A few weeks ago, if you logged onto mcsweeneys.net, instead of being greeted with a hilarious essay that lampooned, say, Maureen Dowd, you were assaulted by a splash page that cried “McSweeneys.com.” Click there and you descended into a site straight out of HTML For Dummies: links in bubble letters that opened up to perky bios and snapshots of the McSweeney family—Gerry, Wendy, and their four kids. Toward the bottom lay a few stranded links of the old McSweeney’s, a Brooklyn-based literary magazine, which opened to white text on a glaring blue background. Gone was the classy McSweeney’s design, with its black Garamond font on white.
For dedicated readers, it was a short trip from horror to the suspicion they’d been had. McSweeney’s editors claimed they needed the Massachusetts family’s financial and technical backing, but readers weren’t convinced. “It IS a joke, right?” one wrote. “My friends are starting to doubt. Not me. Never me.”
McSweeney’s, otherwise known as Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, is the brainchild of best-selling author Dave Eggers and the online offspring of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal. Drolly irreverent and irrelevant, McSweeney‘s attracts media-savvy online readers with its parodies, essays, and stories that sling mud at silly, hallowed conventions like authorship. Eggers once encouraged readers to send Amazon “fake” reviews of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that betrayed “the fact that the reviewer had not read the book.” So it’s no wonder readers were skeptical when mcsweeneys.net merged with mcsweeneys.com, a Web site created by a nice, suburban family from Stoneham, Massachusetts.
Readers had fair warning. The sites first became acquainted after readers of McSweeney’s accidentally stumbled onto the family Web site. After the zine’s webmaster said he could no longer work for free, the family offered the technical support of 12-year-old webmaster Brendan McSweeney. The zine announced the collaboration in late March, promising few alterations except that profanity would no longer be allowed. Readers expressed delight over the family’s philanthropy. Salon published an article heralding the charity as “A Heartwarming Tale of Staggering Generosity.” In early April, the new site appeared.
Faced with what looked like a hijacking of their beloved site, dispassionate McSweeney’s readers were passionately upset. Nearly 400 e-mails pleaded for the old site to come back. Some readers offered to host the site for free. Others were angry, hurling invective at the family. And a large number thought it was a hoax. Suck groused that the merger was rigged so McSweeney’s could get more attention. The New York Post questioned whether it was a stunt “to make the media look foolish” or was Eggers’s “own response to pressures to change from a dot-net site to a more commercial . . . dot-com site.”
One New York reader thought it was mean and disingenuous of McSweeney’s to make fun of such a sweet, suburban family. “They seem to be making a point of mocking bourgeois values,” he said.
A few days later, on April 10, McSweeney’s editors quietly reverted to the old form, posting a notice that cited the overwhelmingly negative response and wagging a finger at readers who had been rude to the family.
In Byzantine fashion, McSweeney’s editors agreed to answer Voice questions only through e-mail, under the collective moniker of the McSweeney’s Representative. “We were trying something new and hoped that people would wait before judging us so harshly,” they wrote.
The McSweeney family was also surprised. Gerry McSweeney said he “was struck by the fact that a readership for a humor site could be so serious.”
According to both camps, the switch—and the switchback—was not a hoax. “Anyone who did any real research would have found that the McSweeneys are real people, who actually did step in to help us out,” wrote the McSweeney’s Representative. “But we deal with this sort of thing all the time. There are still a majority who do not believe that our print version is manufactured in Iceland even though it is not lawful to print on a magazine false information about that magazine’s provenance.”
Who could blame the McSweeney’s readers for being cynical? Eggers is a noted prankster, who a few years ago spoofed ’80s sitcom star Adam Rich’s death in Might, his ill-fated print magazine. Eggers’s claim that McSweeney’s needed financial help to stay online was dubious, especially since Eggers himself told the Voice last year that he personally updates the site and that “it takes a half hour a day.” And on the Internet, the stamp of authenticity is yet harder to confirm.
Not that the zine’s editors are trying. The McSweeney’s Representative readily admitted the collaboration with the family was not done for the sake of money alone, despite their earlier pronouncements. “[O]ur costs, no, are not that great,” they wrote. “Of course, our interest in collaborating with the McSweeneys, it should be noted, was not 100 percent financial. Just as we do not go to Iceland for its bargain printing.”
It seems the ironic humor of McSweeney’s has metastasized so that even a sincere act fosters suspicion. The merger debacle has spawned yet another parody: mcsweeneys.org, which debuted April 7. Sporting mcsweeneys.net design with content matter that’s just not as funny as the original, mcsweeneys.org may be the cubic-zirconium twin of mcsweeneys.net. The creator, Nicholas Musolino—in true McSweeney’s fashion—coyly darted around the question of whether his site was a send-up or a doting emulation, saying only, “I have the utmost respect for McSweeney’s.”
Asked about this copycat, the McSweeney’s Representative was a little more to the point: “We feel like we asked for such a thing. That said, they should be nice and go away. . . . Or we will bury them (pounding shoe on table). Bury them!!”