By Betsy Morais | The New Yorker
Julia Weist wanted to find a word that was essentially absent from the World Wide Web.
Look up: in Forest Hills, on Queens Boulevard and Seventy-first Avenue, atop the Tudor-style building at One Continental, above the Vitamin Shoppe and a palm-and-tarot reader, is a billboard owned by Lamar, the ubiquitous sign company. The billboard appears, at passing glance, to be advertising a new Apple product, since the typeface is Apple Garamond, in black on a white backdrop. Cars rush by, commuters hurry into the busy subway station at the corner, a few people absent-mindedly gaze in its direction while sitting at the bus stop. Lamar estimates that a hundred and twenty-five thousand people view that billboard per week. One morning, an artist named Julia Weist stood across the way from the sign, of her making, which reads “parbunkells,” displayed fifty feet wide. She admired it, no matter that hardly anyone seemed to be paying attention.
Look up: parbunkells. “The word is two ropes that are bound together, and have a noose on both ends—so, four nooses, or loops of the rope, on all four ends and merged in the middle,” Weist explained. “That word, to me, was such a nice metaphor for things coming together.” Weist, who is thirty-one, has brown hair and glasses. That day, she wore black and white, matching her installation. She has a masters degree in library science, and found the word while toiling in the rare-book room of the New York Public Library, in a volume that dates to the seventeenth century. She had wanted to find a word that did not appear in the results of a search engine, a word that was essentially absent from the World Wide Web. (The Oxford English Dictionary, which is accessible online, has the singular “parbuckle,” with the alternate spelling “parbunkel,” and “parbuncle,” dated to 1625; the variants with the letter “N” appeared during those early years, and referred to two crossed ropes with a loop at each end.) Weist wanted to blow the word up (in the mysterious plural), post it in a well-trafficked area, and observe what happened.
The billboard appeared on June 12th and, for the first week, anyone who Googled “parbunkells” landed on the Web site that Weist had set up. “So much about the project has become about impressions and how people pay attention,” she said. Soon, people began to notice, and she let other artists know what she was up to. The word appeared on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. Someone created a Twitter handle for the word, and Weist didn’t know who was behind it. “The only people they were following were, like, Oprah and Jimmy Kimmel,” she said. A company called Redbubble began selling shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and throw pillows with the word printed on. “There was the first person who paired the word with a cat, because the Internet is about cats,” Weist added. One enterprising person bought the domain name parbunkells.org and put it up on eBay with a starting bid of eight thousand dollars, and a “Buy It Now” price of twenty thousand. Weist was contacted by a group of colonial-era reënacters, seeking more information about how they could use the word. “It’s been such a whirlwind,” she said.
At its peak, some twenty-two thousand search results cropped up for “parbunkells,” and thirteen hundred people came to Weist’s page per day, many of them on mobile devices, she noted. “I can see from the analytics that a lot of people are searching for the word not in front of desktop computers but when they’re walking around.” Weist has an apartment near the billboard, on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood; she also keeps a studio upstate, where she hooked up a series of scripts and circuits that would indicate when someone searched for “parbunkells” by switching on a light. Some people at Lamar got in touch, wanting to see the numbers. “They have become very interested in my project, because it actually is an accurate measurement of viewership, and then translating into engagement,” she said. “At least at the onset, there’s a direct relationship between people seeing it, being curious, looking for more.”
Words are like flies: you notice them when they’re buzzing; when they’re not, it’s as if they don’t exist at all. Though Weist’s chosen word wasn’t inherently provocative, it became, to those she got to look, something to swat at. “There’s been a ton of negativity, which is kind of to be expected with anything that goes viral,” she said. Forums piled on, commenters attacked. “There were definitely elements of trolling, which was a bit difficult,” she added. “It gets personal—‘I want to kick her in the parbunkells.’” Kim Komando, a talk-radio personality whose slogan is “America’s Digital Goddess,” Photoshopped a fake version of the billboard on her blog, and wrote, “The Internet really doesn’t know everything.”
Weist ate it up—this was a microcosm of the Web’s life cycle. “It became this really interesting portrait of the Internet,” she said. “If you create a void and suggest that there’s value in the Internet not being there, the Internet is going to show you why it should be there.”
She pulled out her phone to find the parbunkells Instagram account, which had been created by a stranger. “I was their only follower,” she explained. “And then they started following only me.” She scrolled through the pictures, mostly stock photos of things coming together, playfully acting out the word’s definition. “This is fries and ketchup: parbunkells taking a dip,” she said. “It came back to this one-to-one connection.” She went on, excitedly, “And then last night, I got an e-mail from this guy, who said, subject line, ‘The Internet takes, the Internet gives,’ and he gives me the password and everything to the account, and says, ‘This account is yours.’ He said, ‘I thought I was gonna ride the parbunkells gravy train. It didn’t work. Fleeting. I don’t think I grasped the meaning.’” She smiled. “There have been all of these moments that have been funny and meaningful and, dare I say, beautiful, because—it’s just strange.”
Weist got “parbunkells” up on the billboard thanks to 14X48, a group that fills empty billboards with work by young artists. Lamar guarantees the space for at least a month, and then whatever is there stays put until someone wants to place a real (paid) ad in that spot. That could be Apple. Has anyone from the company weighed in on Weist’s sign? “No, not yet,” she said. She is waiting for them to find her.
The original article appeared on NewYorker.com »