Media Circus: Soledad O'Brien - Goddess to the Geeks

The host of The Site is "the first viable goddess icon" of the digital domain. Or so say hordes of mouse-clutching fans.

Published January 24, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

at first I thought it was yet another sign I was slipping, like my unhealthy fascination with Microsoft Network TV commercials ("Look! That green circle is GETTING BIGGER -- FAST!") and my occasional, vaguely ashamed, interest in Slate. I have, up until this point in my life, managed to live a life almost entirely free of Bill Gates and his various nefarious products. Granted, I'm writing these very sentences in Microsoft Word, but I'm doing it on a Mac, dammit, and I will not surrender another byte. The Microsoft virus may have snuck itself onto my Desktop, but it's only infected one application.

Lately, though, I've been a bit concerned. I've developed a, well, call it a mild infatuation with MSNBC's The Site. You know, the Net's "own evening news," as somebody or other once famously described it, that nightly cable show hosted by a young woman with the unlikely name of Soledad O'Brien. Actually, that's part of the problem. The truth is, my infatuation isn't with The Site as such, but rather with its host.

In my own defense, I'd like to point out I'm not the only one. True, Soledad hasn't inspired the obsessive fervor that surrounds such Net favorites as Gillian Anderson or Sandra Bullock -- at least not yet. There's no newsgroup devoted to singing her praises; there are only two Web pages paying homage to her; and no one, as far as I can tell, is writing fan fiction detailing her imaginary adventures. But her fans, though perhaps small in number, are pretty fervent. She's gotten, for better or worse, the attention of a certain number of frustrated teenage boys -- so many of them, she says, were "posting perverted things about me" on her message boards on The Site that she shut them down for a time. (They're back up now, with better filtering software.)

But she's also turned the heads of a number of perfectly sensible adults of both sexes. On the online conferences of The Well, they've been particularly effusive in their praise. "I think Soledad is awesome," wrote one. "I love her slightly in-check cynicism, her well-honed bullshit detector and her genuine interest and intelligence. ... Attractive. Sharp ... She's a geekboy's dream." Another, an occasional contributor to these very pages, declared that "she's gone far beyond the status of mere Newsbabe. ... We are speaking of the first viable goddess icon of Net culture."

On the face of it, it's hard to see just what she's done to earn this sort of adulation. She's not saving the world from slimy mutants, religious cults and government conspiracies, as Ms. Anderson does every week. She's simply introducing the various segments of The Site, interviewing guests about software and Web pages and whatnot, and reporting on such topics as "Seniors on the Net" and "Baby e-mail."

Somehow, that's enough -- at least for me. These days I'm watching the show as regularly as I once watched David Letterman -- and I even find myself charmed by some parts of the show I first regarded with a certain horror, by which I mean those parts of the show in which Soledad chats amiably over coffee (actually, diet cola in a coffee mug) with a large, vaguely hyperkinetic virtual being named Dev Null. (It's a segment that takes some getting used to; Soledad spends several minutes a night bantering with a man who isn't there, and who isn't even a man.)

At first I thought the source of Soledad's appeal was simply that she listened so well. Some people can put as much energy into listening as most of us others put into talking, and she's one of them, able with a few simple questions (and strategic laughs) to draw interesting stuff out of, well, let's just say the sort of people who'd be as happy reciting all the lines of Monty Python's Cheese Shop sketch as they would be to talk about some clever software they've put together. Soledad would indeed seem to be a "geekboy's dream" -- a personable, attractive woman content to listen while the boys (and the occasional girls) babble on and on.

But I realized fairly quickly that this wasn't quite it. After all, Soledad was hardly a passive listener; she cut into long-winded answers with impatient follow-up questions, forcing the dreaming geekboys (and girls) to get to the point. She openly scoffed at hype, constantly asking the bearers of high tech gifts just what possible use these gizmos could have to ordinary people. (Though she was not quite so impatient, alas, when she interviewed Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and his daughter, Andrea. "It seems obvious you're squarely in the center of the information superhighway," she asked. "How does this impact you?")

As it turns out, Soledad isn't quite the geekboy's dream I first thought. She tells me that her fans -- at least as far as she can judge from her daily batch of e-mail -- tend to be newcomers to the Net. (Her segments detailing the basics of Web page design -- and I mean the basics -- have gotten her more mail than anything else she's done.) The true geeks, it seems, prefer Dev -- at the recent Comdex trade show, she tells me, a number of them let her know that they'd rather have himhosting the show. Indeed, some of the video-game demonstrators brought on the show are often more interested in their games than in the real live woman sitting next to them. Even while they are being interviewed about, say, the best racing games for the Sony Playstation, they're still playing to win.

Actually, the most fervent fans of O'Brien's that I've seen tend to be writers, not techheads -- writers who, while not full-scale geeks in their own right, have perhaps a few geeky tendencies of their own. They write for publications like Wired, Stim, even Salon, but tend to cover the Net's softer side. They're the sorts of writers who take on Net culture rather than the mechanics of Asynchronous Transfer Mode. They're just as impatient as Soledad is with the gory details.

Their position in the net community has, until recently, been an embattled one. Several years back, at the beginning of the Net hype, journalists had to face off against a lot of die-hard Netheads who took every opportunity they had to flaunt their arcane knowledge and who seemed, with some justification, suspicious of outsiders coming into their turf and writing about a world they felt was rightly theirs. Soledad's ascension represents, in a way, the triumph of the outsider -- though she's managed to triumph without alienating too many of the natives. (Still, she's alienated some: Steve Ditlea of The New York Times recently dismissed her as a "telegenic but computer-clueless" pretender to the tech throne.)

The secret of Soledad's success is that she's offered the true geeks generous terms of surrender. While pretending to no great technical knowledge herself, she treats techheads with a certain respect (though not reverence); she cajoles them into opening up, and reins them in when they begin to babble. The Site allows geeks (and the somewhat geeky) to present their best face to the world.

I only wish she could do a bit more to rein in Site commentator and freelance free spirit Cliff Stoll, whose twitching, cranky end-of-show neo-Luddite rants are perhaps the most painful exercises in performance art I've ever had the displeasure of seeing. He's worse than Microsoft Bob. Indeed, his presence alone on MSNBC is enough to ward off any indulgent feelings I might feel toward Bill Gates on account of the engaging Soledad. But that's a whole other column now, isn't it?

EXTRA! Death from the sky

Well, Pat Robertson beat her to the punch with his Apocalyptic killer-asteroid thriller "The End of the Age." But Tina Brown is trying her best to make up for lost time. The January 27th issue of The New Yorker contains a hair-raising article by Timothy Ferris spelling out the possible consequences if a comet were to hit our lovely planet smack dab in the face. (It could happen.) Suffice it to say, it's not a pretty sight -- unless you find the prospect of 600-foot tsunamis and the eventual death of life on earth sort of invigorating. (Hey, Pat does.) There won't be much food left after the Big One hits, so pack a lunch.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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