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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."

Favorite Word Piece: "Safari Brother" (www.word.com/pay/reid2). "A great story about this black guy who had to work as a caterer for really rich people."

Stating the Obvious (theobvious.com)

Created by Michael Sippey, business graduate student in Berkeley

Spare and slimmed into one screen, Sippey's site is a place for thoughtful meditations on and interviews with entrepreneurs and technologists. "I started it as a way to think critically about business models because I can't really think about a topic until I write about it," he says. Sippey launched the site as a weekly in August 1995, and now focuses on publishing interviews and short summaries three times a week. Concerning Word, he "totally sympathizes" with Icon. "Word was doing great stuff...but how many corporate clients was that getting them?" He points to IBM's wildly successful forays into content (such as Big Blue's chess tournament and the Olympics site) as models for what Icon could be doing now.

Favorite Word Piece: The staff home pages (www.word.com/newstaff).

After Dinner (afterdinner.com)

Created by Alexis Massey, full-time consultant in Boston

"With writing, you've got a high supply and low demand for the work," says Massey. "The hardest part is exposure." Celebrating its first anniversary April 1, After Dinner is intended as a showcase of the best of both new and established online writers (including Suck [suck.com] founder Carl Steadman). The simple and finely filigreed site (check that cursive!) is updated every four to six weeks with four new stories. "Word was certainly an inspiration for After Dinner," Massey says. "They were way ahead of their time, one of the first places to break their stories up into segments, and that had enormous impact."

Favorite Word Piece: "I stumbled onto a story about a urine fetish--this man was going out with a girl who wanted to explore that. Except I was at work and people kept walking into my cube. But once I started reading the damn thing I couldn't stop."


Signal and Noise

  • How Do You Give a Blowjob? I Must Know Now: Clocking over 1000 e-mails weekly, the new Dr. Ruth Westheimer site (drruth.com) at Pathfinder is clearly, er, hot. It figures that somebody would have discovered that e-mail is the best way to get at everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Users can also turn the mouse icon into a sperm, or wallpaper the desktop with a cervix. But expect long foreplay: the Doctor only answers four messages a month...
  • Massaging the Media: It's not a manifesto or a list of demands. It's an "open letter" to Netizens about the forging of a middle ground between "techno-utopianism" and "Neo-Luddism," say the 12 freshly minted "Technorealists" about their document at www.technorealism.org. With a conference Thursday at Harvard, the clique of rising digerats (Data Smog's David Shenk and Andrew Shapiro and, well, their friends) will have a chance to spell out just what exactly they want us to do about any of this. But as of Monday, the soi-disant "movement" was experiencing operating difficulties--the page containing the much anticipated list of new signers to the broadside wasn't loading.
  • Just What the Web Needed: Push magazine, a free "user-friendly (and fun!) guide to the Internet," launched last week, but you won't find it online or on newsstands. Instead, it comes to your inbox as a graphical attachment called a PDF file. Great--your own clunky print brochure, personally delivered...
  • 50/50: The New York Software Industry Association and Society of Women Engineers hosts a panel discussion Wednesday night on the paucity of female coders and the problems of recruitment. Call 475-4503 for more info.

    E-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com


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