“L.A. Wide Web”
by James Verini, Special to The Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2003
(Copyright, 2003, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission)
The protagonist of “Pattern Recognition,” the latest novel from William Gibson, the D.W. Griffith of cyberspace (he invented the word, actually), is Cayce Pollard, a “coolhunter” and consultant who gets paid large sums to opine on trends. CayceP, as she’s known online — she’s an inadvertent celebrity, even an oracle, to a devoted clan of in-the-know readers — also cuts the tags out of the backs of her shirts and is made physically ill by department stores.
These days, the World Wide Web, it seems, is crawling with a generation of CaycePs: information junkies, commentators and facilitators who seem to know about everything yet endorse nothing. They may attract millions of page views a month to their sites, and yet many of them are faceless. They are mini-Gutenbergs, too, this new generation, following the advent of fast, downloadable Web-logging software, and would-be Brooke Astors, judging by the body counts on friendster.com.
Take Craig Newmark. Chances are you’ve never heard his name. Newmark is the man behind www.craigslist.org, the insanely popular, advertisement-free network of “community bulletin boards,” as he likes to call them, that now functions in dozens of cities around the world and garners 500 million page views per month.
Aside from its threadbare, text-only interface and utilitarian feel, Craigslist is successful because of the indigenous quality it maintains in each city. Craigslist Los Angeles, which accounts for 10% of all Craigslist traffic, is unmistakably of Los Angeles.
On a recent morning, on the L.A. site’s jobs board, one could have found, in addition to numerous legitimate-sounding opportunities for editors and gaffers, a casting call for the MTV dating show “Dismissed,” a rather dubious posting for “Swimsuit Models Wanted for Malibu Photo Shoot” and another that read “LITTLE PERSON NEEDED!!!” (“Low budget non-union experimental project in need of a male ‘little person’ actor to shoot this weekend”).
In one of the many discussion forums, meanwhile — not the haiku forum nor the philosophy one, though those were humming — a man complained of being awakened at 5 a.m. by a catering truck, and minutes later a chorus of helpful souls held forth on the ins and outs of parking permits. And on the community board, someone was looking for a sword-fighting teacher, while another had this choice position to offer: “Artist Seeks Holistic Starboy/Stargirl Assistant.”
Like EBay, Craigslist has survived because it has created in L.A. and elsewhere a kind of microcosm of the city itself — a barter economy for everything from yoga mats to dates. It’s just radical enough to make itself necessary, just enough of a throwback to make its users comfortable.
A slightly schlubby 50-year-old from San Francisco in “real” life, Newmark, in cyberculture, is a combination celebrity, benign potentate and kibbutz coordinator. He generates just enough revenue from the network to keep it afloat.
“I didn’t have much of a specific vision for Craigslist,” Newmark said from San Francisco. “What’s happened is still a surprise to me.” Newmark, who used to be a programmer for IBM, said he sees Craigs-list as “an exemplar of the ‘old’ vision of the Internet, based on traditional nerd values. This was my way of giving people a break, and maybe changing the world a little.”
Using the success of Craigslist and Friendster as models, local sites like upcoming.org and lapeopleconnection.com plan and list events and activities for Angelenos looking for new people.
Of boards and blogs
Though his San Francisco site went up in 1995, Newmark’s renown is recent.
Cut to the turn of the millennium. When the dotconomy, a word that will still get you killed in certain corners of Wall Street, implodes, the first thing to go is commerce’s flakier cousin, content.
The idea that Inside.com, for instance, could spend millions on good writing and nifty graphics and not try to sell blenders, or that Salon.com could reinvigorate political debate and pay for it with banner ads — ideas that only months before seemed beautiful — suddenly prove the worst kind of lunacy. Content, the social glue of the Web, its hive-brain, to use the theorists’ term, is dead, leaving behind little more than the grammatically suspect reviews on Amazon.
Or so it was until recently. After the dark ages of 2000-02, the Web seems to be moving into a silver period. Sprouting up among the ruins of the Nasdaq are colonies of star bloggers and friendsters, insta-pundits and self-published memoirists, clip artists and file sharers who would seem to be fulfilling some of the utopian promise of the Web as it was billed a decade ago.
