By Jared Chausow
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It's all in the decor. In this case, we're talking stainless steel desks, black space-age chairs, and iMacs. These items are resting on a hardwood floor, freshly polyurethaned, in a SoHo loft on Broadway. If a TV producer conjured a set for a hip web zine, he couldn't do any better. Of course, the TV version would be an illusion and this is a real office. In the corner sits Rufus Griscom (third from left in photo), the editor and CEO of Nerve.com, and that really is an Adorno tome on his desk, and he really does want to be as helpful as he can for this interview. After all, everything really is happening for Nerve.
Next month, the little-erotica- Web-zine- that-could will transform into a community space and portal, replete with homepage building, e-mail, chat, bulletin boards, and personal ads. In January, Nerve.com plans to debut a print version, sold online, to be followed with distribution in bookstores. Private investors with $10 million have given Nerve a boost, and industry analysts now think the site could be the first adult play to make it as an IPO. And the recently launched German, French, and Spanish versions of the site already bring in a big chunk of the company's ad revenue. Nerve.com isn't profitable, but hey, it's growing. Fast.
All this makes a good story, and Nerve has always courted publicity with uncanny skill, from that first puff on CNN just days after they launched, a scant two years ago Griscom and then lover Genevieve Field (center in photo) conceiving the site over Chinese food on the floor of their one-bedroom apartment all the way down to today, when a publicist is on staff to "help" the stories along. Somewhere, though, is an analyst who has taken a look at the mathematical reality.
"Clearly they are going to generate a lot of buzz, but you can't live on buzz alone," says Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. ''Nerve has a very limited market, and in order to make money on a limited market you have to offer a lot of services, which is obviously what they are trying to do. But I don't think there is a big enough market to support them."
Sinnreich could so easily be wrong. Nerve could be the next Playboy media empire; as president and editorial director Field says, "we've been thinking big all along." All that Nerve has to do is embody the spirit of a new sexual movement, to position itself on the cusp of change the way Playboy did more than 40 years ago. The comparison may appear a touch forced after all, Hefner threw bashes for the masses, whereas Nerve holds soirées for the post-gender crowd. But if the parties were raunchier in the '60s, or if the site seems too studied to be radical, realize that Nerve is as sharp as the straight edge can get before it loses all hope of profitability. No other zine draws as diverse a crowd of hot writers, from Dennis Cooper to A.M. Homes, although the gems are often by less-known talents, such as a very popular recent piece of reportage by Leif Ueland about a porn star's 500-man gang bang.
The trouble is that at this point you can't say whether Nerve is a simulacrum or the real thing, whether all that cool furniture belongs to a next-generation mover and shaker or to a Web site that's enjoyed a lot of press and modest financial success by publishing quality photos and prose, but whose future remains limited to a small number of people interested in "literate smut." Is it a better story than a business? Perhaps it's no surprise that the answer depends more on how the zine navigates the waters of big-time media than on whether it convinces Rick Moody to muse a little more about the joys of polysexuality.
These days, it's Griscom who runs the business end, and he knows, without giving the game away, exactly what a delicate spot Nerve is in. But if anybody can make a highbrow content play work out, well, it's going to be a guy like 31-year-old Griscom, someone who wears Oxford shirts with crazy-quilt slacks and can talk cash-blend ad deals as easily as postmodernism. He certainly possesses that rare ability to ooze an aphorism ("I believe in running for the purposes of locomotion") as readily as talk market risk ("our revenue story is very solid"). But is that enough?
Let's start with basics: you are planning to launch a magazine in January. What is the projected circulation, who is the audience, and why does a Web site need a magazine? We are exploring a new strategy for launching a print magazine. We are going to create a beautiful physical magazine, start with a small print run, and market it exclusively online. It may be hard to find a copy of the first issue we are interested in generating grassroots buzz and creating demand without spending a lot of money. We are investing a considerable amount of money in the content, though top writing, photography, design, paper stock, and so on.
Are any sections planned already? We will be doing lengthy reported pieces each month and we will simultaneously make documentary segments in most cases. Streamed documentary footage will accompany the stories [when they are posted online], and we also use the segments, which will be television quality, as one of the early projects of NerveStudios.
What makes this different from Playboy? Everything. First of all Nerve is predicated on the belief that there is a symmetry of desire between men and women. What is most radical about Nerve on some level is that I think it marks the first time that the male experience and the female experience have been close enough to one another that they could be embodied in a single magazine, and there is also a coherent Nerve sensibility which informs both the photography and writing.
Describe that sensibility. An interest in the humanity of the sexual experience, whether it's embarrassing, beautiful, peculiar, ugly, sad, what have you. It's the same kind of curiosity that causes people to look at their feces before flushing.
