Come With Me on a Magical Journey Through the Internet!


I was combing through the markup languosphere the other day. You might know the activity as "browsing the web", or maybe by the more common euphemism, "tickling the plump hypertext neckwaddle of the corpulent Mayor of Cybersurf City". I had him tittering and giggling, rolling about on his back as if a large humanoid bean. I was doing that with a kind of boyish, carefree abandon, until I ran into...


This is the type of thing that has become invisible to everyone else, and is quickly dismissed. But not to me. I am sort of like the Dr. David Livingstone of the internet. This was enough to have me gathering my safari helmet and my array of delicate nettings for ensnaring any precious fauna that might flutter by.

Yes, there may be some other intrepid souls out there who would click on such a thing out of pure curiosity. But their pioneering spirit dries up there, as no sane person would go any further for the very reasonable fear of treacheries ahead. But I am not that person. I'm the type to fling myself headlong through the magical wardrobe, and then incinerate the ornate mahogany portal behind me with a Molotov cocktail.

Specifically, I got to asking myself the question, "What happens when you click on these spastic bullshit ads for promos of marginal value and merit, and then actually pursue the process to its end?" This is the bottomless rabbit hole into which I've sunken my soft, vulnerable torso.

And I have returned. I have come back to chronicle my odyssey for those who would never dream of embarking on one themselves. I do it so you don't have to, and because you don't want to. And believe me. You really don't want to.

But that's because you're all a bunch of huge pussies. Personally, I LOVE adventure!

Ok, let's break it down piece by piece, and take a good hard look at this. Rome was not offered for free with the completion of one or more promotional offers in a day. I'll start at the beginning of my quest, and walk you through it, documenting my emotions, my reasoning, and my actions.

The Pledge.

First I am presented with a banner of simple design, schizophrenically jittering colors... and alluring promise. Are my eyes deceiving me? Such luscious bait wiggling on this line, and yet such a seemingly simple challenge. Could it really be this easy? Ah, but finding out is exactly what will make this adventure such a joy!

But before I go about assessing the merit of this 728x90-pixeled riddlemaster's challenge, or even consider a response to the challenge itself, I am met with a familiar adversary. The Olive Garden. The damnable temptress of Mediterranean fare has toyed with me before. But my ire is only briefly stoked, and then quickly snuffed out, yielding to the rich, smoky scent of desire. The fucking breadsticks. I consider that maybe adversary is not a suitable word, so much as perhaps adversavory.

But the crippling lust for an inexhaustible basket of garlicky loaves will not be useful on this perilous voyage. I'll need sharpened wits lest I make a grave misstep and completely fuck this up. Luckily I have the experience previously alluded to. I just have to piece the puzzle together.

My first reaction was that this young man looked like Tom Hanks. This was further reinforced upon seeing his name among the possible choices! This is good news. I suppose all I have to do is click the...

Not so fast.

I notice that as I let my cursor hover over the three candidates, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Willis, the URL each one points to is exactly the same. Dia-fucking-bolical!

As I mutter a volume of Italian-specific profanity under my breath towards the unscrupulous Olive Garden, the clockwork upstairs is ticking away. This is part of the test. How will I react to this impasse? Which behavior will curry the most favor with the churlish devil operating this cyberspatial crypto-mindfuck?

Politics, you will note if you read my previous adventure, plays as big a role as any. You will also note, as will I, that as much rapture it would bring me to enjoy a free meal at the premier bargain-crammer of American families' swollen pasta-holes, I am first and foremost a scientist. Just like Dr. Livingstone, who was likely passionate about his other pursuits like being a missionary and narrowly avoiding the kettles of hungry, barbarous brown men, he was first a scientist. Yes, this may not actually be true. But it is true for me.

