“Words are like flies: you notice them when they’re buzzing; when they’re not, it’s as if they don’t exist at all, ” says in The New Yorker. She came upon a billboard with a single word – parbunkells – in black Apple Garamond typeface on a white background. An advertisement for a new product?

Some investigating led her to Julia Weist, an artist.  She came across the word (which means two ropes bound together with nooses [loops] on all four ends and merged in the middle) and thought it was “a nice metaphor for things coming together.” It is a real word with hundreds of year of usage. Just not on the Internet.

She had been looking for a word that did not appear in the results of a search engine. Not an easy task, though Weist also has a degree in library science.  I had my students one semester try to find a relevant course topic that was not in Wikipedia. Also a tough assignment.

Next, Weist went beyond normal curiosity. She decided to put the word somewhere easily visible in public, just to see what would happen. Weist got billboard space via 14X48, a group that fills empty billboards with work by young artists. It would stay up until someone placed a paid ad in that spot

When her billboard version appeared (June 12) in Queens, New York, if you did a web search on “parbunkells” you would only find a website she created. That didn’t last long.

Her experiment in attention and reach began to appear all over the web on social media sites. Someone created a Twitter handle for the word. Someone bought the domain name parbunkells.org and then offered it on eBay with a starting bid of $8000 and “Buy It Now” price of $20,000.

I did a Google search on the word today and came up with about 4200 search results for “parbunkells.” Given time, this post will be included in those results.

The experiment turned out to be an interesting way to study viewership and the way social media spreads memes. There is something to be studied in the eventual engagement with the word that occurred and also the engagement with Weist that emerged.  A “microcosm of the Web’s life cycle.”

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