Personality-driven reporting has become the rule rather than the exception. On Fox News and MSNBC, breaking stories come with a built-in perspective, keeping viewers loyal while helping insulate them from dissenting, challenging or complex opinions. Most blogs operate in a similar way. Try, if you can, to count how many times in the last few days you’ve skimmed over insight-free outrage at the childhood behavior of Mitt Romney. This is a question of hits, of course — a famous man being awful is news everyone wants to click on, and taking a righteous stance against him is easy, safe, and brand-building. On its own, this seems to be just another quirk of the opinionated internet media. But writ large, it’s pernicious. No matter what your political views are, the RSS feeds, Facebook pages, and Twitters you probably spend the most time on are the ones that flatter you, pander to you, and reaffirm beliefs you already hold.
Given that prevalent attitude, it’s a bit hard to understand the popularity of Christwire. A played-extremely-straight satire of the religious far right, Christwire at first glance seems more like a collection of terrifying opinions than any sort of insight you might agree with, let alone one you’d find humorous. It shares a small handful of commonalities with Hipster Runoff — firstly, that one may have to read a few articles to realize there’s a joke at all, and secondly, that when the joke finally emerges, it seems more bitter and resigned than laugh out loud funny. But while Hipster Runoff is largely read and commented on by those who are in on the gimmick, Christwire attracts a much larger array of different responses, from various displays of reactive vitriol, to people who jump in and participate in the site’s antagonistic fun, to to my personal favorite: commenters who condescendingly call the site “hilarious.”
I first encountered Christwire in 2010, when a director/producer from the Onion shared an article on Facebook. Disappearing into the site for an hour, I went from horrified but intrigued to reassured and smiling. When I emerged, I felt the need to comment on his status that I was 100% sure the site was a hoax. Thinking back on this now makes me feel incredibly stupid — of course it was fake, that’s the reason why a purveyor and fan of fake news was spreading it. But I think that example speaks to some of the magic of Christwire — it’s almost impossible to look at the site and not want to issue your verdict on it. Whether it’s the need to publicly pat yourself on the back for getting the joke, or the drive to write angry anonymous comments about the idiots who believe this Christian filth, there’s something about Christwire that’s particularly brilliant at needling people into conversation.
The creators of Christwire, as has been extensively documented by now, are Bryan Butvidas and Kirwin Watson, two like-minded, web-literate guys who began a collaborative project the New York Times described as “what The Onion would be if the writers cared mainly about God, gay people and how both influence the weather.” Early on, the site had only five or six writers, most of whom were creations of Watson or Butvidas. Each writer was well-differentiated and imaginatively sketched out: Tyson Bowers III was the music and culture reviewer who approached everything from a tone of extreme moral panic, Abe was a xenophobic hillbilly, and Stephenson Billings and Jack Gould provided relative voices of reason. (Following the site for a while, and befriending its writers on Facebook, can be rewarding for the slow-burn reveal of odd character traits; Billings, for instance, has a strong interest in clowns, and Bowers frequently alludes to his asexuality.) One Christwire contributor, Marie Jon, was the brainchild of neither Bryan nor Kirwin — she was a genuine conservative ideologue who was hoodwinked into letting the satirical site syndicate her work. Her columns didn’t seem terribly out of place, though, even next to headlines like “Is My Husband Gay?” and “I Am Extremely Terrified of Chinese People.”
Both of those articles were early hits for the site, helped along by bloggers who picked them up on face value. A blog called Angry Asian Man decried “I Am Extremely Terrified” as “ignorant, ill-informed, and hate-mongering” (which, to be fair, is an accurate description of the article’s contents), and the Huffington Post’s comedy section took “Is My Husband Gay?” to task. (Note: that link goes to an edited post. The original one clearly had no clue that Christwire even might be satirical.) While it’s easy to mock people for failing to do their due diligence — other pieces on the site at the time declared that Tupac had been raised from the dead and warned about “pandagators” — the really absurd articles were buried in the archives, and general information on Christwire was still scant. More revealing than the bloggers’ mistake in missing a subtle joke was their strange willingness to promote it: whether Christwire was fake or real, making a big deal about it helped lend the site credence and drove others there. But bloggers writing many articles a day thrive on low-hanging fruit, and Christwire was dangling just the kind of fruit they liked. Unwittingly, they were helping to prove what seemed to be one of Christwire’s many points: that even on the great, democratizing internet, the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention.
There are two opposing things going on at Christwire, and both are fascinating. On the surface of Christwire are the extreme, exaggerated viewpoints that signal a satire of conservative Christianity. This might lead you to believe that Butvidas and Watson are left-leaning and nonreligious. But they’re not, as the Times originally reported; both identify to some extent as Christian. Which might, if you had missed it before, help flesh out the other level on which Christwire operates: as a satire of those whose opinions of Christians are so negative that they’re completely blind to exaggeration and humor, and willing to accept anything about the side they hate. On Christwire, pretty much nobody comes out looking good.
The multiple aims of the site bring up an interesting question: who is Christwire for? And which audience do the authors write for: the people who get it, or the people who don’t, but might end up helping the site’s pageviews more anyway? It’s a tightrope that the best Christwire pieces seem to walk effortlessly. Abe’s review of of the third Twilight movie was ridiculous enough to make me laugh out loud while I read it, but apparently plausible enough, given the average intelligence of Twilight fans and their confirmation bias about the religious right, to attract over six hundred comments. The same can be said for Tyson’s takedown of Coachella or the wonderfully-named Ice Van Winkle’s close reading of Portal 2.
