Before he committed to a major in neuroscience, University of Southern California student James Zetlen flirted briefly with majoring in international relations. An Internet project he started as a lark two days after the Nov. 2 election has given him insights into international relations he never anticipated.
Zetlen's Web site gathers the expressions, foreign and domestic, of those who opposed the re-election of President Bush, people offering apologies for his victory.
And in response, other sites have emerged, with contributors just as adamant that the outcome of the election was nothing that deserves an apology.
It's the great divide writ large on the Internet, with the same divisions that animated America and the world before the vote.
At Zetlen's Web site, SorryEverybody, launched Nov. 4, people contribute to a gallery of images that's grown like a virus. They send in messages of apology from Chicago to San Francisco, Brazil to Germany, Australia to New York, from Kentucky, Alabama and other lone blue outposts in a sea of red.
But what distinguishes SorryEverybody, and some of the other post-election sites, is the creativity of peoples' political passion. With a series of digitally-delivered photographs — in color and black and white, with varying degrees of clarity, some of them oddly moving and personal, others silly or witty or filled with anger — SorryEverybody has tapped a reservoir of global regret.
‘Sorry, my bad, mea culpa’
Like many successful ideas, SorryEverybody was a matter of serendipity. “The idea just fell into my lap,” said the 20-year-old Zetlen, who hails from Seattle.
“It originated as a joke between friends, a friendly thing who between friends with the same gimmicky sense of humor,” he said.
“I thought it would be kind of silly to hold up a sign saying ‘Oops, sorry, my bad, mea culpa.’ I got the domain name, since I had an extra $20 laying around.” Zetlen appeared in image No. 1 and SorryEverybody was born.
The site's popularity quickly snowballed. “It began to resolve about three or four in the morning on the fourth of November,” he said.
‘A terabyte a day’
Originally, SorryEverybody was hosted on the USC Web site. “By the end of the day, my college took it down,” Zetlen said. “It was overloaded with hits and traffic.” SorryEverybody “had received over 2.1 million hits and had taken up 82 percent of the traffic for the USC Web site for the day,” he said.
It has since moved to a private web hosting company, and for good reason: “At the peak of the site’s popularity, we were using a little under a terabyte [1,024 gigabytes] a day.”
“It's overwhelming,” he said. “Traffic has dropped off a little bit, but on average we've been getting 5 to 6 million hits a day. Since we started we’ve got 10,000 e-mails.”
What began as a literate undergraduate goof has become a cottage industry. Zetlen said his outfit, which includes 10 volunteers, has begun placing “discreet” Google ads on the site. To defray the cost of operation, he said, “We have a little store with T-shirts, mugs, bumperstickers and buttons.”
But for most of Sorry’s money, Zetlen said, he’s had to count on the kindess of strangers. “The major source of revenue has been donations, which are still coming in at a steady clip.”
Other voices emerge
Other Web sites have sprung up both before and after Zetlen's project, some supportive, others with a contrary point of view.
NotSorryEverybody, a sober conservative blog started in November, links to an array of conservative Web sites.
was started as “a direct response” to SorryEverybody's visual approach; its responses just as outrageous, hilarious and deeply felt as those on Zetlen's site — and with some pages making especially pointed attacks on celebrities of the left.
And there's more to come from Bush supporters: The domain name werenotsorry.com is registered; the Web hosting company cheap-domainnames.com says a site is coming soon.
The World Speaks, a multinational Web site started in September, is a clearinghouse of relatively nonpartisan commentary on American politics and the election.
ApologiesAccepted, started by “some worried Dutch civilians” in the Netherlands, is a genial site whose contributors sympathize with Sorry's constituents.
And one Canadian Web site, MarryAnAmerican.com, proposes that liberal Canadians marry like-minded Americans eager to leave the United States during Bush's second term (“No good American will be left behind,” the site's home page says).
The cost of entertainment
For Zetlen, it suggests how the diversity of opinion that has emerged in the contentious global post-9/11 atmosphere has been both lucrative and lamentable.
“A formula's developed for making a lot of money off people's political convictions,” he said.
“The Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters and Bill O'Reillys — as well as the Michael Moores of the world — have entertained us a lot, but we’ve paid a terrible price for it. We’re no longer respectful of one another.”
Zetlen is contemplating making changes to SorryEverybody. “We're going to try to provide an experience where people can learn the nuts and bolts of being an activist — where to go to volunteer, so it’s not a daunting proposition to be a participant in your democracy.”
Zetlen also envisions SorryEverybody morphing into a so-called 527 group, one of the tax-exempt nonprofit political organizations protected under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code — Punkvoter.com, Music for America and MoveOn.org are others — that may accept soft-money contributions from individual donors.
Other changes are more immediate. Zetlen said a SorryEverybody book compiling photographs from the site would soon be released, as well as a compilation CD of music from a wide range of musicians.
And he's hoping for another example of great timing: “We're trying to get them out on Inauguration Day.”
Michael E. Ross is author of “Interesting Times: Essays and Nonfiction.”