Charming . . . We are fascinated by our bodies and the things that they do and I think that this is one of the most intriguing frontiers for great writers and photographers.
It sounds like what makes Nerve different is that the editors don't dictate what makes good sex or interesting sex, whereas in Playboy you have this hierarchical view that feeds the reader one standard of sexual expression. I think the people at Playboy are not genuinely interested in great writing. They have bought some great writing over the years because they could afford it, but it was never central to their mission. Playboy has always been about surface-level pleasure and the God- given right to that pleasure, and that was radical in the early '60s.
So do you think it's radical now to talk about sex that is not pleasurable? Absolutely. I personally have a great interest in bad sex because I think it's relatively untrodden territory. It's something people have a hard time talking about, and in fact we are involved in a film project on the subject. But we also have a great interest in documenting near-apocalyptic sexual triumphs.
Apocalyptic sex sounds like Norman Mailer. But are most of your writers macho straight men? Or are they gay men, writing for straight men and women? We have many gay writers, but definitely not a majority. We've published a number of pieces by unsensitive guys. Eighty-five percent of our readers describe themselves as straight, but, yeah, I think this is a key point. I think an interest in sexual experiences and preferences that one doesn't have and doesn't intend to have is part of this new, late-'90s sensibility. It takes a level of sexual confidence that people haven't had, en masse, in past decades to want to understand experiences far from one's own.
You are talking about a kind of voyeurism. Definitely, but more than that a suspension of judgement and a genuine affection for difference.
I think the voyeurism aspect is really key to Nerve, especially when you are talking about having people put up their own sex-centric home pages on your site. Voyeurism online with high-res televideo will be an extraordinary, powerful phenomenon. Tens of billions of dollars will be spent; a large portion of the population will participate at some point.
Everyone has a democratic right to be the star of their own porn film. Is that what you are betting on? Well, I believe everybody has a need to star . . . and therefore they will. Porn itself is underwhelming. I think most people have seen porn and associate it with a kind of post-orgasmic disappointment in themselves and the sexual experience.
So, finally, what makes Nerve different from Salon's Urge section is that you give people the venue now through the reader feedback section, but later through home-page hosting to express their own sexuality, as opposed to reading about somebody else's. Well, I think the caliber of our writing is better and the project as a whole is considerably more daring. We are taking risks that they aren't taking. I am thinking primarily of the photography, but also I think we have less of a concern about offending with the writing. But they definitely have good writers and publish some great material.
Do you think of Nerve as pushing the culture, rather than following? Yes, I do. We have never changed our content for advertisers, or with advertisers in mind.
Will blue-chip American advertisers ever associate with Nerve? Absolutely. They are starting to come on board. CBS Sportsline, CD Now, UBid are a few of the larger advertisers we have had in past months. We definitely have more work to do on the advertising front. It's a gradual process but we think mainstream culture is moving in our direction. I heard Nike has a new ad campaign with nudity; I think many mainstream advertisers in the U.S. will start to move in this direction in the next few years.
In the new Nerve community space, are you going to censor insensitive remarks and hate pages? What about a man who has rape fantasies? We will definitely censor illegal and really revolting stuff, but I think you guide a community more by highlighting material that you like. Emma Taylor, our VP of community development, used to be at Tripod, and removing inappropriate material was one of her responsibilities. The community governs itself to a degree. What's critical is to let it do so.
I suspect the community will be more interested in the spirit of postings than crossing any particular line. And we have never not published photographs because they were too graphic; we have only not published them because they weren't interesting enough. We are obviously big believers in free speech over here.
But you are not absolutists about free speech. If you have a few loud people without any subtlety who drive away hundreds of really interesting people, the community isn't working well.
Are you competition for Tripod? No. I think Tripod and Geocities aren't cohesive communities with a coherent sensibility. They are highly successful business models. I don't want to post my life on a business model.
So is Nerve warm and fuzzy? No, it's decidedly not warm and fuzzy. . . . We are interested in attracting thick-skinned women and men who aren't afraid of them.
Are you rich yet? No. On paper, I guess, but many a spill between the cup and the lips. I think we are likely to be the first sex-related content company to go public with mainstream backing.
What's the print run of the magazine? I can't say at this point. Sixty-five percent of Nerve readers polled said they would pay for a print mag subscription; we have 750,000 different monthly readers right now. . . . I think it's not unreasonable that we could get to a circulation of a half a million a couple years out if we do it right.
Your relationship [with Genevieve] was a big part of the initial press coverage. The media oozed over this "labor of love" and couple thang. Now you guys have split. Does that parallel Nerve's growth from a small-time, closely-held baby project? [Long pause] The story had pretty much shifted from being about us to being about the company in the last year, which is nice. There is nothing more powerful than love, but an erupting, pre-IPO Internet company that actually stands for something you believe in is a close second.