"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Talk Was Cheap


[Come Here]

Prior to Patent No. 174,465,

conversation was seen as a

simple activity, with few

opportunities for adding value.

Cafe proprietors and publicans

eked out a living by giving

thirsty tongue-waggers a nice

place to gossip, and a few

silver-tongued entrepreneurs -

promoting the notion that

conversation was an art -

profited modestly from gullible

gabbers yearning to master the

finer points of oratory and



[Autograph Style Writing]

The idea that one could make

millions from private blabfests

was so foreign to the 19th

century entrepreneurial mind

that the American Bell Company

first imagined it as a new kind

of broadcasting device. But the

elimination of proximity as a

requirement for conversation

turned out to be talk's first

great value add; loquacious

customers soon pointed out what

Bell's fortuitous myopes had

failed to see, and a new

industry was born.


Email has furthered the evolution -

or, as some would have it,

devolution - of conversation by

eliminating synchronicity as a

requirement for discourse while

preserving the informal,

spontaneous nature of talk.

Bulletin boards and chat rooms

have so eroded conversation's

demand for familiarity that it

is no longer necessary to abide

by childhood's one implacable

rule: censormavens' alarms

aside, talking to strangers

online is about as risky as

watching television.


[AOL Community]

AOL was the quickest to

capitalize on this development -

fictitious screen names and

supporting profiles let shy,

lonely yakkers put in their

anonymous two cents at the

extremely profitable rate of $3

an hour. And this engineered

inflation of both the value and

meaning of chat has allowed the

company to build a new media empire

almost entirely on the back of

small talk.


[AOL Greenhouse]

Perhaps realizing that their

position has less to do with

innovation than saturation, AOL

has been busy transforming

itself. No longer content to

simply be a common carrier, AOL

now aims to provide the latest

conversational value add:

subjects for people to talk

about. This time, however, it

seems unlikely AOL will get such

a long, solitary lap at the

money trough; thousands of other

companies plan to offer subjects

for conversations, too.


[Melrose Place]

Indeed, content creators have

been providing this service for

years - they just haven't been

getting properly compensated for

it. In the old model, people

would shell out a few bucks for

the experience of seeing a movie

or reading a book, but any

conversations that the

experience inspired came free.

In the new model, payment

extends to such gabfests as

well. But, while forcing

blabbermouths to pay for their

opinions about Melrose Place

seems like a perfectly

reasonable combination of

economic and poetic justice,

will anyone, besides wily AOL

honcho Ted Leonsis,

actually be able to get

substantial numbers of people to

do this?


[Feed Bag]

The model Leonsis offers - in

which talk begets revenues -

makes just as much, if not more,

sense on the Web, where

advertisers are still the only

ones paying to make contact. It

costs less to maintain features

like threaded discussions,

bulletin boards, or chat rooms

than it does to create

traditional forms of content -

yet they often draw a site's

highest hit counts. In addition,

these areas offer their own kind

of value add to the providers

and advertisers: many sites are

starting to use chat areas and

threaded discussions as bait for

data rape. Join in on the

discussion, but tell us a little

about yourselves first.



Naysayers who point to the high

noise content of most threaded

discussion areas should keep in

mind that as providers of Web

content leave the "publishing"

metaphor for the more realistic

"programming" model, chat will

start to look less like a

conversation and more like a

press conference, or - if we're

really lucky - a daytime talk

show. Scheduled for a certain

time and limited to a certain

topic, what was once a routine

conversation turns into an

Event. Once again, AOL has set

the precedent with Netgirl - how

else to explain the show's

success, which manages to

attract up to 600 lonely

hard-ons at a time by

essentially duplicating the same

heroically clumsy pick-up

attempts that routinely happen

in user-created rooms?



User-created forums may give you

the freedom to talk about

whatever you want, but sometimes

that freedom's just a burden

leading to boredom. At

commercial sites, professional

moderators nurture the chit-chat

into full-fledged conversation.

Take Salon, for example, which

describes itself as a "kinetic

community of readers and kindred

spirits eager to thrash out

cultural issues." With the perky

earnestness of rookie high

school civics teachers, the

editors there are always ready

to turn a shopworn issue into an

Important Topic of Discussion.

It all has the unfortunate

resonance of homework, but the

"teachers" are so enthusiastic,

you can't help but want to complete

that assignment for them.



Not that anyone gets too worked

up at these events. The

introduction of B-grade

celebrities simply turns iGuide

into Third Wave Hollywood

Squares. And when celebrities

are reduced to a stream of

unscripted, poorly keyboarded

thoughts, they usually fail to

make the impact they do in

flesh-and-blood situations.

Luckily, their role in the

digital realm is not so crucial.

Here, they only have to attract

a crowd; the guests themselves

provide the real entertainment,

talking with each other as an

event transpires. The

celebrities become merely

well-paid carnival barkers, or

as Ted Leonsis says, bartenders.


Which, in the end, is sadly

unfortunate. In the real world,

bottle jockeys everywhere aspire

to careers that will ultimately

lead to stardom. It's

disappointing to think that even

for the lucky ones, all those

years of acting class will only

result in more drink-slinging.

courtesy of St. Huck