This new global village is due in no small part to a new host of town criers and, more entertaining, village idiots. Web logs, or blogs, are their courthouse lawns. In L.A., the new site LABlogs.com keeps links to about 500 local blogs.
One of the most interesting links is to a site called Stella’s Search for Sanity (searchforsanity.com/weblog/index.html). Stella, the anonymous author, is a woebegone L.A. temp trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of a fallow love life and an abusive therapist. She speaks in Stuart Smalley first person plural self-help speak.
“Sometimes it is important for us to try new things and to do things that we may not be the best at,” Stella wrote in a recent posting. “In fact, sometimes we may try new activities, such as Jazz dance class, where we may be one of the worst ones in the class. During such times it is important to give ourselves credit for suiting up and showing up. With this in mind, it’s also important to remember that sometimes we should try to do things that we might have some chance of being successful at. That way, we won’t have to face the humiliation of having people in class ask us to move to the back row. Also, sometimes it’s important to do activities that don’t involve a full length mirror.”
Stella is actually Solange Castro Belcher, who works at UCLA and who last year directed a short film called “Stella’s Search for Sanity,” in which she starred as Stella, a woebegone L.A. temp trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of a fallow love life and an abusive therapist.
Belcher created the Web site to promote the film and, wanting to keep the content fresh, started writing a blog in Stella’s name. That was six months ago. She still updates it four to five times a week, and its content, while having little to do with the film, has grown increasingly autobiographical.
“The stuff I write about I wouldn’t want to talk about in my own voice,” she said. “I make fun of therapy and self-help and spiritualism in L.A.” Responses to Belcher’s blog are often passionate. “Some people get angry,” she said. “They’re like, ‘You’ve got to stop going to therapy and live your life already!’ People send these long e-mails telling me their life stories and what they’ve been through.” Occasionally, Blecher feels compelled to respond to them to tell them, as gently as possible, that in fact Stella is just a character.
Tonypierce.com, one of the most popular L.A. blogs among other bloggers, would seem to be written by a fictional character, but it is not. Tony Pierce, a Hollywood resident who works for a television station, calls it his busblog, though it began as a bus commuter’s record of travails.
Then women started e-mailing him, so he claims, and the travails improved.
“What I think people really like on my site are my stories about picking up chicks,” Pierce said. “People have this image of L.A. as a place where if you don’t drive a Mercedes and aren’t super good-looking and rich, you won’t get any chicks. They love to hear about a guy who takes the bus to work who still gets a lot of chicks.”
In fact, Pierce writes long screeds on the historical misfortunes of the Chicago Cubs far more often than he does tales of seduction, which, when they do arrive, have a kind of lovesick charm to them. He writes about L.A., sometimes adoringly, sometimes scathingly, sometimes both.
“His poems were regularly rejected for decades by the big magazines and yet he didn’t slice his ear off or change his style or write his congressman,” he wrote in a mimetic eulogy of Charles Bukowski, on the anniversary of the late author’s birthday in August. “Eventually the poems that had been rejected were suddenly brilliant and the lit world opened its arms to Bukowski and Bukowski shook them down and went back to L.A. and drank his cheap beer and slept with his cheap women and laughed and laughed.”
Belcher and Pierce are L.A.’s Samuel Pepyses and Charles Pooters (the fictional writer of “Diary of a Nobody”), and for no better reason than that they talk about jazz dance class and Charles Bukowski with the unstudied panache that the Web allows.
For, as essential as the Web has become to the information society, there is still something about the information on it — the unindented paragraphs and electric blue hyperlinks leading to an infinite regress of subreference — that still feels too easy, just less than wholly legitimate. That is where the great bloggers dwell.
“Personal news sites” and political blogs have turned previously obscure journalists, like Joshua Micah Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com and Jim Romenesko of MediaNews (poynter.org/medianews), into national insta-pundits with scores of readers, none of whom, incidentally, could pick either Romenesko or Marhsall out of a crowd of two.
