The rapid rise of 'Stuff White People Like'

March 24, 2008 1:04:20 PM PDT
Three months ago, Christian Lander was nothing more than an anonymous Internet copywriter living in Los Angeles. Today, his blog "Stuff White People Like" is a heavily-trafficked, much-discussed site that last week netted him a book deal. How did he rise from relative obscurity to creating a pop culture touchstone in just a few months time? According to experts, he hit the right note at the right time, while ? perhaps unintentionally ? creating a forum for people to openly mock, or explore, what it means to be white.

"This is a scientific approach to highlight and explain stuff white people like. They are pretty predictable," wrote Lander, who is also white, on the site.

Since January, Lander has used the blog to skewer the "stuff white people like" ? or, perhaps more aptly, the stuff that middle class, liberal, white people like ? things like Barack Obama, kitchen gadgets, knowing what's best for poor people and having gay friends.

Random House announced last week that it will publish a book based on the blog and written by Lander. Lander reportedly landed a six-figure deal.

"It's a simple formula. Conversation plus zeitgeist plus critical mass equals viral takeoff," said Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo. "You get the conversation going and it's a little bit like starting any viral thing. It's like dropping a match into dried leaves. The flames will kind of trickle along and suddenly burst out."

I first heard about Lander's site in early February when a forwarded e-mail landed in my inbox with the subject line: "This is the soundtrack to all your parties." The post linked to a guest column titled "Top 10 Rap Songs That White People Love."

From that day on, it seemed like everyone I knew was talking about the blog. A week later, it was mentioned in several magazines and Lander made NPR.

But judging by the amount of comments on the blog, Lander's site seems to have been popular since the day it first began, Jan 18., when he posted about coffee, farmers' markets, film festivals and "religions their parents don't belong to." The site's most read post is about "Asian girls" and why white people (specifically men, in this case), love them. The post got more than 1,700 comments.

None of this ? either the racially tinged humor or the popularity of the blog itself ? surprises Lisa Nakamura, the author of two books on race and the Internet and an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

"The blog does a really good job of walking the line between provocative and offensive," Nakamura said. "I think the reason it's popular with a really broad spectrum of readers is that white readers can be the focus of the content and that's not usually the case with blogs about race."

Nakamura also believes that this isn't a site just for any white people, but for a group of liberal-leaning, upper middle class white people who find both truth and release in the blog's brand of humor.

"I think the white readers enjoy reading [about] issues of race that are about them, but that have bite to them. Because white people love guilt," she said. "That's part of what whiteness is about ? knowing you have entitlement and feeling extremely guilty about it."

This isn't the first time that someone has created a race-based humor blog, according to Nakamura, who studies how racial identity manifests itself in the online space.

"Black People Love Us" chronicles a fictional white couple and testimonials from all of their black friends.

Popular several years ago, "All Look Same" is a blog about Asian Americans with an infamous "face test." Readers are tested whether they can identify the ethnicities of a Korean person, a Japanese person and a Chinese person.

What's telling in Stuff White People Like, according to Nakamura, are the conversations people have in the blog's comments section.

"There's a lot of debate because people in everyday social life are raised to believe that it's impolite to have these kinds of disagreements in public with people," she said. "Half of the people on the forum are treating [it] as a humorous post, but half the people aren't.

"You have a vast [multi-racial] readership. One question about that readership: how big is too big that it can't be sustained?" Nakamura added.

That question is one that publishers, who release tomes by bloggers-turned-authors, wrestle with, according to Sarah Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publisher's Weekly.

"I think every once in a while there is a sort of critical mass attention to blogs," Nelson said. "The novels were not particularly successful. It is not an automatic transition by any means."

Book deals for bloggers are nothing new. For years, all manner of bloggers have landed book deals: Ana Marie Cox, the former editor of Wonkette; Clotilde Dusoulier from Chocolate and Zucchini; and Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan from Apartment Therapy.

Even more bloggers' books are on their way to the shelves, covering all manner of subject from stripping (Ruth Fowler of Mimi in New York) to foreign policy (Matt Yglesias, currently a blogger at The Atlantic and a former staff writer for the American Prospect).

But Lander may be the first to have landed a deal so quickly.

"Publishers are always looking for new material and new authors. ... They want to get it before the other publisher gets it," Nelson said. "I'd like to think publishers are choosing them, not because it's hot, but because it's hot and it has something. That's what they should be betting on. ... Nothing necessarily will last for years and years. I think publishers are not just not buying a blog or a blogger because of the moment. I think the smart ones recognize that."

Random House will have to wait to see if it made a smart choice or not. For his part, Lander is "taking a break" from doing media interviews.

"Blogs really serve as a proposal. One, it shows if the person can write and two, if what the person writes is amusing," said Bob Thompson, director at the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"I'm not surprised in this [idea of] trying to strike when a blog is hot. ... Who knows? In a year, we might have moved on to completely other things."