Two days before filmmaker Doug Block leaves New York for Sundance, he is busying himself with the morning paper. News of At Home’s $6.7 billion purchase of Excite is on page one of the Times. “Corporate America is taking over your gateway to the virtual world,” Block sighs.
Block’s documentary, Home Page, filmed mostly in 1996 and edited over the course of nearly two years with the help of an online dialogue spurred by his own Web site (www.d-word.com), is an homage to the early idealism of the Web. A time when people published heavily trafficked Web diaries and shared the often licentious details of their lives with a mushrooming online audience. A time when, as Block says, “a kid like Justin could build a site that was bigger than Time Warner’s.”
Justin is Justin Hall, whose sprawling Links From the Underground made him a poster boy for the Net a few years back. Block, the coproducer of two prior award- winning documentaries, started filming his slice of Web history locally, and then happened upon Hall, who immediately became the 44-year-old filmmaker’s central character.
In the film, Block travels with the gangly, wild-haired, skirt-wearing provocateur (described by one of his professors as the “physical embodiment of the Internet”) from Hall’s Swarthmore College dorm room to San Francisco, where Hall reconnects with some friends at then booming HotWired. Soon enough, Hall finagles a job with author Howard Rheingold. Rheingold is about to launch an ambitious Internet company called Electric Minds, whose slogan was “have fun, change the world, make money.” For Block, the relationship between Hall and Rheingold, which features prominently in the film, represents “the crossroads of Net idealism and commercialism.” And its “ultimate destiny,” as he said at the time, “will tell us a lot about where the future of the Web lies.”
As Block hits Sundance in search of a theatrical distribution deal, that future has been largely decided. And it doesn’t include Electric Minds, which folded a mere seven months after Block filmed its hippy-dippy, chanting-filled launch. Nor does it include a publicly owned Wired Ventures, another would-be triumph predicted by the folks in the movie. “It’s okay,” says one of the film’s subjects, erstwhile HotWired employee Julie Petersen, about the overwhelming workload involved in creating a digital utopia. “Because at least we’ll go public soon and I can make some money.” Petersen has the privilege of sharing her professional disappointments, not to mention a Net-enabled extramarital affair that is perhaps the film’s most emotionally resonant sequence, with all the folks who’ll see Home Page on the festival circuit and on cable TV, where it will be shown later this year.
“It gives me the creeps, frankly,” says Rheingold of watching his business crumble on the big screen. He did, however, learn something about himself as a result of watching the doc: “I could see the waves of uptightness emanating from me,” he says. “I’m glad I’m not that person anymore.”
Not even the director himself could escape the Net’s evolution. In the film, Block is a paragon of wide-eyed, newbie optimism, so reminiscent of a bygone era that it’s almost physically uncomfortable to watch. One practically stands up and cheers when an already jaded Jaime Levy (of Electronic Hollywood) appears on screen, smoking a joint on the streets of Alphabet City, dryly considering the “lame yet real” duality that characterizes her online existence. Today, though, as Block presses palms in Utah, he is no longer bowled over by the idea of connecting with a few wandering souls via the magic HTTP. Block, now a pitchman fluent in Netspeak, wants to take his filmWeb site combo— hyped in its press kit as an example of “cross-platform media convergence”— to the next level, via a marketing deal with one of the Web portals.
“We’re trying to convince these companies that the film will get a lot of eyeballs,” Block says. “I mean, we’re talking about sex, youth, and the Internet, right?” —Matt Goldberg
Sputnik evokes the Cold War anxiety of a time when the USSR could technologically trounce America— a Russian trademark on the hull of the first spacecraft to orbit the earth. Now Big Red is in economic and technological shambles, and Bluetape, a new company of American entertainment execs, is using the name that launched a reactionary, multibillion-dollar U.S. space program to represent a teeny-bop, rock ‘n’ roll cash cow.
The main guys behind the Sputnik7. com music Web site, which launches soon, are heavyweights, with big metal watches and backgrounds in MTV and VH1, prodigious venture capital firms, and Yale law school. They’ve developed a site for “interactive, music-video based entertainment,” according to CEO Morris Wheeler, that essentially integrates the spoon-fed ease of television and the personalized filtering software of the Internet. It will be a place for identity-obsessed teenagers to offer up detailed information about their music preferences so they can form communities of like-minded fans— chatting, turning each other onto new bands, and vegging out in front of constant streams of music video. (The “7” stands for streaming music and video 24/7.) With its
fiesta-colored design, Sputnik 7 could be the next generation of golden-era MTV.
Sputnik already has an edge up on success with a low-risk business plan: it acquires its content for free. Sputnik 7 has developed alliances with around 40 labels that will allow the site to air their music and videos free of charge. It’s pure promotional symbiosis.
After all, Sputnik 7 has collateral. On top of the obvious marketing opportunities, there’s the aggregate research that has been used to develop intricate preference profiles of members, which, as Bluetape president Les Garland put it, “is far more valuable [to artists and music labels] than data gathered on any phone call, survey, focus group, or auditorium study.” The user’s immersive entertainment experience— rating and critiquing the video, artist, and album while watching a constant stream of sexy videos— will generate top-dollar market research.
But for all Sputnik’s big plans, it may turn out to be too late to the game. The site aims to accrue as wide a range of music as possible, and that includes the scores of garage bands starved for exposure. This indie market has already been successfully tapped by IUMA (iuma.com), Internet Underground Music Archive, founded in 1993, which provides services to over a thousand independent artists to promote and distribute their work. On Sputnik, the unknown have the opportunity to eventually appear in the same venue as the well-known, but you have to wonder who’ll choose to listen to amateur tracks when somewhere else on the site Courtney Love is knocking around her fake tits— or Marilyn Manson his.
Nor is Sputnik the first music site to come up with a collaborative filtering system. Firefly, the pioneer of agent software, started out as RINGO, a profile-ready, music-
recommending application, which was purchased by Launch.com in ’97. Launch now has over half a million members, which
may have as much to do with its vast
amount of original content— news, reviews, columnists— as it does with its agent software. And Launch announced Monday that it will acquire MusicVideos.com, which itself has 550,000 registered users.
But Sputnik is a shrewd marketing scheme— which means it might achieve the success of video-only MTV. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become a model for the online content industry the way its namesake did for the space industry. We might end up with an onslaught of high-revenue Web sites that deal entirely in recycled promotional material. —Amanda Griscom