‘Snake People’ Invade the Internet – Wall Street Journal
The Internet has been saturated for years with videos and photos of cats. This summer, it is also filled with snake people.
For the thousands of Internet users who have downloaded a browser extension called “Millennials to Snake People,” any online use of the word “millennial,” a common term for people born in the 1980s and 1990s, is automatically changed to “snake person.” An extension is a small software program that modifies an Internet browser such as Google
’s Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox. Related terms are also altered: “Great recession” becomes “time of shedding and cold rocks,” and “Occupy Wall Street” turns into “Great Ape-Snake War.”
Web designer Eric Bailey, 33 years old, said he created the extension to amuse himself. “I saw one crazy-titled headline too many,” he said. “A lot of these articles speak of [millennials] in terms of this weird, dehumanized, alien phenomenon.”
The joke caught on quickly. Mr. Bailey launched the extension for Chrome in April, and others later adapted it for download in Firefox and Apple’s Safari. The Chrome extension has nearly 12,000 users, while a competing extension that turns “millennial” into “pesky whipper-snapper” has about 2,000.
Most browser extensions are intended to make the Internet easier to navigate or more functional. Some popular extensions block online advertisements, spell-check emails and compare product prices on different websites.
But like anything on the Internet, extensions can help users waste as much time as they save. Hundreds of wacky extensions have been designed to rewrite text, alter images and otherwise divert, confuse or amuse Internet users.
Some less-than-serious extensions have attracted large followings. One extension that replaces every image with a photo of actor Nicolas Cage has more than 119,000 users on Google Chrome. An extension created by Google that displays a satellite image from Google Earth every time a user opens an empty tab to launch a new website has more than 286,000 Chrome users.
Daniel Engber, a columnist for Slate, asked his brother to design an extension that would remove articles on news sites related to next year’s presidential election. Users who download the extension, called “I Haven’t Got Time for the ’Paign,” can decide how long they want election coverage to be muted: until the primaries are over, for example, or until Super Tuesday.
Mr. Engber, 39, said he is disappointed that only about 600 people are using the extension, which he describes as a “snooze bar for presidential politics.” But, he admits, the lure of campaign gossip is strong. “Even I have been tempted” to turn off the extension and read a few articles, he said. “The Donald Trump stuff has been the most entertaining.”
In New York the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the country’s largest art museum, has gotten in on the fun with “Meow Met,” a Chrome extension with more than 5,000 current users. The extension puts an image of a cat from the Met’s online art collection in every new tab.
There are dozens of cat paintings in the collection to choose from. “Across the world, across all these different centuries, cats were present and were doing their cute little thing,” said Emily McAllister, 25, who built the extension while interning at the Met last spring. “If anything, they’ve just found their ideal platform” in the Internet, she said.
Not every extension is all in fun. Internet browsers have removed extensions that help users evade copyright laws. Google requires extensions to “have a single purpose that is narrow and easy-to-understand,” and the major browsers all ban certain types of extensions, such as pornographic ones. Extensions can also carry viruses or other malicious software.
“It’s a great way for the community to build the features they want to see,” said Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy. “Most people [who] use the Internet…have real problems to solve, so add-ons that solve those problems are an attraction.”
Danielle Sucher, 34, created an extension called “Jailbreak the Patriarchy” in 2011 that swaps male pronouns and descriptors for their female counterparts, and vice versa. The phrase “her mother,” for example, turns into “his father.”
“I did this just because it was a thing I wanted and no one else was going to do it for me,” Ms. Sucher said. The extension now has nearly 20,000 users in Chrome, and Ms. Sucher said some college instructors have told her they use it as a teaching tool.
A number of extensions, including “Millennials to Snake People,” are based on the publicly available code for “Cloud to Butt,” an extension that changes the omnipresent tech phrase “the cloud” into “my butt.”
Some “Cloud to Butt” spin offs change “iPhone to “Ugly Duckling” and “Donald Trump” to “a whining four year old.”
“The concept itself is very simple—substitute one word or phrase for another,” said Steven Frank, the 40-year-old programmer in Portland, Ore., who created “Cloud to Butt.”
“I think when people see that, they apply it to whatever’s going on in their own lives,” he said.
An extension “doesn’t have to have utility to have value,” Mr. Nguyen said. “Sometimes just being funny has utility.”
Write to Nicole Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org