A lab for online experiments

Does the Web need nonprofit funding to keep its edge?

By Spencer Ante
Published July 27, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the summer of 1995 I was hired right out of graduate school to produce content for the online division of PC World magazine. This was the early days of the Web, and my boss told me I could devote half of my time to developing something new and different. After thinking deep thoughts for a few weeks, I proposed an online magazine called the Annex: a space for thoughtful reviews and feature articles aimed at a general audience interested in the human side of technology.

Surprisingly, my superiors agreed to bankroll the project. The Annex lasted almost a year, until the higher-ups realized that the product wasn't geared toward PC World's traditional target audience of PC buyers.

One of the truly exciting things about the Net is not only that it has held out a utopian possibility of the rebirth of democratic communication -- but that such a revolution would be financed by private interests. The Annex, like many early Web projects, was justified as groundbreaking research and development. Media companies paid people like me to develop content because they were clueless.

Now that's all changed. The money that once flowed to experiments has dried up, as the captains of the new-media industry focus on bolstering the bottom line by assembling vast, TV-like audiences. But the ideas are still searching for an outlet. As the Web grows more commercial, who'll put out for the innovative, edgy and irritative speech that carries subversive potential?

This is the question that Marc Weiss has been asking himself. Weiss, an indie film and video maverick, is the creator and executive producer of Web Lab -- the first nonprofit group dedicated to the finance and distribution of Web sites with a social and political punch. Through the agency's funding arm, the Web Development Fund, Web Lab will distribute more than $150,000 to nine projects ranging across a wide swath of issues -- from a museum devoted to Cold War culture to an interactive theater piece examining attitudes about the turn of the century. PBS Online and a group of foundations are footing the bill for the first year. The idea is to create the virtual equivalent of PBS.

"The notion of experimentation with the medium is getting marginalized," says Weiss, who for seven years was executive producer for the "P.O.V." television series. "We need to carve out a section of the Web that is a section with public support."

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Now, sensible people may ask, is it really necessary to use taxpayer or foundation dollars to subsidize the creation of content on the World Wide Web -- ostensibly the cheapest and most democratic publishing platform ever devised by humankind?

The fact that the Web Development Fund's first round of funding drew more than 500 proposals, says Weiss, is evidence that a certain type of content is no longer being commercially subsidized on the Web. In any case, he says, producers are not getting rich off Web Lab. Most of the budgets of the funded projects, which can receive grants of up to $50,000 each, include substantial amounts of in-kind donations and free labor. And Weiss says Web Lab is a necessary counter to the trend toward Web portals -- which, by mimicking the notion of a TV channel or broadcast network, make it harder and harder to find the scrappy sites that don't have beachfront real estate or six-figure marketing budgets.

"It is easy to imagine a year from now people having very narrow portals to the Web," says Weiss. "Disney is going to put themselves at the entryway."

Perhaps the best argument for Web Lab, however, is to be found in the content itself. Now that its first two projects have been launched, it's a good time to see if Web Lab is living up to its goals. The funding guidelines say that Web Lab is seeking to fund sites that "demonstrate the potential of the World Wide Web as a social, democratic medium capable of catalyzing new perspectives, new thinking and new relationships between people."

Working Stiff, the Lab's aptly titled maiden project, is a Web zine for working-class folks -- a Dilbert for the downsized and disfranchised. Interlacing hand-scrawled graffitiesque graphics with gritty content, Working Stiff delivers on the Lab's promise to showcase points of view that fall outside the mainstream. The site pulls together a weekly advice column, a well-edited resource guide, bulletin boards for discussion and in-depth articles examining issues such as the loss of privacy in the workplace and a survival guide to office romances.

But the site's main attraction is the workplace diaries it presents. "Illinois Casino Worker," for instance, chronicles the picaresque adventures of one casino employee who was laid off from a riverboat casino when the state she was working in passed a major tax increase on the gaming industry. In one sidesplitting entry, the employee recounts a scene where the company's CEO called a meeting to sugarcoat the forthcoming bad news. "I couldn't believe that the CEO of our company had the 'Rocky' theme song playing right before he was going to tell us that he was going to lay off 200 of us," writes the worker. "I walked out."

