Why Everyone Stopped Asking Jeeves

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Getty

In 14 novels by comic author P.G. Wodehouse, spread over the course of a half-century, a fictional valet named Reginald Jeeves fielded questions of sartorial, societal, and personal etiquette posed by his employer, wealthy London socialite Bertie Wooster.

By the late 1990s, he was being asked where internet users could find nude photos of actresses.

It should be noted that the Jeeves of the Wodehouse books, which were eventually used as a template for the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, was not quite the same Jeeves of AskJeeves.com, the web portal that debuted in 1997 and encouraged search engine users to field their curiosity in the form of a question. (“What’s the best restaurant in San Diego?” “What is Pamela Anderson’s home address?”) But enough similarities remained for the Wodehouse estate to toy with the idea of litigation in 2000, asserting the dot-com had co-opted the character without any financial arrangement.

That would prove to be the least of the site’s problems. After a spectacular initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market that rocketed from $14 to $190.50 a share, Ask Jeeves became a casualty of the search engine wars of the early 2000s. Eventually, their mascot would be escorted right out the door.


The original AskJeeves.com launch page.
Internet Archive

Long before Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Garrett Gruener had a notion to humanize information-gathering online. A graduate of UC San Diego, Gruener had been a venture capitalist in the burgeoning computing world of the 1980s. After founding and selling off Virtual Microsystems in the 1980s, he looked for other ways to explore the market and the potential of the internet to become a consumer-friendly user space.

By 1992, Gruener had an interface, but no face to put to it. He liked the idea of a virtual concierge, similar to the hotel employee who fields guest requests, but didn’t think Americans would know exactly what the word meant. He went with a butler motif instead, and named him Jeeves—not after the Wodehouse character, he claimed, but more in line with how the name had become synonymous with servitude. In partnership with his former Virtual Microsystems employee David Warthen, Gruener launched Ask Jeeves in April 1997.

Although Yahoo!, Alta Vista, and Excite were all in the market, Gruener felt Ask Jeeves set itself apart with its interface. His team had spent months building a library of "knowledge capsules," snapshots of answers to questions they felt would be most commonplace. If a question wasn’t addressed in their content, the site would default to a more general search.

For users overwhelmed with pages of results stemming from a simple search, Ask Jeeves was more refined—dignified, even—with Jeeves standing at attention near the search bar. Many of the queries were consumer-oriented—asking for the best eateries, plumbers, or hotels—while others sought the kind of information that required both urgency and specialized knowledge. “How to get rid of skunk smell?” was one common query. (Salaciousness won the day, however. One in five questions pertained to finding nude photos.)

Gruener’s hunch was correct. People enjoyed the direct, personalized navigation, and saw themselves as Ask Jeeves loyalists. He once compared them to Mac users, who had tunnel vision when it came to alternatives. By 1998, the site was handling 300,000 searches a day. By 1999, it was up to 1 million. After going public, shares climbed from $14 to $60 to $190.50.

Jeeves was poised to be the internet’s first breakout character. He appeared in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, reportedly the first web-based personality ever to do so. The site signed with high-profile Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and plotted an aggressive merchandising campaign that would see toys, apparel, and other product further familiarize Jeeves to the public.

(None of this was lost on the Wodehouse estate, which questioned whether Ask Jeeves had infringed on their rights to the Jeeves character. While they owned the butler, the Jeeves of the web was not quite the Jeeves of the books, and both parties announced a non-disclosed settlement in 2000.)

Jeeves would finally lose his composure in 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst. Advertisers fleeing from web development led to mass casualties online. The company posted a $425 million loss in 2001; shares plummeted to 86 cents in 2002. Despite his sharp appearance, Jeeves was dangerously close to insolvency.


search-engine-land via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Ask Jeeves would rebound from those dark times. The site was reconfigured to be more search-oriented with the addition of a third-party engine, and Jeeves was recast as more of a mascot; a 2003 ad campaign didn’t even feature him. That same year, Gruener was able to post the company’s first-ever profit, thanks in large part to an ad revenue deal with Google. But the behemoth in the search engine space wasn't sharing the market: It owned 32 percent of the industry compared to just 3 percent for Ask Jeeves.

In 2005, Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp. (IAC) purchased the site for $1.85 billion with an eye toward making it less about questions and more about general searches. Gruener departed; Ask Jeeves morphed into Ask.com, with the butler disappearing entirely the following year.

Why? Perceiving Jeeves to be representative of the 1990s internet culture, Diller and IAC believed his charm had run its course. “I don't see many tears on the floor," Diller said about the character’s absence.

While Diller had designs on being competitive with Google, it was not to be: That site went on to claim a clear dominance of the search market. By 2010, corporate support for Ask.com had dwindled, although the URL remains a part of the search engine landscape. Aside from a brief return in 2009 in the UK, Jeeves has been unavailable to field any additional questions.

When Pokémon Sent Hundreds of Viewers to the Hospital

Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images

By the time the 38th episode of the animated children’s series Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, aired in Japan, it was a bona fide sensation, drawing roughly 4 million viewers weekly. One survey estimated that 55 percent of schoolchildren in Tokyo's Kawasaki school district followed the series. The show—which began airing April 1, 1997, and focused on the adventures of Ash and affable monsters like Pikachu in their attempt to collect one creature from each species to train for combat—was also a comic, a Nintendo video game, a trading card series, and more. The devoted fandom would soon spread to the United States.

