"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 April 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run XXIX

Julia Roberts has made America a more miserable place in countless ways, but perhaps her original sin was promoting the benefits of being a kept woman. Just as the 1990s began with a Julia-riffic fantasy of a spirited wench being rescued from her cruddy fire escape, so the decade ended with that fantasy's real-world mirror image: an aging, abandoned whore smearing increasingly garish makeup over her wrinkles, desperately wondering where the next meal is coming from.

We are speaking, of course, of web content. In retrospect, it seems E*Trade's legendary Be Your Own Sugar Daddy TV commercial was not a fluke but a solemn warning against the formerly New Economy's willingness to rub its fresh forehead against the bewhiskered cheek of the Old. Two of this week's death notices — NBCi's retirement and Lou Dobbs's ignominious decision to bail on the ill-conceived Space.com and return to the temporarily more stable environs of CNN — demonstrate what a fickle Warbucks big, Mayflower-era media always was. Sure, at this late date we can't blame anybody for stringing a bunch of tires together and joining the Web boatlift. But what of the Zapatas, the Infoseeks, even the Reel.coms — the whole sad history of dotcoms who got mixed up with rich old fogies, and ended up in SROs? The web's big joke always involved a quick selloff to the nearest sucker; but looking back, doesn't it seem like those lumbering, net-clueless J. Howard Marshalls got the last laugh? After a half-decade-plus of web content, creator and aggregator alike are comatose, New York is more than ever the center of the media universe, Yahoo is trying to become a porn peddler, even the Countess of Wessex can't speak her mind without fear of reprisal.

OK, maybe Countess Sophie is only a collateral victim of Old Media. And no doubt the web would have gone south even without the unfortunate attentions of the oldsters. But when your flirtation leaves you all alone in the whorehouse, maybe it would have been better just to stay in the convent.

Let's ask, for example, whether the web animation sector would have died as quickly and painfully had it not gotten a quick flurry of interest and an even quicker vote of no confidence from Hollywood poobahs Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. When the soppy duo grandly pulled the plug on their never-launched Pop.com last fall, the news that there would be no quick Flash sell in the animation sector swamped a thousand Iceboxes. "We believe this space is not yet a business," were the last words of Pop's CEO. The Pop.com URL — which for reasons explained below we still check up on occasionally — now points to Counting Down, which features two vestiges of Hollywood's big dreams for the internet — unfunny South Park-aping cartoons that recount Steve and Ron's wacky dreams. If they wanted to show a nightmare they should have just had Ron Howard take off his baseball cap and show that grotesque head of his.

Why revisit this old news? The first stage of Opie and Steve's web plan involved getting control of the pop.com domain, which had been registered by a Suck crony way back, had been sitting in the Lycos trunk ever since, and was the first plank in our plan to launch the site now known as plastic.com. Whether pop.com would have been a better title for our bitchy sister site than plastic.com is moot, since the now-defunct Lycos management team took it upon themselves to hand the domain over to the Hollywood players, in exchange, we suspect, for no payment other than the thrill of getting their names on a press release with Spielberg.

Now that all domain names are equally valueless, this tale of woe may have lost some of its punch. But there's something telling in this about the way Howard and Spielberg leave nothing but scorched earth in their wake. The Holocaust, the Middle Passage, World War II, even Dr. Seuss are all in time digested in the maw of these heartwarming drizzlerods. Howard managed to turn the boozed up, barely competent world of Big Apple tabloids into bloodless pap about parenting and life changes. Spielberg's dinosaur dramas let the heat out of a great tits-and-lizards genre that included classics like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and One Million B.C. Is it any wonder that their encounter with the web left nothing but a smoking hole?

Then again, maybe there's still time for a plucky web kid to get seven minutes in heaven with one of those lovestruck Arbuckles of Tinseltown. We were happy to read in this Sunday's London Telegraph that Ashley Power, the underage fantasy girl behind Goosehead.com, remains on the accelerated career track she had started down when we checked in last year. Among other things, The Goosehead Guide to Life, an "autobiographical advice manual," is being published by Disney, MGM and Showtime are producing Whatever, a two hour TV movie built out of her webisodic of the same name, and NBC is hoping to turn Goosehead TV into an hour-long weekly series.

