"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 March 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Content Is as Content Does



Every day, we confront the

strange brew of dread and

anticipation that comes with

sifting through the drift and

drivel that's dumped into our

mailboxes. The keepers,

generally hand-scrawled hate

mail, or the occasional scrap

from a prison paramour, are as

easy to spot as the garbage,

which usually bears Ed McMahon's

countenance like a royal crest.


[The Sharper Image]

The difficult part comes standing

over the garbage can, weighing

the relative merits of the

unsolicited Victoria's Secret

catalog against the

all-too-solicited pleasures of

Larry Flynt's Hard Drive. In

concept, at least, there's

nothing sexy about being the

unlucky target of a blizzard of

direct mail doggerel. But

plowing through the

increasingly murky lines between

sales pitch and intellectual

itch reminds us that content is

where you find it, and the

business of hiding Easter Eggs

in plain sight is healthier than



[Mag Triangle]

It's no military secret that

magazines like George and

Details (as with any magazine

that supports itself through

advertising) survive by making

themselves the third point of

the triangle that unites

consumers with merchants. But if

that dynamic is a thorny issue

for some, the slippery slope

from the good old-fashioned

Sears catalog to Benneton's

(almost) ad-free Colors is slick

enough to force some people's

arguments about stealthy

corporate influences right off

the hill.


[J. Peterman]

Willful chromosome damage

notwithstanding, even the most

amateur Berkeley street psychic

could safely predict the swift

migration of direct mail outfits

from J. Crew to J. Peterman onto

the Web in the next few years. A

multibillion-dollar industry,

catalog sales dwarf the returns

from their equivalent retail

storefronts, with only the

printing and distribution

expenses cutting into the

profits. Still, fledgling Web

publishers might be wise to

think twice if they expect this

to translate into a smorgasbord

of advertiser choices - it's far

more likely they'll instead be

buying content-space from the,

ahem, "sponsors."


[American Demographics]

The spectrum of content finding a

home within direct-mail glossies

has always been vast, but a

combination of a diverse range

of ethically-driven corporations

(and we mean that in the loosest

sense), and the growth of niche

groups into attractive

demographics, makes for some odd

commerce. Computer neophytes may

blush at the suggestion that

they study their MacZone

catalogs with more scrutiny than

they afford the dusty software

manuals for the digital black

boxes they've already bought,

but how does one explain some

people's fascination with the

bafflingly overwrought prose of

a J. Peterman catalog? And

though the rehashed press

releases on most record labels'

sites may be reassuring in their

obviousness, how does one

assuage the consumer vertigo

provoked at Matador Central,

where you're likely to find

damning reviews of Matador

releases just as genuine, if not

twice as perceptive, as you'd

expect from the pages of Punk



[L.L. Bean]

It's enough to make you wonder

what precisely is being sold.

While the subscriber list of

Rolling Stone is offered as a

blueprint for a target community

that induces slobbering in many a

marketer, L.L. Bean

guards its customer list with

Fort Knox-like paranoia. It may

not be long before L.L. Bean,

and others like them, work

themselves around the conundrum

of how to siphon value from

their list of names without

draining the bank and losing

their shirts. Namely, by selling

their list of customers to the

group of people least likely to

steal them away - the customers



[Whole Earth Review]

Self-identified Loompanics

enthusiasts, seemingly inspired

by the DIY hijinks proposed in

their catalog and line of books,

didn't hesitate to organize

their own online commons, as the

trail of small dissident BBSs

built throughout the 80s

(featuring your favorite bomb

recipes and lockpicking tips)

more than proves. Meanwhile,

Stewart Brand took the Whole

Earth Review, a magazine/catalog

where ideas were pitched and

sold in the form of books, and

evolved it into the Whole Earth

'Lectronic Link, a ballooning

digital community which

represents not only a glorious

apotheosis of snobbery, but also

a revenue-friendly forum for the

exchange of ideas in its own




Admittedly, we aren't exactly

shocked by the fact that an

insular subscription list can

give birth to a self-sufficient

catalog clan, and the questions

such a Devo-lution raises about

the line between human identity

and consumer identity are

depressingly familiar. If we

notice more and more that

home pages are ads for ourselves,

that company staff pages are the

office Lotharios's shopping

list, and that brand preferences

make their way onto personal ads

as often as sex, age, and

weight, then what else can the

future hold but a subscription

service that's also our social

life? Once the publisher is

removed from the magic triangle

and replaced with more

consumers, the structure begins

looking curiously like a flower,

or perhaps the floor plan for a

new age brothel. Just because

it's a beast of many backs

doesn't necessarily mean it's


courtesy of the Duke of URL