Where’s Balloon Boy? Ask the Web

Wheres Balloon Boy? Ask the Web

The mysterious metallic balloon thought to be carrying a Colorado boy had scarcely returned to Earth last week when a new website launched, its domain name asking the question much of the nation was wondering: WhereIsBalloonBoy.com. Inspired by the disappearance of 6-year-old Falcon Heene — which authorities now believe was a hoax — the playful site featured question marks next to a picture of a bird and was updated twice more as the story developed. It later depicted a falcon poking out from a cardboard box, where the boy was found hiding in the Heenes’ attic. Within 24 hours, the site had been viewed by more than 23,000 people.

The point of the site To have a laugh, says its creator, Jonathan Percy, an online advertising producer in San Francisco. Like many others, Percy was transfixed by the bizarre drama and bought the domain name for $9.95 within minutes of the balloon’s landing. “There’s something kind of funny about a website that just has one single little purpose like that,” he says. “I always laugh when I see those.”

The Internet is teeming with whimsical websites that really don’t do very much. Or, better said, they do simply what their straightforward domain names advertise. Wondering if this week’s Lost is a new episode Check IsLostARepeat.com. Curious about New York’s skyline tonight Visit WhatColorIsTheEmpireStateBuilding.com. Stumped in the kitchen Maybe HowtoBakeAPotato.com could help. And if you’re ever in need of an ego boost, AmIAwesome.com might restore your swagger

These clever, if rudimentary, web destinations are dubbed “single-serving sites,” and they range from marginally useful to handy to the surprisingly interesting . Not all the sites answer questions; some just state facts. The legume featured in ThisPeanutLooksLikeADuck.com is, indeed, uncannily ducklike. Eighty-eight-year-old Godfather actor Abe Vigoda is still alive, according to the one fact available at AbeVigoda.com.

Ryan Greenberg, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, has assembled a list of more than 200 such sites. “It’s your chance to get 15 seconds of fame on the Internet,” explains Greenberg, whose 2008 paper on the subject is available at IsThisYourPaperOnSingleServingSites.com. “There’s something innately funny about a website that goes on for 60 characters, or an entire sentence.”

Simple, tongue-in-cheek websites date to the early days of the Internet — Purple.com has depicted a plain purple screen since 1994. In fact, emulating the clunky look of early websites is part of the fun, says Percy. “The way I built [the Balloon Boy site] is exactly how I would have done it in 1996. There’s a lot of nostalgia involved.” Tech blogger Jason Kottke coined the “single-serving” moniker and listed some favorites in a 2008 blog post — a move that prompted a rush of new entries, Greenberg says. Around the same time, writer Mathew Honan created BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle.com, a fanciful site listing all the considerate things the then-candidate had supposedly done for you . The meme inspired numerous imitators and, like many popular Internet gags, is now available as a book. Soon after Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Obama last month, the decidedly less complimentary JoeWilsonIsYourPreexistingCondition.com started making the rounds online.

That site includes a link to ActBlue, a Democratic group supporting Joe Wilson opponent Rob Miller . However, most single-serving sites are not designed with money in mind. Brooklyn, N.Y. artist Damon Zucconi launched SometimesRedSometimesBlue.com in 2007 as a “poetic gesture.” The site summons a screen filled with color that drew Zucconi for its beauty and simplicity. The 23-year-old has been creating websites since 2006; he’s now up to 18. “It’s a nice way to make a piece of artwork,” he says, “but my domain bill is getting pretty high at this point.”