I should test this system. Misinform, as they say, and document the consequence. I have reserved the most fragile sliver of bandwidth for the possibility that since every link points to the same URL, every answer is correct. But the more dire contingency crowding the airspace in my mind, looming like some dark dirigible flagship for an evil army, is that somehow this banner does know when I've clicked a wrong answer, and a wrong answer is a hair trigger to release heaps upon smoldering heaps of internet scorn upon me (sometimes known as scornography), and even more importantly, resulting in a profound scarcity of piping, cheese-stuffed veal cutlets, and Caesar salads so big, Livingstone himself could start a fucking tribal cult inside one if he chose to do so.

How would it know? Maybe the thing has a kind of mouse pixel tracker, sends this information to our truculent riddleskipper via the more silent 'POST' method, and catalogues your answer as either a correct "Hanks" answer, or an incorrect "Cruise", "Willis", or the letter "O" in the Olive Garden. It very well might then trace your IP and forever blacklist you from ever attempting this offer/brainteaser, or any affiliated one, or even setting foot within a 200 meter radius of anything resembling obscene portions of mass-produced Italian food.

I've naturally broken into a cold sweat by now. But it soothes my nerves to know I've been here before, and this gives me strength. And with strength, courage. The courage to deliberately attempt to trip this thing up, and supply a wrong answer.

I click "Tom Cruise". I am greeted with... greeted with...

I have trouble scribbling the notes into my trusty Moleskine pad as the tears well up in my quivering eyelids. Pearly Xanadu bathed in misty perfumes of Shangri-La, extending ambrosiatic splendors buoyed on the breath of sylphs and ivory-armed nymphs... can it be??

But I check my excitement, and retire to my empiricist's armchair. It certainly seems that one possibility I accounted for could be true; all answers could be treated as correct. But in the grandeur of the moment, my heart swelling at the sheer munificence of this portal of unattenuated Giving, I find that I'm more willing to call into question my assumption that Tom Hanks was really the right answer. Hell, maybe it was Tom Cruise. What do I know! I've never been that great with faces. But what I know for sure is, here I am staring into the face of legitimate evidence that the response "Tom Cruise" is a one way fucking ticket to linguini heaven. (Tom Cruise sure had funny hair back then!)

Last time I did this, I blistered through the subsequent process to obtain my prize. Not this time. I will savor every step like it was a scalding mouthful of chicken & gnocchi veronese. I will remind myself that I am doing this for you.

The Turn.

After I click the button to claim my dinner, that's when everything changes.

It is at this point that I turn and say "I don't think we followed the white rabbit out of Kansas anymore, Toto. Let's see how far down this looking glass goes." That's what I would have said, if there were anyone to say it to. I just jotted it in my pad with a self-satisfied expression, deciding I would relate it to you folks later.

How far down did it go? Quite far. It just kept on going, in fact. I was met with screen after vertically-scrolling screen of first-tier promotional offers. And that was just page one. I truly was like Alice tumbling head over heels after ingesting whatever hallucinogen triggered her Wonderland trip.

Now these all looked like fine offers. You might even argue (and I do, vociferously, by the way) that being lead to this dazzling buffet of discounted trades is reward enough alone for pegging a portrait as a dead ringer for a young Tom Cruise.

But I'm a man on a mission. Not only am I attempting to optimize the likelihood of landing the gold at the end of the rainbow(tie pasta? Nah, forget it.), I'm also dabbling in some peculiar cross-pollinated form of journalism, and actually reporting on how this all works, and more importantly, how it makes me feel. Isn't that what I was calling this? Journalism? Wait... wasn't I calling it science? Is there even a difference? Hey, let's call it both. I'm adventurous enough for that. Sci-journalism. "Journ" is at the heart of journey, so it's making me feel a lot more fucking adventurous already. I will proceed to fantasize about myself as a plucky scijourneyman with a wind-twitched feather in my cap, and I invite you to as well.

On my scijourn, I'm faced with questions about how best to enrich the process, and augment my future breadstick intake. I will ask, "Is this best served by doing the bare minimum of 'any one sponsored offer'?" What would that say about me? It might say just about the same thing as if I worked in a family restaurant and only wore the minimum number buttons and silly trinkets on my suspenders required by management. To wit, an opportunity has been missed to truly express myself, and improve the perception of myself towards those who are bankrolling this whole goddamned endeavor. See what I mean about this being mostly about politics?

