Two weeks online. 33 milion hits. Three crashed servers. 250 e-mails per hour. This is the short success story of welovetheiraqiinformationminister.com, a genuine viral triumph that proves once and for all that nothing works better than a simple idea, especially if it's topical and features the kind of character you just couldn't invent - Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Iraqi Minister of Information.
We spoke to Kieran Mulvaney, one of the people behind the site, and questioned him about the media frenzy, the Pentagon's response, and the sad rumours of the Minister's death.
How many mugs have you sold?
Don't know yet; we don't handle sales directly, so it'll be a while before we know for sure. I do know that, since we moved to our own server (after crashing three others), we have had 33 million hits, so we're averaging something like 8 million hits a day. And I will take the opportunity to point out that, as well as T-shirts, we have mousepads, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, beer mugs, sweatshirts ... I forget what else. Everything for your Iraqi Information Minister needs.
Best bit of feedback?
There's been a lot. Most positive, some negative, a small minority vicious. We have had hate mail from the extreme right-wing (who accuse us of being fans of the Iraqi regime) and the extreme left (who berate us for mocking Iraq and not the US).
I think my favorite bits of feedback have been from a trucker in Canada who said he was driving along the back roads of Manitoba or somewhere and that all the CB chatter was other truckers laughing about our website; from an Air Force pilot in Saudi Arabia who said that our website was now being used to spice up the daily intel briefings; from the PR guy at the Pentagon, who said he they all missed MSS and loved our site. Oh yeah, and the producer at a Washington, DC radio station, who said he had been told about the site by an old friend of his, who was now a "very senior official" at CentCom in Qatar. (I just loved the image of Tommy Franks logging on to our site every morning before giving the order to go bomb Basra or Baghdad or wherever). Or maybe it was the Nigerian guy who said he noticed that MSS stroked his nose a lot when telling his porkies, and that maybe "there was a little Wisdom Geni hiding in one of those nostrils and that this Geni was being consulted for every word that M.S.S. needed to speak." I dunno, man, there's just been so much.
We're getting something like 250 e-mails an hour: some funny, some abusive, some trying to be funny but really not funny at all. It's all been a little overwhelming, to be honest. (And this is where I give a shout-out to our man Ethan Andrews, who has actually been doing most of the work on the website, and is the one who receives all the e-mail).
How do you feel about the site now that he's rumoured to be dead?
We're all dubious about the reports of his death; the only source is unnamed Iraqi refugess, who told Iranian media he had hanged himself. There have conversely been reports from some of his captured underlings that in fact he and a lot of the rest of the inner circle had arranged an escape convoy to Syria. I have this - doubtless highly inaccurate -- image of Saddam, MSS, Tariq Aziz and the rest all crowded on a school bus and singing "99 bottles of beer on the wall" as they sped toward Damascus. So I don't know. Whether he turns up dead or alive, our feelings about the site are likely to be the same as they are now: a mixture of amusement, bemusement, pride, and embarrassment.
When this thing first started, we couldn't stop laughing: I mean, our stupid joke website was all over CNN, media was calling from around the world, and we had so many visitors the servers were crashing. And then it just kept on going and going and going, and we all began to wonder if we would get our lives back, and when we would get the opportunity to start doing some real work. Fun as it has been, it has gotten much bigger, and gone on longer, than any of us anticipated, and although the attention has been fun, we're all acutely aware that the premise is fundamentally silly. And it could be argued that we're benefiting from, and making light of, war. Which is why we're now donating a percentage of all sales to the Red Cross/Red Crescent: at least that way we know something good is going to come out of something so ridiculous.
How did you promote it?
We didn't promote it at all. There are five of us involved, and we each of us sent the URL to twenty or thirty friends, and others (like you) we thought might be interested. So between us, we e-mailed maybe 120 people. That was it. It must have spread initially by word of mouth. We decided to go ahead with the idea last Tuesday, went live on Wednesday; on Thursday, we were getting 4000 hits a second and crashing a bunch of servers.
I think what happened is people started e-mailing it around, and it then landed on the desks of various media folks. I think it really took off when Reuters ran a couple of pieces; since then, we've been interviewed by CNN, CBS, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Sky, a bunch of BBC stations, and local radio and print in South Africa, New Zealand, the UK, the USA, France, Germany, and who knows where all else.
What should we be asking you?
I really can't think of anything, to be honest. I guess if there was one question you might ask, it might be: "Is this a suitable subject for humor? After all, this is war, and the guy was a symbol of a repressive regime. And if you're mocking the Iraqis, what about the U.S.?" Actually, I doubt that YOU would ask that kind of question, but it has been raised: mostly by pointy-headed pseudo-intellectual elitists on the BBC.
My short answer to that question is: "Jeez, lighten up." And the longer answer is: Well, obviously it is a suitable subject for humor, because there are a lot -- A LOT -- of people from around the world who are seeking out this site, and who find it hilarious. We're not forcing anyone to laugh at this. Like I said, it all began because five of us (who couldn't agree on anything else about the war) found this guy's brazenness funny, in a Pythonesque kind of way.
It seems that people from around the world, from all viewpoints, really connect with this site and with the humor around the man. Rightly or wrongly, people need to find humor in wartime, and MSS proved to be the lightning rod. And for those few of you out there who are really tied up in knots over us: get over it. A week from now, there'll be some other issue grabbing everyone's attention and we'll be yesterday's news. Just in case, though, we may register www.welovethesyrianinformationminister.com. You never know ...
Interview by Rob Manuel.