According to the website spreadingromney.com, “Romney” means “to defecate in terror.” Give Jack Shepler credit for that definition.
The Indianapolis-based web developer, DJ and occasional NUVO contributor was inspired to start the website after viewing a similar setup at spreadingsantorum.com. Shepler may be busy running two companies — the print and web design firm Ayokay and the dance music promotions company OnTrack — but he still allocates time to keep up with politics.
His tongue-in-cheek jest has garnered him national attention in this seemingly never-ending election cycle. NUVO got the inside track on Shepler’s project during a recent email exchange. - Wade Coggeshall
NUVO: What exactly is spreadingromney.com?
Jack Shepler: SpreadingRomney is a simple one-page website that defines “Romney” as a verb, “to defecate in terror.” The word “terror” links to an article rehashing a story that Mitt Romney told about a 12-hour family drive across the country where he put his dog in a kennel and put it on the roof of the van. The story goes that the dog defecated and it dripped down the window. He pulled into a gas station, cleaned off the dog and the van, put the dog back in the carrier and continued on the journey.
NUVO: Where did you come up with the idea for it?
Shepler: It felt like a stroke of genius at first, even if it was based in part on someone else’s old idea. SpreadingSantorum.com defines Santorum as … well, it’s a bit too vulgar for print, I imagine. After I read the story about Romney and his dog, I put the two together in my mind and created the site. It took under an hour to register the domain, set up hosting, create the page, add social tools and get it out into the wild.
NUVO: What do you hope to accomplish?
Shepler: Besides doing it for the LOLs, I also did it to raise awareness for two key characteristics of Romney: First, I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals. Second, when faced with the dilemma, he simply cleaned the mess up and put the dog right back on top of the van. It seems pretty heartless to me.
NUVO: What kind of response have you received from it so far?
Shepler: Initially the site got a lot of social activity — tweets and Facebook posts were pouring in. Two days after launch, Rachel Maddow spent a good chunk of her show talking about it. I was thrilled — I’m a huge Maddow fan. I couldn’t believe it. After that there was a short spike in traffic, but it was relatively low over the past three weeks until Friday, when an SEO blogger chose to look into how the website was able to hit page one for a Google search for “Romney.” He decided it was a mystery, since there didn’t seem to be any foul play or tampering with the results. In a later article, he confirmed with Google and Bing that indeed the site is ranked where it should be and that there didn’t seem to be any “Google bombing” going on.
Since then the site has been covered by tons of news media. I’ve done interviews with Rolling Stone, Mashable, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, ABC and just recently a live radio interview with CBS Radio in Seattle.
NUVO: What do you think of the other Republican candidates for president?
Shepler: Unfortunately for Republicans, even they realize they don’t have someone that’s electable. Romney is the rich guy that says what he thinks you want him to say. Santorum is socially backwards to the point that I’m surprised he hasn’t yet told women to get back in the kitchen. Ron Paul has some great ideas but he also wants to reverse the last couple hundred years of social progress in terms of civil rights. And Newt is pretending to be the “morals” candidate after so much painfully awful hypocrisy. Worse, all four candidates would love to throw all forms of regulations out the window. I rather like my water un-poisoned.
NUVO: Anything additional you have planned for the website?
Shepler: I have no plans to expand on the website currently, but that could change if he gets the nomination.
A brief history of Google bombing — and why spreadingromney.com is a different beast
In this story about definitions, we're about to quibble over one more — "Google bomb" — as a way of getting to the bottom of just how spreadingromney.com vaulted to the top o' the Google heap. The first recorded instance of a traditional Google bomb came in 1999, when a search for “more evil than satan himself” on the search engine brought up the corporate page for Microsoft as the first result. The ensuing decade saw plenty more examples: “miserable failure” brought up George W. Bush's biography page; “weapons of mass destruction” led to a “404 — page not found” parody that read, “These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed.” Google altered its search algorithm in 2007 to make it more difficult for these Google bombs to leap to the top of page rankings.
So, why is spreadingromney.com currently showing up second in a Google search for “Romney,” just behind the candidate's official site? Well, it has to do with why the site isn't a traditional Google bomb. We asked Filippo Menczer, professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University Bloomington, to explain.
Traditional Google bombs work by exploiting the way search engines index the web, by using the anchor text (or the visible text) of a link to index a target page. “So if you link to a page x using the words 'hello world' in the link, the search engine will index the words "hello world" as if they occurred in x, even if they do not,” says Menczer. It's a good way for a site to index, because anchor text is usually reliable — but sometimes the crowd upon which Google depends for its intelligence gets unruly, and they work together to return a result that's not so ostensibly reliable; i.e. “miserable failure” for Bush.
“The more recent examples regarding 'santorum' and 'romney' are different, because the target page is created by the very author of the 'google bomb,' according to Menczer. “The author is creating content and promoting it, according to webmaster guidelines provided by the search engines themselves. As long as the content is legal and the PageRank genuine — generated by people linking the site from their blogs or via social media — the page will be ranked highly. If a search engine were to treat such a page differently from others, it would be messing with free speech — deciding what content is okay and what isn't.”
Thus, someone like Shepler is merely using the tools of his trade, by the ethical standards of his trade. Not that success comes easy, even if the playing field is more wide open: “If a guy from Indianapolis (or anywhere else) can generate content that many people find amusing and/or agreeable, and can effectively promote it via social media, he can have a huge impact. But while technology has lowered the cost of entry, it has not increased the odds of winning. It still takes talent (and maybe some luck) to compete for our limited attention — a few memes go viral, but the great majority die out without anyone noticing.”
Menczer demurs when asked to weigh in on the political impact of efforts like spreadingromney.com and spreadingsantorum.com, though he does offer a few thoughts, first by questioning the contention that humor — and the elevation of “santorum” to a stock joke for late-night comedy — can't have a serious impact on politics: “It has been suggested that for a large swath of young people, The Daily Show is a source of political information. So the comedy may have a non-negligible effect on people's perception of the issue. Second, Rick Santorum has never been in the limelight to the degree of the current presidential campaign. His family values agenda is now under heavy scrutiny, and will be more so if he wins the nomination. Dan Savage's 'santorum' page will continue to spur debate.”
In a sense, a Google bomb — defined broadly — can be less misleading than more surreptitious misinformation campaigns; the joke is on the surface, even if the culprits aren't always ready to come forward. Menczer's truthy.indiana.edu project focuses on other brands of political misinformation, particularly that which masquerades as being disseminated by as grassroots campaign. - Scott Shoger