Some Nifty 50s

Posted Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 21:36

In commemoration of half-a-hundred columns Surpassing all understanding, this is my 50th column for American Libraries. I thought this was deserving of something special in commemoration, so while I’m not tapped out for ideas—yet—I figured I’d just let the Web decide what this column should be about. To do this, I Googled the number 50 (as digits). This yielded roughly a staggering 3 billion results, with a search time of 0.06 seconds. Get serious. I don’t dispute there are many websites with the character string “50” somewhere, or that Google can search its database with great speed; but those figures just seem beyond comprehension and, ultimately, meaningless (which doesn’t stop people from accepting at least the number of hits as true reflections of popularity or even accuracy or credibility). It was absolutely no surprise that the first result was the official website of the rapper 50 Cent, since the internet has not only made it easier to find out about popular culture, it has transformed it and become part of it: Think downloads of songs and TV shows and feature films (sometimes even legally) as well as multiplayer games, Second Life, social networking sites, and so on—a new domain that the culture inhabits, and a new aspect of that culture as well. There was the Lycos 50, which has been around for years, listing the week’s 50 most popular searches on Lycos. That list is different every week, except for the things that never change (apparently, Britney, Paris, Jessica, Lindsay, Beyoncé, Dragon Ball Z, and the NFL). Sounds like a fairly decent description of the internet itself: permanently impermanent. I found several sites dedicated to “facts about the 50 states”—almanacky stuff, really, the sort of thing most of us would have unthinkingly considered “ready reference” in the not-too-distant past; now it’s undoubtedly preferred by most schoolchildren, and others, in web format. The first page of results also yielded Time magazine’s 50 coolest websites for 2006 (last year’s was on the second page). Of note here is the fact that these are the coolest—not the best, or most authoritative, or more informative, but the coolest. That’s entirely apropos; cool is, as we know, one of the chief currencies of the internet (time, bandwidth, and obsession). Websites beat handbills The second page got more interesting: 50 Years Is Enough is a coalition of groups dedicated to the “profound transformation” of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This is the kind of organization that might not have gotten noticed a few years ago, or perhaps even not have been able to form. Its reasonably well-produced website makes the group look credible and worthy of being taken seriously; 20 years ago wouldn’t it just have had mimeographed handbills and been easily dismissed? More random things started appearing: conditions of U.S. Highway 50, the Wired magazine 50 Best Robots Ever (how does Robby beat out Gort and Maria from Metropolis?!), the trendy wd-50 restaurant in Soho, the 50 state quarters program from the U.S. Mint, and on and on. But why the M&M’s Dark Chocolate page? It came up 21st, and the brief text in Google’s snippet didn’t include the numeral. The link clicked into a site that brought up a landscape reminiscent of Bosch’s nightmarish triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Within this were planted 50 punning visual clues to scary (or “dark,” get it?) movies for players to identify. Obviously a viral marketing tool, it’s fun and quite challenging. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more The Garden of Earthly Delights seemed an apt allegory for the Web itself: Intended as a depiction of the intrusion of sin into humanity, it has been appropriated multiple times in the popular culture; it’s a surreal, parallel universe; and the more you look at it, the more you see, and the more disturbed and enlightened you can become. Not unlike the Garden, the internet is, ultimately, a reflection of us all, for better and worse. Perhaps greater awareness and knowledge of ourselves will save us this time . . . but that’s another story.