2005_06_jonahp.jpgBefore coming to New York, you studied at the MIT MediaLab. Can you tell us about some of your early experiments with Contagious Media? Did you encounter any projects that failed to take off?
MIT is a great place to work on creative side projects and solve important problems like petals around the rose and 12 coins. My interest in Contagious Media started while I was at MIT with the Nike Sweatshop Email, but it was a side project not related to my official research.

The Nike Sweatshop Email was a classic- and landed you on the Today Show debating Nike executives. How did you come up with that idea?
The Nike Sweatshop Email happened by accident. I was procrastinating writing my thesis when I visited the Nike ID web site to check out the shoe personalization technology. The site was trumpeting the service as being about freedom and I thought this was ironic considering the way the shoes are actually made. That is how I got the idea to order a pair of running shoes customized with the word "sweatshop". It was meant as a challenge to Nike and as a joke, but I was also curious how they would respond.

Nike rejected the order and my correspondence with a Nike customer service rep became one of those email forwards that spread virally on-line. I sent the original email to 12 friends and was amazed that it reached millions of people just through friends forwarding to friends. The Today Show and other mainstream media sources picked up the story, even though they tend to ignore the activists who dedicate their lives to fighting sweatshop labor and human rights abuses. Contagious Media was the reason I was sitting on the couch with Katie Couric instead of someone who actually knows something about sweatshop labor.

You sometimes talk about your audience as the "bored at work network". What about your projects particularly appeals to these people?
The Internet is powered by bored office workers who sit at their desks forwarding emails, surfing the web, reading and writing blogs, and IMing funny links to their friends. These people have inadvertently created the Bored at Work Network (BWN). It is amazing to me that the BWN can distribute media to literally millions of people each day without any centralized coordination. The BWN is bigger than CNN, bigger than Fox, bigger than NBC, CBS, or ABC and it is powered primarily by people goofing off at work.

Some of these bored office workers are doing more than forwarding silly emails and web sites. They are also building world classencyclopedias, operating systems, and web servers. They are vanquishing political leaders like Trent Lott or media figures like Dan Rather. And when they go home for the night, their computers are still chugging away finding life on other planets and curing cancer.

You created Black People Love Us with your sister Chelsea, which explored ideas about race. It was funny, but also provoked some strong responses from visitors- what did you learn from that project?
I learned that you can't pick your audience when you use the BWN for distribution. The project was designed to critique subtle forms of racism and we wanted to draw attention to the unintentionally offensive comments made by well meaning white folks. But the site spread to message boards run by white power groups who were outraged by the pictures of whites and blacks socializing. I started to get threatening phone calls from angry KKK members in the middle of the night. "May I please speak to Johnny?" one of them asked in a polite southern accent -- and then he broke into a racist, expletive filled death threat.

For the last few years you've been the Director of R&D at Eyebeam, the art and technology atelier in Chelsea. Tell us about some of the projects you have been working on there, and how they fit into your other work.
Contagious Media research is just one aspect of what I do at Eyebeam. Our in-house projects include FundRace a popular website that promotes transparency by allowing anyone to see the political contributions of their neighbors, friends and coworkers, ForwardTrack, a social networking platform that tracks and maps the diffusion of email forwards, political calls-to-action, and online petitions; and reBlog, open source blogging software for people who prefer curating content to writing original posts.

We also support and collaborate with visiting artist to help realize projects like Carnivore (2002 Golden Nica award), Noderunner (2003 Golden Nica award), and ACCESS (2004 Webby Award).

Our work usually promotes open source, open content, and open networks. This approach makes it possible to engage an extend network of collaborators and reach the largest possible audience.

Eyebeam is sponsoring the Contagious Media Showdown this month. Entrants are competing to see who can create the most contagious media, and current leaders include CryingWhileEating, RingToneDancer, and Blogebrity. What makes these three so popular? What are some great less popular entries?
The showdown is an experiment that let's the public see the diffusion process in real time. It is very hard to predict in advance what will be popular. A few hours after you sent these questions, a project called Forget Me Not Panties passed Blogebrity and took the third spot.

If you want to look at the entries as art or entertainment or social commentary it is possible to think a project is great even if it is not popular. But for the showdown the ultimate yardstick is traffic.

Who else is producing great Contagious Media these days? Who are the big stars of the art form?
Several of my favorite Contagious Media stars came to Eyebeam on May 7th to teach workshops to the public. But most contagious media is still made accidentally by ordinary people like Mahir, the starwars kid, the Numa Numa dancer. Hipster designers and viral marketing firms almost always fail when they try to recreate the magic of these serendipitous projects.

This is awkward to ask, but in a recent review of the Contagious Media Show at the New Museum, the New York Times wrote that you and Chelsea "seem almost as uncool as Sally and Johnny" (from BlackPeopleLoveUs). They said your work is "adolescent", and wrote that the exhibit was "sad and shabby". Does Contagious Media take itself too seriously?
Contagious Media does not take itself too seriously, but the art world probably does. To try to respond to the stuffiness of the museum space, we hired undercover models to pretend to be gallery attendants and black actors to pretend to be museum visitors. The model's job was to be really friendly and professional and when men hit on her she gives them the rejection line number. The black actors job was to engage strangers in conversation about the Black People Love Us installation since white people are often uneasy talking about race with a black person. We used the live performers to recreate the controversy and surprise of the original web projects but unfortunately the New York Times reporter never figured out that she was interacting with performers.

You've been working as the technology director of the Huffington Post, a group blog written by celebrities. That seems a long way from your work with grassroots contagious media projects. Does the project have anything in common with the rest of your work?
The Huffington Post was certainly contagious, but we had some help from people like Larry David, Norman Mailer, and Quincy Jones.

What's next for you- what are some of the projects you are working on right now?
My next project is the Eyebeam Open Lab. We recently finished construction and are in the process of outfitting the lab with electronics benches, a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and workstations for hackers, designers, and artists. The lab will be dedicated to public domain R&D -- our code will be under GPL, our media will be under Creative Commons, and we will publish DIY instructions for hardware projects. We will offer yearlong fellowships for people who want to work in the Open Lab -- if you are interested send your resume to Jonah AT Eyebeam DOT org.