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Archive for Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Eavesdroppers chronicle N.Y. musings

August 30, 2006

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— In a city of 8 million people, someone's always saying something strange. And, odds are, someone is around to hear it.

Like the guy on the D train who said: "Yeah, it ain't safe for kids to go missing these days." Or the woman on her cell phone in Bryant Park who noted: "Quite frankly, I'd rather be pole dancing." And that's the clean stuff.

Chronicling such utterances is the mission of Overheard in New York, a Web site that has become an Internet sensation, spawned a book and inspired countless imitators throughout the world.

The site traffics in the inane, the insane and just about every -ism out there. It gets 4 million page views a month, mostly from people who don't live in the city. Its irreverent, voyeuristic and often vulgar style, combined with the city's fame and diversity, fuels its popularity, founder and publisher Morgan Friedman said.

"It's really a love letter to New York," he said.

It all began three years ago, when Friedman overheard a man telling someone on his cell phone: "You asked me how I'm doing, and I tell you - and then you bring it back to yourself. You always do that."

"I heard that, and I thought this is so funny, and it's also just like every single relationship I've ever had - someone needs to start a Web site to just capture these moments," said Friedman, now 30.

The site's voyeuristic style is attractive to the same people who like reading about others on MySpace or watching them on YouTube, said Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University at Dominguez Hills.

"It also provides something we don't have enough of these days, which is a little levity," Rosen said.

Many of the quotes seem too outrageous to be true, like the tourist who told his daughter: "You see that guy over there? You see how he's a different color than you? You see that sometimes in big cities."

The editors say they try to spot fake entries. Does it sound too scripted? Is it an urban legend on the Web? Does it sound like something they've heard in the past?

"The alleged impossibility of it doesn't necessarily make it fake," said Danielle Lindemann, a site editor who is also a graduate student in sociology.

Nairobi, Dublin, Bucharest and Philadelphia are among other cities now boasting Overheard sites, although many are just individuals' blogs. Some of the Web sites take different settings, such as Overheard in Law School. A predecessor to the Overheard sites was In Passing, out of Berkeley, Calif.

But few are as advanced or popular as the New York version, which allows visitors to vote on the best quotes and participate in headline contests. It has sister sites, Overheard at the Beach and Overheard in the Office. And, of course, it has the book, bearing the same title as the main site, which came out in January.

It accepts submissions from anyone but honors its top "spies" by posting brief profiles. Unless they're celebrities, the people quoted are labeled generically, such as Guy, Chick, Bus Driver, Vegan or the always popular Hobo.

Friedman, who lives in Manhattan and runs a software and graphic design company based in Buenos Aires, has a team that vets submitted quotes and writes headlines. Dozens of daily entries are whittled down to no more than 12 per day, except for Wednesdays, when a slew of one-liners is posted.

The site essentially subsists on a few advertisements and doesn't yet turn a profit, Friedman said. The book version was popular but hasn't brought in much money, he said.

A significant portion of the quotes cut right at class and racial differences. Many are variations on the homeless guy meets the yuppie, or the black teen meets the white woman.

A few, however, plumb more unusual depths, such as:

Girl 1: Anarchists are so dumb.

Girl 2: Yeah, totally.

Girl 3: I mean, just 'cause you hate the government doesn't mean you have to dress badly.

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