Image: Sanjaya
Frank Micelotta  /  Fox
Why is the weak-voiced Sanjaya still a contender on 'American Idol?' It's all Your fault. Yours, Howard Stern's and that guy from VoteForTheWorst.com.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/8/2007 5:40:32 PM ET 2007-05-08T21:40:32

You are totally ruining “American Idol.” You and the King of All Culture Hackers, Howard Stern, that dude at VoteForTheWorst.com and maybe some other people … but mostly You.

You seem to have no respect for a fair contest and the feelings of others. You keep voting for that Sanjaya kid on “American Idol,” and it’s making a lot of people very cranky. OK, in context with the rest of the planet (and in relation to things that actually matter), maybe not a lot of people. But certainly a handful of talking heads on daytime TV. Not to mention that MySpace guy who went on a (failed) hunger strike because of Your bad influence.

Perhaps You’re taken aback by all the hubbub Your little prank is producing. Hey, me too. I mean, what’s with all the shock and awe, right? Didn’t TIME magazine name You 2006 Person of the Year” for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game?” It was only a matter of time before You turned on America’s most beloved institution, “American Idol,” and messed stuff up. It’s what You do.

You should be ashamed
OK, I can see why “American Idol” fans are upset about this Sanjaya thing . You lot of miscreants are mucking up the place for people who really do enjoy getting lost in the “Star Search” pageantry or whatever. But if the “A.I.” true believers (which ironically are You, too) stepped back and took a breath, they’d see something very cool going down. This whole Sanjaya thing illustrates, as aptly stated in the virtual science blog, More Noise than Signal, “virtual communities can have big effects on the non-virtual world.”

The blog’s author Daniel Harrison goes on to describe the Sanjaya effect in terms of evolutionary psychology, epidemiology and blah blah blah. Meanwhile, “A.I.” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe doesn’t give this rapidly growing virtual movement much credit at all, stating that this whole Sanjaya thing is “a bit like a fly buzzing around a cow; you want to waft it away with your tail."

When it comes to influencing popular culture, Lythgoe and others of his mind would do well to heed the past accomplishments of the mighty Howard Stern audience. Consider a decade or two of “Baba Booey” crank callers who’ve infiltrated nearly every major broadcast news program, including coverage of the famous O.J. Simpson standoff in 1994. Or consider those who claim that a Sanjaya win would cause “A.I.” to “jump the shark,” using a phrase inserted into the common vernacular via Stern’s endorsement of the original JumptheShark.com.

Of course, moving people with mass media is nothing new. Orson Wells did as much with his 1938 radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells story, “War of the Worlds.” But the panic caused by his faux news report on a Martian invasion was just a reaction. This whole Sanjaya thing is getting people to take directed action and repeat it over a longer-than-usual time frame. Keeping Sanjaya around has quickly gone from being the dutiful execution of a leader’s wishes to a captivating group project endorsed by celebrities such as Zach Braff, Rose McGowen and Pink.

What will You do next?
In light of other recent Internet campaigns, it was really only a matter of time before one exploded, splattering its crazy empty-calorie goodness all over the Universal Consciousness. Britain flirted with declaring Jedi a religion after a census thanks to Internet efforts. Web site SomethingAwful takes great joy in messing with people on Second Life who are taking themselves a bit too seriously. Last year, Steven Colbert successfully influenced “The Colbert Report” viewers to vote for his name in an online poll to name a bridge after him in Hungary.

What’s interesting is that we’re seeing all these loose tribes develop around a few influential voices within large virtual communities. Pop culture generally doesn’t work this way — at least it didn’t use to. Once upon a time, the majority of radio and/or Internet community didn’t participate. In radio, the main players were the ones with the big antennae. On the Internet, the leaders often self-select. The rest of the group chooses to participate minimally, a lot, or not at all. Research shows that the majority of us go with “not at all,” voyeuristically taking in the entertainment at a distance — or as we say on the InterWeb, “lurking.”

Say what you want about Sanjaya Malakar and his so-called supporters. There’s something about this kid that seems to be pulling the lurkers out of the corners and into the act. It’s a cool trend and probably not one that’s going to die down any time soon. The Next Big Things on the Internet aren’t usually foretokened by business models or white papers. They’re quite often the products of people goofing around, playing at silly nonsense like keeping Sanjaya on “A.I.” And while Sanjaya may be a below-average singer, he’s rapidly gaining a more important role in history as an example of where the virtual world connects with the real.

And he couldn’t have done it without You.

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