USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Putting a CAP on a Hoax
Examining CAPAlert, Web2001 and The New Television

The Childcare Action Project is not affiliated with Landover Baptist Church. The site's 'board of directors' boasts more Doctors than the Mayo Clinic, but the Project (a 501(c)(3) non-profit that asks for donations in a pop-up window) is the work of one Thomas Carder, a Granbury, TX specialist in nuclear emergencies; and Mr. Carder operates in league of his own.

CAPAlert.com applies a scientifically proven methodology to the ranking of modern entertainment -- Carder watches an impressive number of movies, notating each instance of objectionable material (such as wanton violence, 'adult underwear,' offenses to God, 'camera angle to focus viewer on private regions,' sex/homosexuality, or 'the foulest of foul words' -- which Carder, in an age teeming with racial epithets and specialized fetish vocabularies, defines as the word that starts with 'f,' ends with 'uck' and is not 'firetruck'). He then subjects these data points to a complex mathematical analysis that assigns each film an overall score from zero to 100.

As more schoolyard killers cite movie violence as their motivation, Carder seeks to prove 'a symbiosis between entertainment media preferences of youth and the relationship of youth with fair authority (parental, exofamilial, other youth).' The method is not substantially different from that found at kid-tooling sites like Screenit.com, but only Carder claims to have spent five years, from 1994 to 1999, developing his technology (which uses a combination of Lotus spreadsheets and Canvas graphics software).

Lacking peer review, however, and in the face of apparently numerous adversaries, Carder maintains that the CAP scores -- which measure only the film's individual content components, without regard for theme or structure -- are scientifically objective and not open to dispute. And he makes a strong case:

The CAP analysis model (the Findings/Scoring section below) could not possibly care less about my personal opinions or about any trumped-up 'messages' to excuse aberrant behavior or imagery, for manufacturing of justification for them, or for camouflaging of them with 'redeeming' programming. Disguising sinful behavior in a theme or plot does not excuse the sinful behavior of either the one who is drawing pleasure from the sinful display or the practitioners demonstrating the sinful behavior.

Impeccable standards, really. By the CAP methodology, a scene of, say, a doctor merrily performing unnecessary surgery is objectionable regardless of whether it is featured in Doctor Giggles, a Farrelly brothers comedy or a civic-minded expos? of rogue physicians. With a short fuse worthy of John the Baptist, Carder invokes his analysis model against detractors who object, for example, that his abysmal score for Kevin Smith's Dogma missed that film's spiritual message. (In this reporter's view, Carder's disdain for Kevin Smith alone should be enough to get him into Heaven.)

And in practice, Carder generally seems to follow the numbers. Thus, scored solely on instances of adult underwear, cusswords and such, the wildly blasphemous Stigmata actually scores higher than the seemingly innocuous geezer comedy The Crew, while Cradle Will Rock, which glorifies atheistic communism, gets a more acceptable score than the Saffron Burrows vehicle Deep Blue Sea, whose anti-shark propaganda is especially timely in light of last weekend's multiple squalus fatalities.

Is there any hanky panky in Carder's scoring? In an interview with OJR, he says no, explaining: 'I have no control over what the numbers show. Our standards are objective and based on the expectations and teachings of Jesus Christ.' How then does Saving Private Ryan -- so bloody it earned the implicit endorsement of the alleged Columbine killers -- get ranked slightly more fit for childhood viewing than Titanic, with its CGI-generated sinking and brief boob shot? 'It would be practically impossible for me to explain the calculations we do,' says Carder. 'There are about 33 mathematical equations and operations involved.'

Inevitably, Capalert.com has attracted quite a few of what Carder calls 'adversaries.' Crapalert and a travesty review subjecting the Book of Genesis to the CAP analysis are among the parodies. No less a figure than Roger Ebert makes sport of Capalert's unbending standards.

But what's most troubling is not Carder's methodology but the sense, on viewing the site, that it's all a big hoax. As indicated above, the CAP homepage features a suspiciously prominent disclaimer stating that the site is 'NOT associated with Landover or Westboro Baptist in any way.' This pointed reference to both the web's best-known parody of Christian fundamentalism and the self-parodic Rev. Fred Phelps would seem to be a dead giveaway; and the more time you spend reading Carder's defenses of his scientific method the more you're reminded of the 'rockometer' in the Ramones movie Rock 'n' Roll High School .

'We put [the disclaimer] up because many of our visitors accused us of being affiliated with Landover Baptist,' Carder says. 'Same thing with Westboro Baptist. I do not buy into what what Fred Phelps says. God does not hate anyone.' Although he is aware that Landover Baptist is itself a prank, Carder is puzzled by the confusion; the possibility that his disclaimer will invite even more hoax speculation he calls an 'unintended consequence.'

If there's a moral to this story it's about how meaningless hoaxes have become in the age of the Web. Carder is serious about his efforts to do the Lord's work (and about the donations, which he says presently only cover about 5 percent of operating costs). But the fact that he has to prove his site is not a fake is a strong indicator that we've reached some sort of critical mass in hoax awareness. If you wanted to spoof the concept of a motion picture ratings system, you'd probably come up with something like Carder's Rube Goldberg methodology. A particularly crude prankster who wanted to travesty intolerant Christian fundamentalists might come up with a character like Fred Phelps.

