The End of the Beginning?

It had to happen some time. Two of the oldest and most esteemed Alley Web projects, Downtown cicerone TotalNY (totalny.com) and online art laboratory ada'web (adaweb.com), ceased production last Friday, slashed by an executive shuffle and paradigm shift at the highest levels of their patron, America Online.

It was never a likely match. TotalNY, ada'web, and the attitudinal screed Spanker (spanker.com)-- which stopped spanking Friday as well--were dragged in tow when Web Partners, the online development firm that created them, was acquired in February 1997 by Digital City, a company that produces online city guides, including flagship Digital City NY. Digital City itself is 80 per cent owned by AOL. The deal created a strange marriage, introducing three wiseass, literate stepchildren into AOL's Cleaver household.

"It was clear from the get-go that what Digital City was going to do with Web Partners was only to enhance what DC already does," says Benjamin Weil, ada'web's producer. "I don't think they were ever interested in anything else besides local content."

For John Borthwick, the ex-CEO of Web Partners and now the head of Digital City's Studio division, "it was time to call it a day... TotalNY and Spanker did good things and ran their course." ada'web, on the other hand, "never made a clear fit with Digital City," Borthwick says. Many of Web Partners's 12 employees will take positions within Digital City or Digital City Studio. The sites, according to Borthwick, will remain accessible "for a while."

The fracturing reveals a difficult aspect of online development: the grace period is definitely over. Companies used to invest in expensive experiments, called "loss leaders"--high-profile risks to gain cachet and attention. Now they're simply "losses." MSN deep-sixed the majority of its original content offerings late last month, and Slate (slate.com), Microsoft's own shiny editorial sinkhole, moved to a subscription format last week. The Adobe- and Borders-funded Salon (salonmag.com) is reportedly also on the verge of a pay-to-peruse system. Sure, the losses here are painfully evident. But what about the "leader" part? After making waves with stellar design (the Net as atelier) and local way-new journalism, TotalNY and ada'web had struggled against becoming complacent.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn is that Web ventures are organic, with lives that have beginnings, middles, and ends (just maybe not in that order). Both ada'web and TotalNY were just beginning to be reborn. Three weeks ago, ada'web unveiled its most interesting work in months, a nervy story-maze called "Blindspot." Despite a slow year in 1997, the site was even nominated last week for a "Webby" award by Web Magazine. TotalNY, for its part, got a total facelift in December from highly regarded design lab Funny Garbage. The sites clearly had not lost all usefulness.

Nearly a quarter of the writing on Digital City NY, which launched in January, was produced by TotalNY and appeared on both sites, say sources inside the company. "There was always the possibility that somebody at AOL was going to look at TotalNY and Digital City and say, 'Why do we have two NY local sites?"' said TotalNY executive producer Sean Elder. "We just all thought it would take a little while longer."

In February, AOL decided not to sell off its own content division, but cutbacks ensued. The number of employees was slashed in half at the company's L.A. production house Entertainment Asylum, and Digital City lost 80 people across the country. With the success the company has had in delivering audiences to advertisers through mainstream content, there's little incentive to reach alternative audiences. "If there was a real commitment inside AOL to broaden their usership and get away from their clean, well-lighted place which they keep paying lip service to, I think TotalNY would have made perfect sense," Elder said.

Ada'web, which never found a business model, was another matter. With dwindling funds, its producers had tried to loose themselves from Digital City by applying for nonprofit status last year. But when they got close to securing it, Digital City announced that "if we wanted to go nonprofit, we would lose their support financially," says Weil. Now the ada'web producers are in "serious negotiations" with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to donate the site as an archive.

It's Digital City's loss, says Robbin Murphy, the cofounder of art resource site artnetweb.com, who believes that companies like AOL have a responsibility to look beyond the bottom line. "[Art] can provide a continuity to a business that is constantly responding to the developing market flux, and it takes insightful leadership to understand and implement this effectively, something AOL doesn't seem to have much of."

But criticizing AOL isn't entirely fair--after all, it is learning to become a media company as quickly as e-zine producers are learning they have to be businesses. It was only a matter of time before the sites would be "reconsidered"--but everybody in the still-unprofitable New York new media world knew that. That's because we're all watching the clock.


Very American Activity

After a week on the East Coast, snacking on pizza at the Capitol and braised lamb at Radio City Music Hall, Bill Gates returned home to his isle abode with wife Melinda for some more of that steamrollingô. Meanwhile, Srini Kumar, a frenetic twentysomething Stanford grad who runs the booming anarchist site Unamerican Activities (unamerican.com), has three words for Chairman Gates--"Microsoft Must Die"--and three words for the rest of us: "Bomb the Mall." Not especially unique, maybe, except for the fact that Kumar himself is turning into an odd remix of Gates, cornering the market on bad-mouthing the state, media, and race relations by selling thousands of political stickers, buttons, and merchandise through his site. He's a one-man monolith of disaffection and, well, paradox. As he writes on the site, "Free enterprise will destroy capitalism, o yes."

The Unamerican Activities site offers "industrial-strength cultural propaganda" and "tools to help you fucking matter," says Kumar. He's referring to the "Tedium is the Message" poster (free), "fuck yeah i'm weird" T-shirts ($10), and "DRUG ME" coffee mug ($6). More important, the site is every content producer's dream: it actually makes money. Kumar has been living off the profits of unamerican.com since he lost his job last year, selling some $2000 a month in merchandise. He doesn't take credit cards--the site prints out an invoice for customers to mail in. "It's backbreaking to support the advertising model [like content sites do]," he says. "But the merchandising model just kicks butt."

Kumar's politics are a little hazy, merging capitalism with socialism. "Remember the guy who created the 'Mean People Suck' bumper sticker?" he asks, referring to a man named "Andy" who allegedly sold over 600,000 such stickers since 1992. "Man, that rocks." By running a "media company," Kumar says, he is just trying to tap into the "cultural rage." The site is intended to foment revolt by teaching workers to start their own businesses, like Kumar's. "There is nothing wrong with a kid on the street selling stickers," he adds. "He's not exploiting anybody."

The site also promotes Kumar's Unamerican listserv and his mailing list, a monster with 38,000 names. To build the community of the antisocial, he's even planning on offering e-mail and home pages at a reduced cost. But the site's real purpose is to help Kumar find offline stores to carry his products. With his goods sold in just 20 stores now, Kumar hopes to increase that number to 200 in the near future. But he's not planning on working too hard. As he says, "Workers of the world, relax."

E-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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