It's a heaping plate for the personal site of a 15 year old. But then, Ashley, a featured player in Wes Craven's Wishmaster, doesn't have a name that sounds like the moniker of an O'Farrell Theater headliner for nothing. Her family of marginal show business creeps — including a stepdad whose other achievements include making a painting in 1987 out of "[t]he toothbrushes of entertainers Bob Hope, Madonna, Michael J. Fox, George Burns, Sally Field, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Loretta Lynn and half the Brat Pack" — know their way around the industry, and have attracted the attention of washed up movie lech Richard Dreyfuss. The site may not actually be "Designed by Teens, for Teens," but we're still wishing Ashley luck in getting dolled up for her wealthy suitors. Keep it real, kid. You can always steal some minibar items before they kick you out of the limo.

For a chilling look at where Ashley's project will eventually end up, consider the future of webisodics past. This week, feeling pangs of 1995 nostalgia, we went back to the relics of American Cybercast's lost empire. Anybody old enough to receive Modern Maturity will recall that Cybercast and its imitators once were the hope of web content, creating a bunch of TV-derived web shows with actors — the most famous of which was The Spot, a wound-down version of Melrose Place (a forgotten favorite of TV watchers in the late 20th Century). The beauty of dead web sites is that you can occasionally go back and examine the artifacts. Not so in the land of the webisodics, a digital Lidice where all evidence of the slaughter has disappeared. TheSpot.com, as you found after clicking on the image above, no longer exists in any form. The address of Time Warner's East Village is now home to what appears to be an arty e-zine. Grapejam, the followup project of Spot creator Scott Zakarin, has a Coming Soon message promising that "the first steps in the future of Relationship Entertainment have been taken." The Pyramid, once a corporate intrigue webisodic, has reached its natural end as an adult site.

And at least with these addresses there's something there. You can maybe even act like you're on a visit to a childhood home, wistfully telling the puzzled current owners "I used to live here" (even if really you only used to throw eggs at the place). But other Cybercast products have been replaced by vacuity. EON-4, the company's Star Trek-style series, is gone, although it appears some Cybercast veteran renewed the registration on Eon4.com on February 6. Ditto Quick Fix which remains empty but registered.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" the toppled statue of Ozymandias warns visitors. But for the fallen icons of web content, there isn't even this ironic ending. There are no hints of their existence at all. That this content may not have been worth preserving in the first place is beside the point. A world where human effort can vanish so completely, leaving no trace, no dental records, probably not even an entry in Brewster Kahle's Alexa project, is a more bleak place than even we could ever have imagined.

All of which may just be a fancy-pants way of saying that the web is truly dying with a whimper. The malaise that has settled over the entire industry like a heavy, wet blanket is stultifying and suffocating and slow-motion agony for anybody used to the heady days of the Bubble. For a world-wide network with a few million hosts pumping out data, damn if it seems like there's nothing out there — no hot spots, no must-sees, no great topics of conversation or controversy. It's 1995 all over again, only without the future to look forward to this time. Nobody, in a phrase, gives a crap. And who can blame them?

Magazines fold, and are folded into each other, and the biggest uproar is over who will read the newspaper for you now. Projects, companies, entire market segments sink beneath the waves with nary a burp, and only the most spastic can manage snide giggles any more. Even Microsoft's earth-shifting big idea is warmed-over, decade-old Sun propaganda.

And, OK, the Web may not be dead, but it's awfully sleepy. Like the captain of the football team unexpectedly assigned to the accounting department, it's gotten listless, gained weight, and jabbers on endlessly about better days. Oh sure, hail hail, there will always be a Web.

But that doesn't mean you'll want to hang out with it.

Courtesy of the Sucksters

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