The spirit of '96

Is there any Web writing left on the Web? Online ventures lose edge as they get popular with main-stream audiences.


James Poniewozik
October 13, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

In the past year or so, a horrible thing has happened to Web writers.
People started reading them.

At some point after the selfless bequests of Sts. Diana and Monica,
the Web changed from a cultural phenomenon to a news outlet; and online
publishers, having realized they were no longer publishing merely to an
audience of college computing-center managers and disgruntled temps,
started trying to push their popularity to the next level (that of
finally making a buck) by appealing to a broader public.

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Their strategies? Generally, they boil down to aping the same print
media that webpreneurs once boasted about replacing. So it is that in
the past two weeks Time Inc.'s Netly News -- launched in 1995 as a
corporate
knockoff
of
Suck -- has been refocused as the more staid, mass-market-oriented "Time
Digital Daily," and Time's counterweight Newsweek has finally
established its own browser-bustin' Web presence. So it is that Salon is
offering more hard news (viz. the Hyde
the Salami
imbroglio and the ensuing thousands of new page views)
and less commentary. And so it is, above all, that Web mags are
anthologizing themselves in book form with a vengeance, thus Web sites
may finally turn profits not by supplanting old media, but by failing
to.

In retrospect, the offline-ization of the Web was predictable: For
all the talk about pioneering a new medium, there's never been any
better way to flatter
webpreneurs than to say they oughtta be in print. But while all this may
put us one step closer to profitability, it may also mean the end of any
slim chance that writing on the Web might be something different from
writing offline.


Was there ever any such thing as "Web writing," as opposed to writing
that just happened to be published online? Yes -- sort of. As a highly
hyped yet widely unread medium, the Web originally allowed for stylistic
experimentation and outside voices, on both private zines and online
magazines. The period from '94 to '96 or '97 -- before webzines were
plugged on news-chat shows and treated as important adjuncts to
newspapers and TV networks -- saw a relatively democratic division of
attention between pros and amateurs. One beneficiary of that window of
opportunity, Daniel Drennan, has just released a book -- "The New York
Diaries" (Ballantine) -- that throws the Webs of '96 and '98 into sharp
contrast.

Drennan is the drop-dead hilarious essayist who won a cult following
(and exposure in Harper's and on NPR) in the mid-'90s for publishing his
frenetic, run-on rants about Manhattan life and "Beverly Hills 90210" at
his site Inquisitor. The irony
of "Diaries" appearing now is that, while it meshes perfectly with
1998's commercial acceptance of webiana, it's really a touchingly
nostalgic blast from the Web's past. Drennan's frenetic style, filled
with glorious pile-ups of nested clauses -- he's the reason adjectives
like breathless were invented -- is genuine 1995-96-era Web:

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It is over this treacherous trail (the Williamsburg Bridge) that I
commute to work -- via a bicycle that I buy at a police auction and that
I imagine to be haunted by the messenger most likely run down while
riding it, based on its beat-up condition. The trip is not eased by the
huge sections of the walkway that are completely warped and uneven if
not missing altogether; those cyclists in racing shorts and helmets
tearing up the bridle path in Central Park on their thousand-dollar
bikes and getting an adrenaline rush out of charging over molehill-sized
mounds of wood chips at negligible speed have absolutely nothing at all
on me, helmetless and maneuvering my way among the bridge's missing
steel plates, looking down through the breaks in the walkway to the
latticelike metal-grating road below, through which I can see straight
down to the river flowing hundreds of feet underneath me, leaving me
shaken up mentally as well as physically before my work day has even
begun.

Whew! (and keep in mind, this stuff has been past an editor at
this point).

Critics who speculated on whether the Web would produce a new,
discrete style of writing usually focused on hypertext and multimedia,
neither of which has improved much on good old dictatorial linear prose
yet. To me, though, what set apart the Web as a medium was simply that
it was cheap and endless. The delightful, willful, wasteful excess that
Drennan specializes in -- check out that "absolutely nothing at all" --
embodies a writer's wild excitement at the challenge of filling a
bottomless notebook.

Can this sort of writing, in less capable hands, come off
self-indulgent, exhausting, hostile to the reader? Sure. Web publishers
now will tell you that no one wants to read more than bite-sized pieces
online, and the masses may bear that out; certainly that belief has
boosted the popularity of features like the info-nuggets offered at
Slate. But much of the most distinctive Web writing has been just the
opposite -- expansive, anal-expulsive, Rabelaisian dump-truckloads of
verbiage, like Drennan's "90210" roundups (happily still available online), which would never
fly at the well-planned webzine venture of the late-'90s.

Closer to the spirit of '98 in Web writing is the sleek, eponymous
anthology from Nerve (Broadway).
From the get-go, this classy erotica site has been anxious to present
itself as "literate smut." And indeed, if there's any problem with this
generously sampled collection, it's that it's too good, too
well-made, professional and bookish. One wonders whether the site,
which just went online last summer, wasn't intended from the start to
become a book -- and whether its biblio-friendly, highbrow intentions
kept it a little safer (in style if not content) than it could have
been. Many of Nerve's contributions are "experimental" in the
accomplished, anthology-approved ways that we're used to from the
William Vollmanns, Catherine Texiers and Dale Pecks who fill the book,
not in the too-much-too-fast way of authors like Drennan.

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That's not at all bad -- it's hard to argue against seamless, lucid,
insightful writing -- it's just not at all different; so it doesn't say
much for the potential of the Web to produce new, sui generis forms of
writing.


Which is not to say everyone's given up on Web writing as a distinct
genre. Last week, Word, the vaunted
Web journal of personal essays and esoterica, was resurrected by a new
owner, after a suspension of publication last spring that was widely
interpreted as the canary in the URLmine for content online. But the
trends may be against Word and similar sites like the fray. They and the Drennans of the
world will likely get proportionately less attention as the Web nears
the big time and other Web outlets increasingly mimic the print media.

Writers plying the Web in, say, 1995 shared the excitement of knowing
that theoretically, millions of people were reading; and the freedom of
knowing that, actually, millions of people weren't. In 1998, we know
that millions, thousands, anyway, just might read us, maybe even pay us
-- or somebody else. Which forces us to play it safer, to give you what
you've proved you'll pay for. Less rambling and more simple
declaratives. Less mouthing off and more news you can use. And that is
probably an improvement by almost any standard measure. Web writing as
I've known it deserves every nasty adjective critics have thrown at it:
snotty, solipsistic, overdone, excessive, insular, contemptuous,
undisciplined, childish, navel-gazing and elitist.

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And I'll miss it when it's gone.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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