Curiosity about this dual audience led me to participate in Christwire for a few weeks in 2011. I wrote a handful of stridently Christian articles under an assumed name, submitted them to the site’s “uReport,” and mixed it up with critics in the comments section. Though even at my best I don’t think I stood toe to toe with the cream of Christwire’s crop, I did end up with one piece of writing I was legitimately proud of, and some further insight into the Christwire creative process. Basically, I learned that there is almost no limit to the amount of insanity you could shove into an article, as long as people thought the general viewpoint was plausible. And if they did, they’d be right there to declare how much smarter and better they were than you, as well as how dumb you were to have been duped by the great lie of religion. But I didn’t fool any real media outlets into thinking I was serious. In short, I was no Stephenson Billings.
Billings, the one character who’s been around more or less since the start of the site but wasn’t created by Butvidas or Watson, is probably the site’s best writer, at least when it comes to getting the perfectly wrong reaction from the media. Not only did he snag the Huffington Post (once again — their comedy section!), he’s also bagged NBC, Howard Stern, and Rachel Maddow.
Maddow’s response, especially, seemed less than contrite. To quote her directly, “In a world where China taking over New Zealand is what passes for real analysis on the situation in Egypt, how do we know that’s not satire too?” The blind eye turned here is extremely confusing; is she really saying this mistake isn’t her fault, and that she’s not responsible for fact-checking, just because the other guys “really are that bad?” Is she really blaming a comedian for not shouting, “I’M JOKING” before each and every joke he makes? Couldn’t all the people confused by The Onion and featured on literallyunbelievable.org make the same argument, and isn’t it an absolutely awful one?
I e-mailed Stephenson to talk about his process, and his responses were considered, intelligent and insightful. Especially this one, which seems to find the heart of Christwire better than I had before:
I'd like to think that our ideal reader is the type of liberal who is prone to knee-jerk self-righteousness, quick to be offended by anything that goes against what his college professors and Facebook friends are parroting on a daily basis. He's the type who reads a headline and maybe a sentence or two before posting his outrage to Tumblr and Twitter. He's the sort who only believes in Freedom of Speech when it applies to the things he already believes in. I think this is a real intellectual problem for young people today. They just can't understand the idea that freedom means living around ideas you despise.
What we do is performance art. We put on the same show again and again and our visitors take up various predictable roles and often perform them to a T. People love to come by and watch the train wreck that ensues in our comments.
One of the most bizarre phenomena on Christwire is the existence of returning commenters. There’s a fairly dedicated community of people — pretty much the exact people Stephenson described above — who respond negatively to almost every single article, and when confronted by third parties explaining the satire, either ignore them or write strange, evasive answers. But in an odd way, this makes a lot of sense. If the average internet user’s culled RSS feeds form an echo chamber, then Christwire, for those who return to it, could become sort of a reverse echo chamber. It’s designed to be disagreed with, yet never to make so much sense that it might actually challenge anyone’s views. Arguing daily with fictional characters probably accomplishes for some people what watching Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly every day accomplishes for others: a constant reminder that you are right, and other people are at best, misguided, but more likely, terrible human beings.
That’s really the secret to the popularity of Christwire. The site keeps track of its own Twitter mentions in a bar down the right side — click over and notice that most mentions are of the outraged variety. Christwire is a straw-man conservative that people can feel comfortable butting heads with, precisely because it’s designed to be wrong.
It’s also designed to be sexist, racist, and homophobic. This is occasionally true of Hipster Runoff as well, but on Christwire it’s impossible to ignore. The weakest Christwire articles feel like empty provocation from people eager to have an excuse to use racial slurs, and even some of the better pieces tread on questionably tasteful ground. I’m friends with some smart people who are so disgusted by Christwire as a whole — even though it’s a “joke” — that they’re unable to stomach the site in general. But if Christwire is performance art (and I think it is), then could this sort of disgust be an artistically sound goal? Though I didn’t ask Stephenson specifically about this, another thing he said seemed to answer this better than I could:
People really crave an interaction with Evangelicals and it's strange to say that Christwire is often the only opportunity some young people get. The truth is that leaders of the various churches rarely discuss their doctrinal and political differences. Even worse, there seems to be an unspoken rule against any inter-faith criticism. A lot of what I write is drawn directly from the works of Christian ideologues like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Phyllis Schlafly, Bill Donohue and Peter LaBarbera, yet the Christians who visit the site often label me a radical, a heretic, an outsider. My standard response to them is, if you disagree with me, you must disagree with all of these leaders of the Evangelical movement and if you truly disagree with them, are you vocal about it? Are you doing anything about it? Christians in America have a lot to answer for, in my opinion, but they're not answering. They're hiding behind the monolith of the Christian status quo. If Christians truly love Christianity, they need to take it back from the despots who are using it for their own authoritarian, duplicitous political goals. Will that happen any time soon? I have my doubts, but in the meantime I'm just sit[ting] here in the belly of the whale, poking his ribs and hoping he'll vomit.
If you follow Christwire on Twitter, you might notice that its Twitter account has recently changed over to “The Daily Bleach,” a similarly right-wing extremist publication with many of the same writers, but this time without the religion. You’ll also notice that Bleach has yet to attract a large audience, the way Christwire has. Only time will tell if it takes off, but I have a hunch it’ll never be as big. Secular conservatism, no matter how racist, sexist, or insane, just doesn’t rankle people the way Christian conservatism does. If the performance art project of Christwire has anything to say, that might end up being its legacy.
Rob Trump lives in Los Angeles and contributes to The Onion News Network. He can be reached at his first name, then last name, at gmail dot com. He is on Twitter here.