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The Importance of Being Annoying

[whitespace] Clinton Fein

Just days after The Metropolitan released its groundbreaking 1997 guide to annoying people, places and things, Clinton Fein shook cyberspace by launching his annoy.com Web site. Figuring in a Supreme Court First Amendment test case, he's confirmed that San Franciscans are among the most annoying persons on the planet. Just ask Janet Reno.

By Michelle Goldberg

For Clinton Fein, being annoying is more than just an unfortunate personality trait, it's a mission. Fein, a South African native who drives an old Beamer with Oklahoma plates, is the curmudgeon behind the Web site annoy.com, a scathing, quasi-political online zine devoted to rancor and aggravation. The site allows visitors to fire off anonymous emails to political figures and annoying electronic postcards--one has a picture of a fetus and the slogan "When I Grow Up I'm Going to Kill a Doctor." Another has Paula Jones staring at a presumably presidential penis with the tag line, "Kiss it!!! How about Find it?" And for the holiday season, there's a pile of money with the words "Tis the season, fuck the starving, tra la la la la la la la la."

Unlike other snotty purveyors of irritation such as Suck or Spy, though, Fein's expletive-laced rantings have an oddly earnest ideological passion behind them. See, annoy.com is largely a response to a provision in the Communications Decency Act that makes it illegal to send communications over the Internet that are "indecent" with "intent to annoy." Though the "indecent" part has been struck down by the Supreme Court, the "annoy" provision still stands. Theoretically, Fein could face two years in prison and a substantial fine for his unpleasantness, though he has thus far emerged unscathed from his legal wrangling with Janet Reno.

"Bill Clinton and Congress passed a law recently making it a felony to annoy them! Of all the fucking nerve," says the site. "Supported, no less, by a whole bunch of folk who, in our opinion, are fucking indecent and annoying themselves--to say the least. So now it's payback time."

"It's fundamentally about freedom of expression, about language and communication," Fein says about the site. "Annoy.com is a deliberately provocative, over-the-top, in-your-face articulation of the stupidity of the legislation that spawned its name and of the political process that allowed it to happen. It's not simply a satire or a parody.

"Fundamentally it's a vitally important communications tool. It really allows communications that are anonymous and directed toward people who are socially accountable for legislation. In a democracy, or at least a place that defines itself as a democracy, how can the people that we elect to represent us tell us how we should or should not communicate with them?"

Since postcards from annoy.com can be sent anonymously, visitors can irritate without braving the law as Fein has done. People have sent Bill Clinton pictures of a flipping-off finger with the message "Fuck you, from Hillary," says Fein. They can also send "annoy libs"--form letters interspersed with scroll boxes providing menus of insults and arguments--to public figures ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to the ACLU. Users can choose epithets from "religious zealots" to "liberal fuckheads."

"We're not asking for a constitutionally protected right to threaten people, harass them or abuse them, but to annoy them," says Fein. "Jesse Helms annoys me. Isn't it fair that I can annoy him back?"


On to The Metropolitan's annual 50 Most Annoying List.


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From the January 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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