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Internet

Cult parody strikes back

Disgusted at media sensationalism over the Heaven's Gate cult's link to the Web, designers create a Higher Source spoof site.

A mere 16 hours after some Web designers put up a Higher Source spoof site at www.highersource.org, they had 200,000 hits and counting fast.

Clearly, they hit a nerve.

The site, filled with black humor, was rushed into being by Web designers across the country who were disgusted at media sensationalism over the cult's link to the Web and the implication that the Internet helped contribute to either their beliefs or their suicide.

Mike Emke got the idea for the site as he was listening to the news Wednesday night about the suicides. When he heard the newscaster say they were Web designers, something clicked. "I said, 'Oh no, here we go,'" he recalled. He knew the response would be that people would immediately start associating cults with the Internet.

"One week we're child molesters. The next week we're all cultists," he bemoaned.

He was right. The media seized upon the Internet angle and ran with it. His mother even called him to ask if he knew the guys who had killed themselves.

And Emke wasn't alone. "My dad called me," said fellow Web designer and friend James Domengeaux, who also was instrumental in designing the site. "I've had eight calls now going, do you know these people? Is everybody out on the Internet like this?"

So Emke, Domengeaux, and some of their other friends that they hang out with on Internet Relay Chat decided to do what any Web designers would: fight cyberfire with cyberfire, using a Web page.

Emke registered the domain name (using as administrative contacts David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Jack Kevorkian) and the dozen or so cohorts got to work.

"The biggest concern we had," said Domengeaux, who goes by the name Snuffy on the site, "was whether to use body bags or toe tags" on the opening page. Toe tags won out.

Otherwise, it was nonstop work and a whole lot of fun, they say.

Domengeaux said he fully expected to get flamed for being insensitive. Instead, thus far the general reaction has run the other way.

"I've never seen a guest book the way it's going on this site," he said. "We had fully expected to get blasted."

Netizens have found a way to express themselves.

"There's a serious message that the media really does need to understand what's going on better," Domengeaux said. "They're really hyping the Net rather than understanding what's going on. The Net's a different communications mechanism."

The online community's need for a voice was intense. When Emke put up the site at 10 p.m. PT yesterday, a mere eight hours after he and his group across the country started working on it, "I started to get hits immediately from people trying to get in." He hadn't even finished testing it.

A good number of the hits, maybe even most of them, probably were generated by people trying to access the cult's real site at www.highersource.com, just three letters off.

But by noon or so, the word had spread throughout the Net about the spoof site and everybody seemed to be passing it on. If nothing else, the site proves the Net can be an extraordinary tool for the efficient dissemination of information.

Emke said the site's in good fun. But he hopes the media get it.

"I think if all these guys who committed suicide were construction workers they wouldn't be showing all these buildings and saying construction workers are vulnerable to cults," he said. "They paint it with a broad brush, and it's not the best thing to do with the Internet."