo on the bottom of the site. After a little digging, it turned out that MS stood for MicroSplash, and I was soon in a meeting with Matt Linares, the site’s creator. Linares, 29, is one of the brains behind MicroSplash, a group bringing US-style techniques to the UK, whose intention is to launch single issue sites: political, satirical and informational. Their site bolsters the contention of their tagline: “The microsite is a polemical form to contest the essay” with links to several simple but powerful examples.
DeProfiler, for instance, gave users the chance to adopt a Caucasian cut-out-and-wear face mask in protest against Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. Another, Romneytaxplan.com, was paid for by the Democratic Party for the 2012 US Presidential election campaign. To see how Romney’s tax plans were apparently unviable, users were required to follow a simple instruction. “For a detailed explanation of how the Romney-Ryan tax plan is able to cut taxes by $5 trillion without exploding the deficit or requiring tax hikes on the middle class, simply click the button below,” ran the copy. But the button moved around the screen, evading the cursor, and by extension the scrutiny.
Other sites include the controversial Isthatcherdeadyet.co.uk, which prior to Baroness Thatcher’s death on April 8, linked through to a proposal to honour her legacy by privatising the state funerals normally given to deceased Prime Minsters (it received 50,000+ Facebook ‘likes’, though only a ‘ceremonial’ funeral eventually took place). Again in the US, Byedaddy.org tapped into the backlash and boycott of hosting providers GoDaddy for their support of the unpopular SOPA legislation, and their boss’s non PR-friendly shooting of elephants. As with commercial sites, which aspire to reach many people with a single issue, the means is one strong idea, the holy grail is to ‘go viral’ (CR April, All Texture, No Big Idea and If All Else Fails Use Cats).
The vision of coders and designers as modern-day Montaignes or Swifts may seem unlikely on first inspection, but for Linares, the attraction of a microsite is its combination of populism and capability to convey quite sophisticated messages. “They can convey information or opinions in bite-size chunks, so much argument or persuasion can be done in an instant, before someone gets bored,” he says.
Linares frames the political or satirical site in a long tradition of tracts and pamphleteering. “I see them as a modern version of the essay. Essayists have been using the technique – that your audience will probably only take away at most three points – for years and I think there is something in that. With microsites we can distill that further. There’s also a cultural aspect. I like to think of them as little morsels which people can encounter as they go about their days. They can propel people to think about these things.”
Hackneyhaute.com is the first site by the MicroSplash collective. It has had some impact, at time of writing garnering 673 Facebook likes, 151 tweets and several columns in local and national newspapers. Linares says there are others in the pipeline including one on payday lenders, another on privatising the royal family – intended as a spoof on neo-liberalism – and also some pure ‘informational’ sites, intended to fill a gap rather than further any political cause. “Though they are intuitively digested by an internet savvy audience,” says Linares, “they are much harder to grasp, deconstruct and reproduce by the same audience than you may think.”
In his 2008 paper, isthisyourpaperonsingleservingsites.com, written while a student at UC Berkeley, Twitter engineer Ryan Greenberg categorised and pointed to the huge growth in what he called Single Serving Sites. One of the characteristics Greenberg identified in his paper was the way in which microsites are often set up with a wide audience in mind, but with hidden clues only visible to a community of like-minded individuals with a technical knowledge the creators have, and value.
“Creating a site may be a sign of status within a group, or a signal of membership in a community of like-minded technical individuals,” writes Greenberg. “Many of the [microsites] I visited contained messages and notes as hidden comments in the HTML source of the page. In this way, the sites become an important part of an online community of coders, designers and web-savvy surfers. By their very nature, only a select group of visitors will ever view them, but this group’s attention is that which creators are most interested in attracting.”
MicroSplash is similarly rooted in a skilled, collaborative community. It was conceived as an umbrella site for promoting and producing polemic sites through a workshop environment: quick and dirty campaigns in which groups of designers, coders and writers come together at the weekend to create a site. These intensive days – also used on a pro bono basis in the computer industry to tackle seemingly insoluble problems – make the most of the versioning technology GitHuB which allows multiple coders to work on one piece of code at a time. The tool was developed by Linus Torvalds, the man behind open source software Linux, and has been heralded as having applications which go much beyond programming. Wired magazine described it as an “open software collaboration platform, now being used by artists, builders, home owners, everyone in between, entire companies … and cities”.
For Linares, the creative workshop environment “beats being part of some miserabilist political event in Hackney”, and for many it offers a means of expressing themselves in a political or artistic way, which they may not get the chance to – or feel comfortable doing – in their offline lives. As Linares puts it: “Rather than spending my Sunday in a pub banging my fist moaning, I can spend my Sundays banging a keyboard with other talented people.” 1
James Pallister is senior editor at the Architects’ Journal