Needless to say, I completed every offer on every page. It was grueling work, required dispensing a lot of personally invasive material, but it was worth it.

I have not covered in detail any of the offers from this "Grand Freefall List", because believe it or not, this is only step fucking one of Olive Garden's program requirements. I'll go into more depth on the palette of main offers which follow.

The best is yet to come.

The Prestigious Unrelenting Clusterfuck Siege of Neverending Yet Highly Enticing Semi-Mandatory Offers.

Now comes the fun part. It's a kind of revolving menu, sort of like in a jukebox, of more detailed offers. It's unclear how many of these are really mandatory to complete the deal. I'd guess at least one, but maybe more. But that's missing the point. If you look closely, there's even more free shit you can snag if you take some of these really choice proposals seriously. I know I did. Every last one.

Here's the first one. A smoking survey! This sounds great. Remember about the political angle. Here, the obvious thing to do is pretend you're a smoker, and that you smoke a lot.

Notice that in order to make yourself eligible for the 5 grand, you have to certify that everything you said is true. This made me a little nervous, so I used a fake name. I figure this ought to throw off the feds for at least a little while, and still allow me to claim the prize as Mr. E. Johnson, with the liberal use of a fake moustache.

Next up: Holy shit, another 5 grand?? At this rate I'll be a millionaire before I'm ever seated at Olive Garden. How ironic, being exorbitantly wealthy, yet dining at a place where a measly few bucks buys you INFINITY breadsticks. Those populist motherfuckers.

There are a few things to notice about this promotion.

First ...


It's already down to 12 minutes and 31 seconds before it expires! Jesus Christ, talk about getting here in the nick of time! The other thing to note is that it requires your home phone number. I guess this makes sense, because in the off chance that you get the ringtones instead of the 5K, how else are they going to jack your tones up into your phone? End of argument for me.

Besides, I didn't have a whole lot of time to bat around issues of privacy or misuse of personal information when there was just a little less than a baker's goddamned dozen minutes left to make up my mind. And anyway, you can tell they guard this information with encryption protocols since it masks the numbers with '*' symbols. At least I know the busybody looking over my shoulder isn't going to be making any prank phone calls to me, while an elite team of data guardians handles my digits with velvet gloves afar.

Oh yeah, and I had just enough time to hit the checkbox to nab myself another 10K. Booyeah.

Ok, then things started getting a little weird.

Diapers? Nobody is a bigger fan of accumulating useless shit through debilitatingly extensive promos than I am, but what am I going to do with diapers?

I don't really want to turn down the offer and ruffle any feathers, so I decided to just pretend I only spoke Spanish and ignored the form.

With the next offer, things got back on a more even keel. What's not to like about being greeted by the warm smile of Ray Romano? I found nothing strange or silly about this promotion at all.

I felt pretty good about my chances on that one. I was starting to get in a groove. I was feeling good, like there was no tidbit about myself too compromising, embarrassing, or financially lacerating to expose to a conglomerate of vague internet shadow-businesses.

Then this one rolled around and I tipped backwards a bit, crushing my chair comedically. Finally something that addresses my one greatest need. My gaping, unfathomable ignorance of things!

After filling about another 50 or 60 of these, they started getting pretty weird again.

And they just kept going downhill.

There didn't appear to be an end in sight to the promos. In fact, I am still on this journey, albeit taking a break, resting on the back of some kind of mythical creature that looks like a turtle. I'm not sure if I'll ever come out, but I'll keep recording what I find. Maybe someone can stop by my place with a few external hard drives to store the volume of cookies, spyware and other temporary files which have gathered on my disc. It's been taxed like an old mule.

For now, I will venture that there is no bottom to this heinous spiderhole I've fallen into. Only glittering distractions to slow my descent. Send help.

And breadsticks.