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Carnage update

Quality online zines go down

By Annalee Newitz

There's nothing like the smell of fresh porn spam in the morning. Last week's batch came with a titillating headline--"STOLEN HARDCORE VIDEO OF BRITNEY SPEARS ... & WE HAVE THE VIDEOTAPE!!!!" Well, how could I not follow the link to the random geocities page included after the Britney reference and before the legal disclaimer about spam and how to remove yourself from mailing lists.

But when I went looking for the videotape, all I got was a lousy picture of Britney with a Photoshopped scribble in the corner that read: "See my nice firm teen tits!" For more pix, I was going to have to pay for a special trial offer. Well, screw that.

What could be worse than spam? Well, kids, I'll tell you: the sudden untimely death of Automatic Media (www.automatic-media.com) on June 8. Automatic's holdings included Suck.com, Feed (www.feedmag.com), altculture (www.altculture.com) and the truly inspired Plastic.com.

Feed and Suck were first-generation online magazines, birthed during the mid-1990s and full of grouchy, funny, intelligent commentary on everything from molecular biology to goldfish crackers. Online writers and other culture-o-philes like me loved these magazines. They gave us hope that we could contribute to smart, innovative projects online without having to become software developers. We could be culture developers instead. Unlike Microsoft-funded Slate.com, Feed and Suck were not the patsies of giant corporations (although Suck was ambiguously affiliated with Wired for a while). And unlike Salon.com, neither mag headed into shark-infested waters with an IPO. Many of us had hope for the longevity of Feed and Suck because they had kept their staffs small, their overhead low and their content as sharp as Norman Bates' knife. But their business models--as modest as they seemed--didn't work.

Both magazines are currently "on vacation," meaning that they're no longer posting new articles and are probably looking to be bought. Automatic Media has a terse obituary on its home page whose functionality makes it sound all the more tragic: "Automatic Media, Inc. has ceased operations due to an inability to secure additional financing."

Plastic.com, however, is still in business. Editor-in-chief Joey Anuff has a peppy editorial on Plastic's site saying that he intends to keep going. Why did Plastic live when Feed and Suck failed? Partly it has to do with the way Plastic is run: It's not an original content magazine; it's a community-run portal (built out of Slashdot's slashcode) where users post annotated links to stories of interest to them and then discuss said stories, often at excruciatingly dull length. Plastic essentially runs itself, since its "staff" is for the most part comprised of its user community.

Yet there's more to Plastic's success than its near-stafflessness. When I talked to editor Anuff recently about the philosophy behind Plastic, he made the crucial point that web content is still a "dimly understood" concept, open to interpretation. While journalists and pundits have defined content as editorial of the sort that got posted on Feed and Suck, in actuality most web users have a much more capacious definition. "Content can be defined as pages people visit online for their information value rather than in pursuit of consumer purchases," Anuff reasoned. "You're going through pages to find stuff that makes you laugh, or something that gives you an 'aha!' moment. Amazon, Ebay, Suck--it's all content."

Content, in other words, is in the eye of the user. That's clearly what makes Plastic work for so many readers. They get to define their own content, and it's not always just tidy magazine editorial. Plastic links to rumors, rants and cartoons. The best thing about Plastic is that you can find a whacked article about shit-eating robots on the same page as a speech from George W. OK, maybe that's not such a startling juxtaposition, but you get my point.

Ultimately we have no idea what will really happen to Plastic. Maybe it will go the way of its sister sites; maybe it's an aberration. But I suspect that when the content wars are over only a few online magazines will be left standing, and Plastic will be one of them.


Annalee Newitz (content@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wants to be a cultural engineer.

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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