Sex, e-mail and Modem Media

Another day, another inadvertent corporate e-mail spreading rage and embarrassment.

By Janelle Brown

Published April 7, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Oops, e-mail did it again. San Francisco Net-heads are buzzing about a series of e-mails involving advertising shop Modem Media and the founder of Web design company shop vivid studios.

Vivid studios was once the archetypical San Francisco indie standby, a company that was coding Web pages back in the days when fancy HTML meant using <blink> tags. Although it was originally staffed primarily by ferociously iconoclastic urban 20-somethings, vivid was purchased in 1999 by Connecticut's Modem Media. The ensuing entirely predictable culture clash led to the departure of many of the original Vivid employees. On April 7, the mutual distaste of hipster and huckster finally went nuclear -- thanks to the unexpected entry of a porn site, an URL auction, and your classic accidental e-mail debacle.

Many of the original vivid employees have scattered with the wind, but the last vestiges of the company remained on the Web at But vivid employees were incensed to learn midway through the first week of April that Modem Media had sold the URL ... to a porn shop. Yes, is now the property of Vivid Video, home to "the world's top pornstars in EVERY position, doing EVERY nasty act."

The URLs transfer infuriated former vividians, including now-departed founder Nathan Shedroff, whose missive to Modem Media COO Robert Allen is currently circulating the Net. "Today I was informed that Modem has sold the domain to the porn studio Vivid Video after I had repeatedly requested to buy it for a historical site. You didn't even give me a chance to counter the offer," complained Shedroff, who these days works as an "experience consultant." "The next time you get your back up about the 'attitude' you perceive from ex-vividians, perhaps you'll have a better understanding of why it exists."

Allen's equally snarky response to Shredroff is also making the rounds: "I'm glad to see you are alive and well -- and the passion that makes you so special is still running through your veins," responds Allen. "Now, stop bothering the hard working people at Modem with your personal crusades and senseless babble. The people here are working collectively towards building a successful future together -- Modem people and Vivid people alike. Based upon the volume of e-mail I got from them both in wake of your note, I can only conclude that no one cares to live in the past -- they have moved beyond their differences and are now one team."

Privately, however, Allen had less kind words for Shedroff; in an e-mail that was accidentally forwarded to the entire staff of Modem Media, Allen went in for the kill: "The only thing that could have made it better is if he attached a picture of the cardboard box he's living in, with the home-made sign hanging out front, 'Experience Strategist -- Will Work for Head.'" Ouch.

A representative of Modem Media's San Francisco office declined to comment on the matter Friday afternoon, referring Salon to the Connecticut office, which was closed for business.

In a frantic attempt at damage control, Modem Media's e-mail servers were shut down on Thursday night, after which Allen sent an explanation out to staff, extending his "deepest personal regrets" for the error. He also explained the porn-shop sale. "Our decision to sell the domain name was driven by purely a business rationale," Allen said in an e-mail. "After considering all the offers, we went with the highest and accepted the bid from Vivid Studios. It is strictly a business decision that will provide the best financial return. Many of your colleagues have expressed concern around this decision -- not over the decision to shut down the site or sell the domain name, but that the buyer was a firm in the adult entertainment industry. We've heard your concerns and have taken them very seriously. As a policy, Modem Media refuses to do work for any adult entertainment sites on the Internet and have turned down a number of business opportunities in the past and will continue to do so in the future. We are donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the domain name to several non-profit organizations, which include the George Washington Carver Foundation of Norwalk, Connecticut, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the United Negro College Fund."

So it seems no one wins: Not only did the former vividians not get their URL back, but even Modem Media has now been shamed into giving away the "financial returns" it found so precious. Will vividians and Modem-ites ever get along? Or are the Web's funky little design shops just a relic of the past, soon to be effaced from the Net altogether? Or, more to the point, will executives in the new economy ever learn that e-mail is a dangerously permanent communication medium? Alas, only one thing is for sure: On the Web, sex trumps all.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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