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COMPUTING

The Web goes ape over John Glenn

December 8, 1998
Web posted at: 5:10 PM EST

by Neal Weinberg

From...

(IDG) -- It swept across the vast expanse of cyberspace like an electronic firestorm, jumping from private mailbox to joke forum to Usenet newsgroup until it seemed to engulf the entire World Wide Web.

"Pssssst. This is a secret. When John Glenn returns from space, everybody dress in Ape Suits. Pass it on."

Glenn lifted off on Thursday, Oct. 29, circling the globe 134 times and traveling a total of 3.6 million miles.

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There's no way to track how many times the John Glenn joke circled the globe or how many people it reached, but by most accounts, it ranks as the most popular joke in Internet history.

Glenn touched down nine days later on Nov. 7, ending his extraordinary space mission. But by then the joke, which refers to the movie Planet of the Apes, had taken on a life of its own. There were new postings on the DejaNews newsgroup archive as late as Nov. 22, more than two weeks following Glenn's landing.

And 'Net watchers are still buzzing about the phenomenon. "It is, in my seven years of e-mail experience, the fastest spreading joke that I have encountered," says Ingrid Moon, a Web designer based in Studio City, Calif. She received the joke from 15 different people.

In fact, Danyel Fisher, a graduate student in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, created a Web site (www.cs.berkeley.edu/~danyelf/Apes/first.html) devoted entirely to the joke and its origins.

Fisher, who is also a student of folklore, has become fascinated with the way jokes spread or, as Netizens like to say, vector across the Internet. "Where other folklorists talk about hundreds of years of diffusion, I talk about hours of spreading. Electronic mail lists are an immediate indicator of what people are thinking, what their concerns are, what topics are on the top of their head. When something resonates, it gets sent everywhere," he says.

Ben Zimmer of the University of Chicago's anthropology department adds that the John Glenn joke took off because it was funny, time-sensitive and made people feel as if they were in on a big practical joke. Also, the Planet of the Apesreference resonated particularly well in what Zimmer describes as "the geeky world of the Internet."

"Seen in a broader historical perspective, topical jokes have often been linked to the rise of various forms of mass media, from newspapers to movies to TV to the Internet," he says. The TV era spawned the phenomenon of people watching The Tonight Show and repeating Johnny Carson's jokes the next day at work. "Now, with the Internet, topical jokes don't need to rely on the traditional mass media to get circulated," Zimmer says.

Aside from some people who didn't appreciate getting so many copies of the same joke, most Netizens see the John Glenn joke as a harmless diversion that helps build community on the Internet.

"Once we all watched Ed Sullivan; now we send each other ape jokes," says David H. Rothman, of Alexandria, Va., author of the book Networld! "It's something that binds us together."

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