This is the story of the web's first viral hit.
Bert Is Evil, a website created in 1997, "collected incriminating images and documents that prove that Bert is not the lovable harmless geek he so successfully makes us think he is."
The site sent shocks waves across the Internet, from New York to Bangladesh. Bill Meeks tells the story of Dino Ignacio, a young college student who rocked the online world with his satirical look at Bert from Sesame Street. Ignacio becomes embroiled in conflicts a world away, dodges the Children's Television Workshop, and suffers attacks from journalists as one of the web's first superstars.
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A glimpse of Internet history...
It's hard to imagine life without Internet memes, even for people who have lived in decades before they were around. For this and similar reasons, reading Bill Meek's single, Bert Is Evil, feels surreal. Exploring one of the first memes to spread around the Internet, the book recalls those far-off days when something amusing on the Internet to pass around to all our friends felt novel and unexpected.
Given the ubiquity of memes like Condescending Wonka, Philosoraptor, and Misunderstood Spider, this look back into the recent past feels more extreme of a retrospection than it should — as if we are talking not about something that happened in the late '90s, but rather something out of your grandfather's reminiscences of walking uphill to school both ways. The days before color television. The eight track. An odd effect, making me feel old as well as inspiring thoughts about the contracting and dilation of time.
In his book, Meeks carves out the story of a proto web developer by the name of Dino Ignacio, who created Bert is Evil in that early era of the bare-bones Internet which Meeks likes to call the Old Wide Web. Ignacio, we learn, derived the meme's humor from his linking of the well-known Muppet to dark and shadowy figures Lee Harvey Oswald, Osama Bin Laden, and even Hitler.
Reading this account, I realized that I had indeed browsed this site — or perhaps one of its many mirrors, the reasons for which Meeks chronicles at length — and that its 'shopped images indeed lingered somewhere in the ephemera of my memory. It made me think as well of other similar early memes, my favorite of which was Mr. T vs Everything, a site which 'shopped (with much less skill than Ignacio) images of the A-Team hero into poorly-executed webcomics, often ending with T throwing his foes into outer space.
These sites, as well as many others, provided troves of amusement at a certain point of my life; and yet all of them find their provenance in the work of Ignacio. A shadowy figure himself, Ignacio is brought to life by Meek's story, which takes the form of interviews with the man himself, and analysis and commentary by Meeks. Weaving together the history of its naissance, its popularity boom, and the fallout of its unfortunate involvement in a protest rally, the short feels like an episode of This American Life for the internet, especially if you listen to the audiobook edition.
Recommended for anyone interested in the history of the Internet, or even for those mildly curious about how these memes got their start, Bert Is Evil is a short, amusing, and informative look back into the incomprehensible labyrinth that is the Internet, clearing it up and lifting it out from obscurity for the reader to understand, maybe, one of the many roots that grew into the Internet we know today.
It reminds me of This American Life for the Internet.
- M. Lucero
How far we have come!
- Natalie Niezgoda