Machine Age

Issues. Culture. Endings.

Maybe it was the piece about coffee colonics, complete with a tastefully designed animation of anal leakage. Or perhaps the recent photographic expose on soul-killing office interiors, or the staff diary entry called "I Dropped the Baby." If you can handle reading online, you likely have a favorite Word story. The best of them moved from your bookmark list to urban myth status.

But now Word (word.com) itself is history. The famously design-sly Web site--an online shibboleth that treated ordinary lives extraordinarily well--was canned last Monday by its parent company, Icon CMT, an intranet service provider that had bankrolled it three years ago. All 12 employees of Word and Charged, another defunct Icon content property, were fired and then escorted from the building by a security guard. According to Icon CEO Scott Baxter, though Word had won prestigious design awards, maintained healthy traffic, and even drew business to the parent company, the site "doesn't make sense any longer to our shareholders." A strong effort to advertise on the site might have helped, but the management was lax and let offers go into limbo, say sources. With Word now frozen, Icon is ostensibly open to buyers, but "there's nothing firm on the table," Baxter says. "Do zines make sense on the Net? I think yes," he adds. "But do they belong inside of publishing companies instead of Icon? Yes."

Or should they shy away from corporations entirely? In fact, Word itself gave rise to a generation of smart, independent belletrists far beneath any acquisition radar. In the words of John Halcyon Styn, creator of the humor site prehensile.com, "Word was what my Web site wanted to be when it grew up." But since growing up often means getting bought and getting embalmed (read: TotalNY, ada'web), the fringe of online writers committed to do-it-yourself may be the ones who perdure.

Without budgets to speak of, these sites operate on an entirely different scale than the funded Word did, but the gap in their capabilities is closing. They don't match the pace of production at a fully staffed e-zine, but they can come close (or fake it). As one-person operations done in their creators' spare time, their development has nothing to do with making money, and everything to do with making meaning. The common conclusion about Word's demise is that "content" is over online. The evidence is to the contrary: here's proof that Word helped create an alembic of good writing and design on the Web. These sites' rallying cry is also a tribute: Words matter.

Fray (fray.com)

Created by Derek Powazek, freelance Web designer in San Francisco

"Every Web zine is Word's grandson," effuses Powazek, producer of the stunningly designed and searingly honest homespun site that has been a contender for the "Cool Site of the Year" award. "I can count on one hand the sites that I should write thank you notes to. Word is on the top of the list." Fray is known for its stories that continue well past the end: Powazek lets a broad range of writers publish on his site, and at the conclusion of each piece (on drugs, work, or criminal behavior), he poses a question to readers. He then appends the skein of the responses, like a scrolling public confessional and an exercise in communion.

Favorite Word Piece: "Holy Smoke" (www.word.com/habit/berg/smoking.html). "It was an epiphany. Not just because the design was really different, but because it was followed by a posting area full of people just like me talking about their battles with smoking. Years later, I did something similar in Fray."

The Finger (thefinger.com)

Created by Sam Pratt, freelance journalist in New York

"Random in the extreme" is how Pratt describes his site, a desultory collection of news clippings, apercus, and minutiae (occasionally referencing a digit). Though his own site closely examines and critiques conventional media, Pratt praises Word editor Marisa Bowe's efforts to keep celebrities and "meta-media" out of the zine. "There is so much commentary on commentary on commentary on the Web, and Word was a primary source" of experiences, he says. But with the dissolution of Word, Pratt worries that "we'll devolve toward an N.E.A. model, where you either have to do it as your hobby or just solicit grants from rich people."

Favorite Word Piece: Tom Vanderbilt's story on Colonial Williamsburg (www.word.com/place/colonial/index.htm). "What a weird exercise that is, all that period costume. How it makes the mind spin."

Smug (smug.com)

Created by Leslie Harpold, New York--based freelance Web consultant

From evocative biographical sketches to wiseacre media critiques, Harpold's site (updated monthly) is put together with "barter and reciprocity," she says. Columnists dissect Ass Fancy magazine, the Seattle sound, and the relative merits of e-mail. If the floating 3-D icons and quick-hit pieces seem familiar, it's because "Word definitely inspired Smug," Harpold admits. "I wanted to speak in the first person and I wanted it to be visually interesting, so I looked to Word because they were always pushing the design limits just a little farther."

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