April 1, 1998

After The Fall: The Web Leftovers

Jerry Yang beams broadly as he steps out of his new 1998 Saab. Bought and paid for by the monstrous profits of Yahooligans, a spin-off of the now-defunct Yahoo, Yang has reason to be proud. For Yang and a very few others like him, it is almost as if the Great Web Wipe Out never happened.

Posting a $1.8 billion profit last year, Yahooligans is the kind of exceptional success story which proves the Web's one rule: throw up anything you want, but don't expect to make any money. Interestingly enough, it is the Web's very lack of rules which has allowed Yang and David Filo to scrape along the dry creek bed which once was the information superhighway. In 1996, as the government and concerned parents howled about the Internet's ability to give children access to material not intended for them - sites of either violent or sexually explicit nature - Yang and Filo created a simple and efficient way for children to get to the material that was intended for them.

Debuting in March of 1996, Yahooligan's index of World Wide Web sites aimed at children has seen an almost exponential growth in both content and advertising revenue. Despite this almost unheard-of success, the companies still has its critics - parents and consumer advocacy groups who see the site's dependence on alcohol and tobacco advertisers as troubling at best, morally reprehensible at worst.

"Who knew that kids would be the Web's killer app?" says Yang as he enters the companies's headquarters, conveniently located across the street from parent companies RJR Nabisco.

Indeed, who knew? Certainly not the scads of investors who placed their bets on search engines as the Web's future.

When the dust settled after the great search engine war of 1997, which saw the arrival of over 100 different indexing and searching sites, only one companies was left standing: eXXXcite, formerly excite. While the CDA attempted to put a legal damper on most commercial pornography sites, an eXXXcite spokesperson commented that the law is patently un-enforceable, and will continue to be. "For every one they shut down, three pop up." Commenting on the companies's own liability, he continued, "Besides, all we're doing is pointing to them." A distinction that eXXXcite's lawyers have been happy to point out on numerous occasions, including the Congressional Subcommittee Hearings on Online Decency of last year.

And this is where eXXXcite, once the so-called "UPN of search engines," has made its millions. With almost no overhead put into either content or research (exhibitionism being a handy motivator for registration), many now call eXXXcite the "true MTV of the Web." Chairman Bob Pittman happily agrees.

As Pittman oversees the eXXXcite "porn-o-copia" from his desk in San Jose, a chorus of low hums interrupts a Nickelodeon Network pitch meeting for "Wolf's World." The show is a kind Mr. Roger's You Can't Do That in Cyberspace. Running gags include dumping slime on the host whenever he says "McLuhan." The half-hour weekly program is another of the Web's few success stories, though the tale reads something like the myth of the phoenix. Wolf's World, after all, was one of the properties sold off by the ailing Hotwired Ventures in late 1997, along with the Netizen (Turner/Time Warner) and Suck (ABC/Capitol Cities/Disney/Dreamworks).

The writerss for Wolf's World look in eerie synchronicity to their alpha-numeric pagers. A rumble of laughter erupts. The latest Suck has just been digested.

The moment serves as metaphor for the "new media's" current distribution. While much of the "digital revolution" was hashed out in the cyber-sweatshops of San Francisco's South of Market District, the fruits of their labor have been consumed largely by the East Coast media oligarchy. That children's sites like Yahooligans have gone down like so much Kool-Aid makes sense - as long as there are no razors buried in the apple, what pundit would dare protest? What's surprising to the virtual coroners looking for clues in this Web post-mortem is how many of these California imports have been spit out, not so much declared rotten as simply bland.

Acidic to the point of absurdity (Pepcid was an early sponsor), this has never been a worry for Suck. Another one of the stalwarts to survive the shakeout, Suck co-founder Carl Steadman attributes their relative longevity not to stability but to a hyperbolic willingness to mutate into whatever form the circumstances dictate. "To survive an earthquake, you have to move with the ground," mutters Steadman, koan-like, as he watches over the 30-odd staffers who now make up the Society of Sucksters. Bent over keyboards, the motley crew pecks out puns and one-liners at the rate of one laff-byte every five minutes.

These "laff-bytes" (Steadman's term) are then beamed over the continent and received in boardrooms like Nickelodeon's, where the Viacom employees might be surprised to learn just how much hashing and re-hashing goes into each 8-10 word quip.

"We saw that the end was coming when we witnessed the fiftieth Suck-style page load up," says Joey Anuff, "As soon as everyone else realized that the key to getting hits was either wit, spit, tit, or tot, we just decided to leave the page altogether."

If Anuff and contributing editor (and one-time competitor) Josh Quittner have reduced their game to a science, the hodge-podge of words and phrases on the wall is their Table of Elements. One row, entitled "crapper," collects almost 300 schoolyard scatological profanities. One by one, each will be crossed out and replaced, as they find their way into derisive tech blurbs and characteristically zingy condensed character profiles.

"Nobody was following the links anyway," is Anuff's final commentary on having left the Web behind.