'I would gladly believe that CAPAlert is a hoax perpetrated upon the gullible readership of the Web, but unfortunately evidence indicates otherwise,' says Vincent Seiko, author of the Book of Genesis parody. 'I for one have never doubted that it is really just another example of a value-skewed religio-scientific model promoting itself as 'objective'. Firstly, if someone spent that much time watching and reviewing almost every cinema-released film over the last few years, they'd surely make it funnier. Also, if you've ever corresponded with the man himself, the simplest of questions are met with tirades of irrelevant propaganda and hostile responses which make you not want to ask any more questions -- classic religious type, eh? Makes you regret ever voicing your doubts about his super-scientific method of entertainment evaluation. I've asked him questions about CAPAlert under a myriad of identities, as both a sympathiser and an athiest. His reactions are equally abusive to both.' (Pace Seiko, Carder was unfailingly cordial and polite in our phone interview.)

But for everybody like Seiko, who accepts CAP Alert as real, there are many others who think it's a put-on. Which raises a question: Who's smarter? The people who assume (correctly) that a wacky site is real or the ones who suspect (falsely but understandably) that it must be too odd to be real? Increasingly, hoaxes don't just lack the panache of a Piltdown Man or a Shroud of Turin. They lack an audience willing to suspend disbelief long enough to care. A poignant and lingering death turns out to be fiction and the most striking thing is how much effort the fictionist expended. A fishy publishing transaction is revealed as a prank, and only the prankster seems to have been interested in the first place. If you recall a spam from a few months back urging you to boycott McDonalds in protest for its support for the Palestinians, you'll be interested to know that a new spam is circulating this week, urging you to protest McDonalds because it donates all its Saturday earnings to the Israelis. The chief difference between the two versions is not which side you're on but how fast you'll hit the delete button. There's no point to a hoax anymore because disbelief is everybody's default setting.

But God is not mocked. The disbelief has actually helped Carder, who says his traffic has increased fivefold in the past few months, thanks to mostly unfavorable mentions on various sites. Perhaps the only victim in all this is the real Westboro Baptist Church, a Canadian congregation that, probably for the reasons alluded to above, makes no mention of its non-affiliation with Fred Phelps's crusade against gay people.

'Failure, the longed-for valley, takes him in,' Richard Wilbur writes in a great poem about a businessman falling asleep after an unsuccessful call. He may as well have been describing the mood at WEB 2001, 'the official conference of Web Techniques magazine and WebReview.com.' Somehow, another Stewart Brand speech about the Long Now just seems like mockery in 2001. (Speaking of which, isn't the Kubrick estate liable in some kind of optimists' class action lawsuit? 2001 not only isn't as good as promised; it's not even as good as 2000.)

If this mockery seems a bit lackluster, it's because there's something unseemly about making fun of people when they're down. The conference has contracted somewhat from last year - barely filling the small expo floor at San Francisco's Moscone Center North and attracting, according to a spokesperson, about 7,000 attendees (a number that seems high to this attendee). Schmoozing was at an all-time low, the most popular attraction being a bank of iMacs attendees were using to avoid 'actual reality' contact.

The real story, though, isn't in the numbers but in how few new ideas -- even stupid new ideas -- are in motion. 'I guess my speech is starting to show its three months' age,' Organic director of engineering Chris Frye said in a tutorial on 'mass exclusivity.' And while it was a perfectly fine speech, he was right. How many courses on designing for community or using open source can you really take when even the courses come with the inevitable caveat that 'we're in a very different environment now than we were a year ago.' Today's main attraction, a David Talbot round table on Editorial Integrity, sounds just 1998 enough to make us twist again like we did last summer, but even this seems doubtful. If you can remember the nineties you weren't really there.

On the plus side, and in an indication that the economy really is returning to its rightful owners, the annual conference of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, currently in pre-registration on the other side of the Moscone Center, looks to be a humdinger with 12,000 electricians expected.

One thing that never gets mentioned in these conferences is what a bust 'mass customization' turned out to be. If these do-nothing Congresspeople really wanted to earn their pay, they'd pass a law that nobody can discuss the failure of the Web or e-commerce until somebody explains why -- to this day -- Amazon is the only site that has rolled out anything like a functioning mass customization tool. At the risk of sounding like a toldja-so, we must note that the original promise of the web wasn't mass audience or mass market or mass anything. It was the promise of being able to target and market with an unprecedented degree of precision, based on solid-gold surfing and usage data. That's a promise that is belied every time this six-year user of Yahoo gets served a banner ad for e-Diets, a service that nothing in my diet or exercise routines (let alone my web usage habits) have ever indicated any interest in.

This may be about to change, thanks to the medium that was always a more reliable friend than the web anyway -- good ol' television. In the past week, AT&T Broadband has been putting out teaser ads for something called Precisioncast. If the name sounds ominous, the promise -- of being able to target advertising to individual viewers -- sounds substantially more promising than the nebulous 'interactive TV' business from back in the early nineties. If only we hadn't seen the whole concept fail so miserably in the medium it was intended for, we might have a reason to turn those frowns upside down. In a gratuitous slap at the Web and all it stands for, AT&T hasn't even bothered to register precisioncast.com.