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How to be 'The Worst'

. Casey Rathunde

There's a tacit understanding with a panel title like "Worst Website Ever: 2 Stupid 2 Fail" that the content is designed to draw a laugh. Yes, the visual gags are there, and yes, the slightly-naughty puns were in force as well, but the actual content of the presentations (faux pitches for truly terrible ideas) revealed a lot about the things that are funny because they are so terribly true. Here are a few lessons that I was able to glean from the panel, and what they mean in a practical way.

Lesson #1: A pale copy is a bad place to start from.

Lots of the presentations presented ideas that relied on the humor of "almost, but not quite." Versions of popular (young-skewing) internet communities aimed at the over-40 crowd, transparent riffs on popular sites that offered no value over the original site, and blatant rip offs all drew big laughs from the crowd. The internet is full of just such clones, and they're always slightly missing the point. While you can often come up with some great ideas by thinking about what other people are doing, the angle always needs to be, "What aren't they doing?" not just an attempt to make something different enough that it won't cause a lawsuit. Some of the funniest fake pitches of the panel were obvious riffs that aimed to do less than the original (such as "Faceoffbook" for fans of the movie FaceOff, and Petflix).

Lesson #2: Your fax machine does not need an "App Store."

Really - it doesn't. It might seem obvious, but by the same token, who isn't trying to jump on the "App Store" bandwagon these days? I think the greater lesson to be learned from this point is that mindless bandwagon jumping leads to creating things that there is no demand for. Just like a fax machine doesn't need its own port of "Angry Birds," not every website needs a comments section or its own check-in system. People who are always looking to make the "next big thing" work for them are often missing the ways in which not every solution fits every problem. While each new craze might be worth consideration and exploration, it's perfectly acceptable for the conclusions drawn to end with, "We don't actually need this."

Lesson #3: You're not going to successfully use every technology.

One of the presentations didn't actually have much in the way of a proposed idea, instead, it relied on the joke that the website was so 'technologically advanced' that it used every technology. It even used "all of the clouds," and just about every possible API that is currently in vogue. I think we've all seen some variation of this site. There are so many social icons squashed together that you can't tell the difference between the little bird-shaped blob that you think is Twitter-blue from the tiny square that you think might lead to Facebook. You're not really sure if you're about to leave a comment with Disqus, send a Tweet, or post to your Facebook wall, and even if you could figure it out, you're probably not interested in sharing the content by that point. The page aggregates tweets, shows you the weather in Bangladesh, and lets you map things on google while you browse headlines. There's so much on the page that you reflexively lunge for the close button because you're afraid you might have a seizure.

Just because an API exists, doesn't mean you should use it on every page. Data is cool, but relevant data is even cooler, and when you don't bury the good stuff, your page gets a lot more interesting. I'm an API dork - I love to see them mashed up and filtered in brilliant ways. True story: after the worst website panel, I shook the hand of the guy who created WaitingForBieber.com. (I plan to retell this story to everyone who will listen for the next three months, so consider yourself warned.) The reason I love this site is that it uses the Twitter API in a way that is so bizarrely specific that it draws a cohesive (and terrifying) picture without any sort of long-form explanation. As best I can tell, the page is returning tweets sent to Bieber's username, and scanning the text of the response for the word "follow," so that it only returns the tweets asking Bieber to follow the user back. That's all the page does: display a constant stream of tweets, asking Justin Bieber for a "follow" on Twitter.

Now that we've established the concept, lets quickly ruin it with complications: imagine if it also pulled in headlines containing the terms "Bieber" and "Twitter." Imagine page real estate depleted by an option to share those tweets on facebook. Imagine a comments section where users could leave their opinion on tweets and rank their favorite. Imagine a series of music charts and store widgets so that users could see how Bieber is currently selling. Quickly, the idea becomes polluted and the page loses the laser-focus that made the joke funny in the first place. None of these things immediately sound like bad ideas, but compare the value added by the additional data to the value lost by distracting from the site's real purpose. There's a lot of cool, easily integrated stuff on the internet these days, but just like we don't always need to be jumping on the shiniest bandwagon, we also don't need to dilute every idea with 'value-adds' that act as distractions.

The panel definitely gave me a lot to think about (and when I'm not so exhausted and overwhelmed with information, I'll probably think of more things I gleaned from it), but most of all, it was amazing to me how not implausible most of the ideas were. Many of them didn't seem all that far off from sites that have actually been built, and I think that fact really speaks to how the best humor is close to the truth. (For the record, the "winner" of the contest was the "App Store" for the Fax Machine. The runner-up was a site for outsourced, webcam babysitting.)

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