Year of Living Digitally


Amid the year’s avalanche of freshly minted jargon–“blamestorming,” “crapplet,” and “backhoeing the server farm” (translation, anyone?)–1997’s best invention was as much a new philosophy as a neologism: “Net time.”

In an industry based on change, accelerated “Net time” falls loosely in between dog years and flat-out instantaneous evolution. It gets at the fact that people still working on the Web after three years feel like they have endured a lifetime of hype, spin, and “turnkey” “solutions.” No surprise for the year that shipped Moore’s Law (which posits that processor speed doubles every 18 months) to the recycling bin. Patience and perspective have become the online industry’s scarcest resources. But lest the hyperactivity of “Net time” erase history itself, we’re due to stop the clock and immortalize the most telling developments, if not always progress, of the past 12 months in a yearbook of human traffic in the Alley.

Least Surprising Trip From Cradle to Grave: Marinex Multimedia Creators of the Web soap opera The East Village and the CD-ROM magazine Trouble & Attitude (known affectionately as “T&A”), Marinex Multimedia never seemed to have a clue, much less a business plan. In the heyday of Web soaps in 1995 and early ’96, when just going online meant some press, was often compared to its shinier West Coast alternative, The Spot. But while The Spot had a sizable fan base and heavy media financing, never found an audience for its slight story lines and just got more and more strung out with anemic updates. The site, once hosted by Pathfinder, has been taken down. Meanwhile, the gleefully chauvinist “T&A,” featuring articles on “How To Buy Your Own Island” and “Surfing the Web, Naked!,” went quarterly and then biannual and is now bust. No Marinex executives returned phone calls.

Hippest Book Club: The Whatever Group Back in October, Times reporter Amy Harmon profiled the creation of an exclusive, soul-searching roundtable of new media executives, including Nicholas Butterworth of SonicNet and Mark Tribe of StockObjects, and journalists, such as Nation contributing writer Andrew Shapiro. Now Harmon’s a member, and the group is growing in size: Steven Johnson of FEED was recently inducted. A tender and technophilic reading group for the power elite, Whatever migrates to different company offices, where the group wrestles with the big issues, like “urbanism and the Web.” Miss three meetings and you’re out. Sessions open with a lengthy “check-in” process, which mixes the personal and the profitable. The CEOs give an update on their spiritual condition, management woes, and the status of their newest round of financing.

Most Likely To Be Around After We’re All Gone: N2K 1997 was the year of partnerships for N2K (“Need To Know”), the music retailer, content provider, software distributor, and label. With placement deals on all the major Net access providers, including AOL and WebTV, N2K has positioned itself so that even if the Web vanishes tomorrow, you’ll still be able to order CDs through Music Boulevard, its retail site. But the company has bigger game in mind. Last summer, N2K unveiled “e_mod,” a secure digital downloading system for music distribution online. Coupled with a CD burner on a PC, “e-mod” lets users record and mix their own CDs, cutting out the traditional retailer entirely. The system still has a way to go: the CD burners remain a high-end product, and the selection of “e_mod” singles leaves a lot to be desired (Stewart Copeland and Rosemary Clooney are on high rotation).

Biggest Menage a Trois: and subsidiary companies Spiral Media and Online Magic Already the city’s behemoth of “full-service” online ad agencies, decided in June to go shopping. To shore up its technological services, the company nabbed the engineering-savvy Spiral Media, whose offices were located one floor below. Then Agency brought under its wing Online Magic, a London-based company, to lock down London and help push into Europe. Now staffed with over 200 employees, Agency is going global (and looking to open an Asian office in early 1998).

Best Menage a Un: It’s not often that you find “literate smut” profiled in glowing terms in places like the Times, New York, Newsweek, Time, PBS’s Charlie Rose, and the Wall Street Journal. But Nervemag, launched June 26 (“the day that the Communications Decency Act died,” recalls coeditor Genevieve Field), has waged a media assault with the best pitch of the year: intelligent pornography. Juxtaposing A-list authors (Thom Jones, Naomi Wolf) with triple-X content, Nerve has become one of the highest-trafficked Web zines, with at least 150,000 hits daily and a skeleton staff of four. In upcoming weeks, they’re rolling out a search engine just for racy content, a roundtable on what happens when women talk about sex (with Susie Bright, Sallie Tisdale, and Nancy Friday), and a public sex conference, managed by Echo.

Best Plan for (Spanish-Speaking) World Domination: It figures that in spite of all the flashy corporate Web projects out there, somebody would open a streamlined virtual bodega and public plaza that could outlast them all. The one-year-old stands to become the Yahoo, MSNBC, Amazon, and just about everything else for the 450-million-person market in Latin America. The extensive site offers free e-mail, news, chat, and a huge online mall to sell computers, credit cards, and even books. With content partners jumping at the chance to break into the Southern Hemisphere, the company joined with massive magazine network Ziff-Davis and USA Networks to provide stories and services in Spanish and Portuguese. The city’s highest-profile investment groups–the New York City Investment Fund and tony Alley VC firm Flatiron Partners–pumped the company with cash last fall. Only seven staffers strong four months ago, StarMedia is now up to 40 full-timers–with offices in six countries from Mexico to Brazil–and expects to scale up to 100 by the spring.

Most Typical Flop: Wolff New Media Like countless Web projects, Wolff New Media got big long before the market could support it. Expecting monster online advertising revenues, the company ballooned up to 40 people, developing just two Net lifestyle sites, and the listings guide NetClock. Staffers were soon asked to take a salary deferment to keep the company afloat. Needless to say, the company went belly-up, and last we heard, Michael Wolff is writing a book about his experiences in the industry. Expect it to be short.

Signal and Noise

  • Kitsch on Command: After interviewing 1001 Americans about their tastes in art, ex-Soviet artists Komar and Melamid produced the most and least wanted paintings according to the stats. “Painting By Numbers,” based on their book by the same name, debuted at last week, and the results are pure schlock, a hilarious tour through our worst aesthetic impulses. In general, Americans prefer “dishwasher sized” landscapes (67 per cent) with wild animals (51 per cent) in their natural setting (89 per cent). You can find all of Komar and Melamid’s research at surveyresults.html…
  • After multiple attempts to get off the WWWAC listserv, a frustrated Alley denizen spoke for all of us last week when he posted, “Please unsub me as i am going on vacation to go snowboarding. if i am lucky, i will stay there forever, and i will ride and ride and ride, and never have to look at another computer again.”E-mail: [email protected]