Jennifer Vogel, the site's co-producer, says she'd been mulling over the Working Stiff idea for a long time but was too busy earning a living to get it started until Web Lab came along. The grant has also allowed her to pay co-producer Robin Marks, designer Adam Chapman and the diary writers. "You wouldn't be able to spend as much time on it if you weren't being paid," says Vogel, former managing editor of new media for Stern Publishing, which owns the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly and L.A. Weekly. "It's a myth that you don't need money to put out a Web site that would compete with all those flashy sites out there."

If Working Stiff is all about getting in your face, then Living With Suicide, Web Lab's second project, is more about getting underneath your skin. The site's tag line, "Shared Experiences and Voices of Loss," perfectly captures its dual mission of providing a forum and community to discuss an eminently uncomfortable subject. John Keefe, who lost his father to suicide three years ago, was inspired to create Living With Suicide when a friend told him about Web Lab.

"My initial reaction was, 'Oh, this is perfect,' because so many people are so reserved when talking about suicide," explains Keefe. "The Internet allows us to talk about suicide in a safe and supportive environment."

The site features two main sections: Shared Voices, an area displaying edited first-person stories submitted by suicide survivors, and Conversations, an arena where those "left behind" can join discussion boards. Mirroring the unpredictable nature of suicide, stories that appear on the Shared Voices page are randomly selected from an available pool. Current stories include one letter written from a son to his dead father, another by a mother writing about the suicide of her 19-year-old daughter and one from a wife unhinged by the unexpected suicide of her husband.

"I'd always considered my life rather boring, and I liked it that way," writes the wife. "I tried to be compassionate and open-minded, but sort of looked down my nose at people who experienced divorce or had alcohol problems. I knew someday I might have to face illness and even death, but I never expected to become a widow at age 33. And I certainly never expected to lose my husband of 11 years to suicide. I felt like I had died but my damn body wouldn't oblige me."

The value of Web Lab becomes quickly apparent when one considers the absurdity of Keefe hawking ads ("I've got this hot new site we're about to launch. It's about suicide. The kids are gonna eat it up"). "Something like this couldn't exist in an advertising model," says Keefe, 31, a former producer with Discovery Channel Online. "The Web Lab has really enabled something that's not commercially viable to exist. But this project is socially viable."

Weiss admits that it'll be a while before these sites gain a foothold -- just as it takes time for an independent film to find its audience. So far, they've gotten off to a good start. Working Stiff was the most visited site on PBS the week of its launch, and now averages about 2,000 visitors a week. During its first week, Living With Suicide received more than 50 stories, and its bulletin boards are stocked with dozens of posts on 14 topics.

Weiss says he's "cautiously optimistic" about finding funding for Web Lab's second year. In the longer term, he hopes to steal a page from the portal playbook and aggregate all of the indie sites to create a supersite for Web auteurs. He sees a parallel between the current state of digital media and the independent film community in the early 1970s, which suffered from fragmentation, isolation and lack of networking mechanisms.

To solve that problem, Weiss helped found the AIVF, the national trade association of independent filmmakers. In the long run, Web Lab is designed to fill a similar void for new media artists, providing what he calls "a community of practice."

In the meantime, Weiss is gearing up for the launch of Web Lab's next two sites. One, on adoption, will launch by the end of July; the Cold War museum is set to go live in the fall. And he's also preparing to release the guidelines for the second round of funding later this week. What he's looking for is likely to remain the same: a good idea -- and one that the Web industry isn't likely to fund.

Ultimately, the advent of Web Lab is a natural outgrowth of a communications medium that's increasingly intent on putting profitability before innovation. In retrospect, it was naive of us, in the Web's early days, to think that the master would pay us to tear down his own house. And so it was only a matter of time before the progressive impulse returned, with cup in hand, to its traditional sugar daddies: adventurous patrons and the government. But for a brief and wild moment, it had looked like the revolution would be privatized.

Spencer Ante

Spencer Ante writes about technology and culture from San Francisco.

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