But then something peculiar happened—so peculiar that it become the subject of medical journal research. The Pokémon episode that aired at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 depicted a cataclysmic explosion between thunderbolts thrown by Pikachu and a “vaccine bomb.” Red and blue flashing lights began to pulse onscreen. Though the sequence lasted only a few seconds, hundreds of children were stricken by an immediate and visceral response that ranged from headaches and dizziness to full-blown seizures. Japanese hospitals found themselves treating viewers for epileptic symptoms.

This wave of deleterious effects became international news. Never before had a television program had such a direct and immediate health consequence on its audience. Some people initially dismissed the whole thing as a hoax or possibly some kind of mass hysteria, but the physical reactions were genuine. What had made this episode of Pokémon so dangerous—even among those viewers not diagnosed with epilepsy? And could it happen again?

 

The potential for a television program to trigger seizures is rooted in how it displays light. Light displayed at frequencies between 10 and 30 hertz, or the number of cycles per second, is known to induce symptoms for a percentage of the population susceptible to them. The color red is also stimulating. When light is shifting from color to black and back again, nerve cells in the brain can fire electrical impulses rapidly, leading to convulsions. This is often referred to as photosensitive epilepsy, where certain visual stimuli can cause a seizure.

As a result, there have been a handful of programs that have prompted medical concern for viewers. In 1993, the UK had three reported seizures as a result of a commercial for pot noodles that used flickering light, prompting the advertiser to pull it from the air. A 2012 animation for the Olympics also triggered adverse effects for a reported 18 viewers. People don’t necessarily need to have epilepsy in order to be affected; they might have an undiagnosed condition, remaining symptom-free until viewing such footage. Others might react even in the absence of epilepsy, suffering headaches or other symptoms as a result of being overly sensitive to flickering light.

Mew and Mewtwo are pictured in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

In Japanese animation, the strobe effect was obviously not intended to cause distress. Animators considered it a technique, which they dubbed paka paka, and which was intended to communicate to the viewer a sequence of high intensity. In “Denno Shenshi Porigon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”), the Pokémon episode that became infamous, Pikachu’s attempt to free a monster named Porygon from a digital prison results in his being attacked by computer virus missiles. Throwing his thunderbolt attack, he intercepts the missiles and creates a paka paka explosion augmented by another technique known as flash, which accentuates bright and flashing lights. The frames in the sequence were alternating at 12 hertz—well within the window to cause problems.

The scene, which occurred roughly 21 minutes into the episode, is what prompted individuals with photosensitive epilepsy to react. Statistically, it made sense. It’s believed that one in every 4000 people are vulnerable to the condition. With 4 million people watching, 1000 of them could conceivably have been struck with symptoms. A reported 618 people were hospitalized for treatment. Some even wound up in intensive care with breathing problems.

That such a sizable number were in need of attention did not go unnoticed, particularly since it was the result of a children’s show. The story was covered by the late-evening newscasts in Japan, some of which inexplicably decided to air footage of the episode, which provoked more photosensitive reactions. By Wednesday morning, the Pokémon incident was the talk of Japanese schoolyards, with kids being asked if they had been struck down by the cartoon.

 

It took science some time to figure out why this sequence had been so particularly consequential, even among those who weren’t epileptic. As it turned out, the typical living environment in some areas of Japan was partly to blame. In small living rooms often dominated by large television screens, kids were confronted with a towering and flickering image. Some even sat close to the screens, compounding the potentially negative effects of the sequence. Children are also more susceptible to epileptic seizures, and kids were Pokémon's target audience. The length of the sequence, which was roughly six seconds, and its heavy emphasis on the color red may have also played a part.

Hospitals who were sent questionnaires by researchers reported that many of the children treated were not diagnosed with epilepsy, though the incident seemed to precede a diagnosis. One letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 stated that of 91 patients evaluated for Pokémon-induced symptoms, 25 had another convulsion within five years. Of 13 patients who were treated and had no history of epilepsy, 10 wound up being diagnosed eventually.

Pikachu (L) and Ash (R) appear in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

Animators were flummoxed. The paka paka and flash sequences had been used before, though likely not in a program approaching the viewership of Pokémon. Police launched an investigation to make sure Television Tokyo, the broadcast network, was not somehow negligent in airing the program. They weren’t, though the consequence would be the same either way: No one would ever take the risk of airing “Denno Shenshi Porigon” again.

 

The episode was pulled from the series and was never rebroadcast, save for the news clips. The show itself was taken off the air in Japan entirely, not returning until April 1998 and carrying cautionary warnings. (When Pokémon was imported to America in 1999, the episode was predictably left out.) New broadcast standards in Japan were implemented that mandated the color red could not flash more than three times per second, with no more than five flashes per second of any color, and no flash more than two seconds in length.

That wasn’t quite the end of seizure concerns in popular culture. In 2018, some theaters put up signs cautioning viewers that flashing lights in The Incredibles 2 could be a problem for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Disney later reedited the film in the UK so it complied with the Harding Box test, which sets standards on flash and flicker rates for light and can reduce—though never eliminate—the potential for problems. The company is also issuing a warning for the upcoming December 20 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, stating the film has “several sequences” utilizing flashing lights.

Owing to the relative rarity of these events, it’s likely productions will continue to use flashing images, though producers of Pokémon would probably prefer to forget the 1997 incident ever happened. The episode has never again been cited and the character of Porygon disappeared, save for one fleeting mention in Japan when Hulu kept a preview for the episode at the conclusion of the previous installment. While it doesn’t contain any of the incendiary sequence, it might be the only surviving footage of the day television really was bad for kids.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

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