Friday, January 30, 2009

Saddleback At You, Rick

Nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage is leveraging the power of the Internet to strike back against the anti-gay political activism of Rick Warren and his Orange County, Calif., based Saddleback Church.

Savage used his column to solicit suggestions for a provocative new meaning for the word "saddleback." He then allowed his readers to vote for their preferred choice from a list of his favorite submissions. This week, Savage announced the resulting neologism to the world.

From this point forward, the definition of "saddlebacking" is as follows: "The phenomenon of Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities."

The inspiration for this definition is that some young people who take virginity pledges apparently think they can avoid breaking them by engaging in anal, as opposed to vaginal, intercourse.

"Here's why this definition is perfect: Saddlebacking, like barebacking, involves one person riding up on another's backside," Savage wrote in his column. "But in this case, it's not the bare-naked cock-in-ass that's the most important feature of the ride, but the fact that the person being ridden has been saddled - thanks to the efforts of the Rick Warrens of this world - with religious hang-ups and serious misconceptions about sex."

As a gay man, Savage certainly doesn't have any problem with anal sex. However, he regularly criticizes those who engage prematurely or unsafely in such an intimate act. And, as abstinence-only education seems to actually increase the likelihood of such behavior, he often takes those who advocate it to task as well.

Warren initially raised the ire of Savage and the rest of the gay community by lobbying forcefully for the passage of the California ballot initiative Proposition 8, which ended marriage equality in that state. The mega-church pastor then caused further controversy by comparing gay marriage to pedophilia and incest. Finally, Warren's views and the gay community's response to them gained national media attention when President Obama chose him to give the inaugural invocation.

Unfortunately, the primary effect of all this publicity has been to provide free advertising for Warren's Saddleback Church. In this age of Google, one need only know such an organization's name in order to be able to access its website and all of the propaganda posted there. But the method the online search giant uses to rank pages in its listings allows dedicated groups of people a means of getting their voices heard as well - and that's exactly what Savage is up to.

The precise inner workings of Google's software are not publicly known. Part of the company's strategy for staying ahead of its competitors is to keep them guessing about exactly how its computers decide which pages will come up first when one searches for any given word or phrase. However, important factors in a site's prominence in Google search results include the number of pages linking to that site as well as the context of those links. For example, a large number of sites link to the UI's website and generally do so from a page that includes the words "University of Iowa." Thus, most Google searches involving the UI return its homepage as one of the top results.

Gaming Google's system to achieve humorous results is known as Google bombing. For a long time, Googling "miserable failure" brought up a link to former President George W. Bush's bio page at the White House's official site. Google's software engineers have taken action in an attempt to defuse such pranks, but their solution is far from perfect. Regardless, deliberately boosting the search ranking of a new definition of an existing word is arguably not an abuse of Google's system at all. It's just a technologically sophisticated way of making a statement. And that's what Savage is asking us to do.

So, all you bloggers out there, please follow my lead and write posts linking the words "saddleback" and "saddlebacking" to the page Savage has created to promote these terms' new meaning, which is For those of you without blogs, you can do your part via word of mouth. Together, we can reshape how the public thinks of this word.

(Cross-posted from the DI's main site.)

As proof that this can work, try Googling "santorum."

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