Confessions of an Internet Menace

The Onion's Kate Palmer Reviews 'The Internet Is a Playground'

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The first time I heard of David Thorne -- or his work, at least -- was in mid-2010, when a friend forwarded an email exchange between a sly graphic design director and his unfortunate colleague, a receptionist named Shannon.

Shannon's cat had gone missing, and she urgently needed Mr. Thorne's help in designing a lost-cat poster. In 21 emails and seven design iterations, he takes every vague direction from Shannon to the extreme. When she requests he remove the $2,000 reward he independently added, he sends back a missing poster with a prominent and unhelpful "NO REWARD" splashed across it. In the final version, Shannon's lost little cat sports a red bowler hat.

The back and forth was exasperating -- and funny as hell. I, in turn, forwarded it to several dozen design-minded friends, all of whom have surely wished at one time or another to reply in such an honest and clever way to pro bono requests of their professional services.

And I wasn't the only one. "Missing Missy," as the exchange came to be known, was viewed by millions of people on blogs, emails, and on Thorne's own site, (a nod to George Orwell's former address). The witty Australian has fairly quickly amassed a sizable social-media following and more than 4 million visitors a month to his site.

Mr. Thorne has followed up his smashing viral successes with a book called "The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius." A collection of some of his best email exchanges, including Missy, as well as another infamous one in which he attempts to pay for a chiropractor's bill with a drawing of a spider. It also features dozens of fantastical stories and one-off insights into his overactive imagination and plenty of incredibly funny non-sequiturs and observational humor.

Think Jack Handey with a graphic-design background and a mean streak.

Reading all these exchanges and stories at once, it may be tempting to pity Mr. Thorne's unwitting email adversaries -- he is clearly replying with a global audience in mind, while they are simply having an online conversation about, say, trash pickup or a housewarming party.

There are, therefore, two ways to look at this. The generous interpretation is that Mr. Thorne holds up a mirror to lazy, nonsensical, hypocritical behavior, and the way in which it has become far too easy to hide behind email to bully your neighbors, colleagues and complete strangers. Mr. Thorne mines so much material from his subjects' unwillingness to use common sense and willingness to mindlessly obey bureaucratic silliness. Said another way, why doesn't Shannon get the hint after 10 emails and design the damn poster herself?

Then there is the not-so-generous way of reading Mr. Thorne's work: that he's a mean-spirited provocateur who escalates minor exchanges over everything from video-rental fees to gym memberships into full-scale e-wars. What's more, the correspondences do end up feeling a bit formulaic by the end of the volume.

Do Mr. Thorne's email enemies deserve the ridicule his success has heaped upon them? Perhaps. But the much more interesting question is how that success was earned in the first place. Mr. Thorne writes that he "never initiate(s) an email correspondence, simply repl(ies)." It's a remarkable thing to hear from someone with a proven track record of viral humor. It also must be frustrating to hear if you've ever been in the position of turning some campaign, ad or piece of content viral and understand all the work that goes into generating a digital "hit."

In the end, what Mr. Thorne's work -- and his popularity -- prove is that there will always be an audience for original, inventive and, yes, even mean-spirited humor, whether in an ad or in editorial content. As much as clever marketing, celebrity endorsements and well-planned PR plans can get one's brand to the masses, there really is no substitute for genuinely, riotously funny writing. It's made Mr. Thorne famous, or internet famous at least.

Kate Palmer is the editorial manager of The Onion.
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