Xena’s World, Werewolf’s Den, the Anti-pedophile Network, Buffyholics Anonymous, 40plus.com: it’s almost impossible to imagine the visitors to these sites in the same room, much less working together. But the sites rank among the 5000 supporters of greyday.org, a protest movement jury-rigged for the digital age. Call it ergonomic-armchair activism, where flicking the house lights amounts to a form of civil disobedience.
Scheduled for October 1, Grey Day is a noble effort to prompt the Net to police itself on one of its native crimes: the rampant pirating of photos, music, and graphics. For 24 hours, the organizers–an online women’s forum of Web developers called the Digital Divas–are calling for participants to turn off all color and graphics from their sites (or at least post a link to the Grey Day site). “It’s to create a visual happening,” says the L.A.-based Diva Timmi Sommer, who runs anonymomma.com. “What better way to educate people about [copyright infringement] than to take it all away?”
It’s a common crisis for developers online: just one right-click on the mouse and anybody can heist your work from the Net onto their machine. Most newbies think of it as par for the course to pilfer graphics, and “bad habits are getting passed on,” says Sommer. She recalls one Swedish couple who, after sending fan mail, ended up hijacking seven graphics from Sommer’s gallery to use on their page. “I wrote them and they immediately apologized,” she says. “They didn’t know it was wrong to take.”
As it stands, private citizens trying to pursue pirates “don’t have a lot of options” in terms of legal recourse, says fellow diva and New York lawyer Faith Kaminsky. “I’m working with someone who says somebody 17 states away from her owes her $250” for some graphics, she says. “How can she sue her? Even if she could, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Kaminsky herself faced down corporate interests over similar charges and lost. Last year, she received a cease and desist letter from Cheseborough-Pond’s for her Q-Tips fan page (we’re talking niche communities here). Though Kaminsky had used all her own graphics, the company was not amused. “After much discussion with the lawyers, I eventually just closed the site,” she says.
Shunning traditional legal recourse, Grey Day hopes to forge a social contract among people who have no reason to care about each other. The site offers its manifesto in 13 languages, including Spanish, Danish, and, somewhat ambitiously, Croatian. The eclectic mix of supporters–from Microsoft Australia to BBS-LA, an ISP, to the erotica site Naked Desire–is proof that online movements (like the annual Day Without Art Web Action) are fueled not by charisma and marketing dollars but by bottom-of-the-food-chain networking. “If one Buffy fan site joins up, then the other 16 sites will check it out and do the same thing,” says Kaminsky.
If we can agree–at least for the time being–that the Net is mostly made of text, then where the hell are all the writers? Judging from their Web-based contributions so far, most novelists and authors consider the Net perfect for a shoddy extension of their book jacket, with flat-footed copy and a chumpy, back-flap photo. Set aside the slow-loading marketing shills at DanielleSteel.com and TomClancy.com, and you’re left with NancyFriday.com as the model for authors turned webmasters–a confessional flying on automatic pilot mixed with “juicy excerpts” to snag the search engines.
The exception is JoyceMaynard.com, which is so vibrant you almost wonder why it hasn’t been acquired by one of those community-starved portals. Maynard, whose controversial new memoir was published last month, created the site a little over a year ago with the agenda of marketing her multiple books. But, she confesses, “I’ve long since taken down the order form because it was distracting me.” Now, with some 40,000 hits daily and a regular coterie of fans posting over 150 missives a day on the folksy shareware bulletin board, Maynard considers it a “party that I don’t have to cook for.”
It helps that Maynard, unlike many of her colleagues, is willing to risk the cushion of her public image for bracing honesty. A single mom with three kids, Maynard posts about 10 public replies daily to her critics and fans on the site–one clocked in at 4:30 a.m. The publication of At Home in the World–which chronicles, among other tales, the story of her romance with J. D. Salinger–has no doubt lured many of her newest and more prying admirers to gate-crash. (Maynard’s older, most loyal BB posters have created a provisional, secret site to avoid the fever of the hoi polloi.)
In many ways, Maynard was ready-made for the technology. The garrulous author types as fast as she speaks, and admits, “Once I get an ISDN, there will be no stopping me.” She’s even held pie-baking fundraisers in her home (once in a while she does cook for the party) with her electronic fan base, to raise monies for the site. Her commitment and comfort level with intimacy with her readers outshine that of even well-known tech writers like John Seabrook and Douglas Rushkoff, who surprisingly don’t seem interested in nurturing their audiences on their home turf.
Maynard’s site’s biggest selling point is not the celebrity showcase, but the society of other readers, say the regulars. “Each participant has their own distinct ‘voice’… as if the discussions had taken place in a corner table over a long, lingering dinner,” said frequent contributor Anthony Risser in an e-mail interview. “Joyce is simply *one* of those voices.” And like all legit communities, Joyce’s Place has its share of difficult personalities. One participant who calls herself “Holden” responded so brutally to the suicidal musings of another that she was blocked from the BB for a month. (Maynard later reinstated her.) For Maynard, the diplomacy has been expert preparation for her current book tour. “[The site] has been this very useful thing–I feel like I’ve been in training and boxing people for months.”
Signal and Noise