One of the most widely read political blogs in the country is Slate columnist Mickey Kaus’ kausfiles.com, written out of Venice Beach. More L.A.-centric is laobserved.com, a personal news site focused on the city, written by Kevin Roderick, a political columnist for Los Angeles Magazine (he is also a former Times staff writer).
“I think the Web lends itself to getting geographically centric,” said Roderick. “In just about everything I post I try to convey an L.A. sense of place and culture.”
Roderick’s site serves another function: It gives the cacophonous sprawl of L.A. some feeling of cohesion, linking everything from Variety to the L.A. Architect, from La Opinión to “The Tom Leykis Show.”
A growing city
A little less than a century ago, the German theorists of the Frankfurt School were the first to discuss seriously the idea of “mass experience” as it was conveyed in the modern media — newspapers, film, radio. Never before, they observed, had so many people in so many different parts of the world been able to share single events with something so like simultaneity.
The effects on our very ideas of experience and human connection, they knew, would only grow more profound as technology advanced. Walter Benjamin famously noted that his Paris neighbors often knew more about a political intrigue in a faraway country than they did about a fire down the block.
The Web has not only cut the lag time of life further, it has compressed genres of experience. The political intrigue and the fire can be lived, and on the same browser page. Last summer, there appeared on the Web for about a month an open-access game called “9-11 Survivor.” Players tried to escape through a haze of flames, bodies and broken glass from the upper floors of the World Trade Center.
The game was created and uploaded by art students from UC San Diego. Thus, a group of kids in Southern California reconstructed an event that had taken place in New York and offered people everywhere a chance to relive a historic trauma and, if they were adept enough with a joystick, to escape it.
Exploitation? Collective therapy? On the Web, such distinctions, along with most other types of borders, are disappearing (a popular new file-sharing site, Earthstation 5, which offers pirated music and first-run American movies, is run out of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank).
Not all trends on the Web are so radical, however. Friendster, the social-networking service, has a distinctly archaic air to it. Launched this spring from a small office in Sunnyvale, Calif., Friendster already claims several million users. (Friendster administrators and its founder, Jonathan Abrams, did not return calls for this story.) Less invasive than pop-up advertising, more formal than http://match.com, Friendster calls to mind nothing so much as the days of the Social Register.
In L.A., where the lines between social life, business and performance are often blurry, even nonexistent, Friendster caught on early and quickly took on added dimensions.
Andrew Brin runs the hard-to-crack Cachet, the Monday night party at the restaurant and bar Les Deux in Hollywood. In his everyday world, Brin knows a lot of people in Los Angeles, and a lot of people would like to know him.
But he uses his Friendster world, in part, to make light of his everyday world.
He recently auctioned guest spots on his Friendster home page off on EBay (with the price of purchase came not only his virtual friendship and his friends’ virtual friendship, but also a personal testimonial). He made $37.
At last count, Brin had over 300 friendsters, none of whom, he says, he doesn’t know. He said that for many people he knows, networking on Friendster has become a daily compulsion, even a necessary part of social and professional life.
“It’s basically nighttime social life extended into the daylight hours,” Brin said. “I only have two or three close friends who aren’t on it.” But, he added, there is “a social-climbing aspect to it.” And that aspect can get bizarre. Recently, Brin received several friend requests from an actress who happened to be a non-virtual friend.
Investigating, he found four Friendster accounts in her name, none of which, it turned out, were really hers.
“I called her and said, ‘Look at these,’ ” he said. “She thought it was hilarious, so she made her own profile.”
And now the famous actress and her four doppelgängers are all somewhere on Friendster. In fact, the site is crawling with fakesters, from obsessed fans masquerading as celebrities to world figures (Kofi Annan popped up recently) to cartoon characters. Less than a year old, the site is already speaking to itself, spiraling beyond its creators’ control.
This may be a mark of its success. Like Craigslist, like EBay and the “blogosphere,” Friendster has become a world unto itself in the larger world of the Web.
William Gibson, who for 20 years has been helping to dictate the terms for the mythology of the Web, would use another analogy.
“The Net is like a city,” he said. “And its advent will probably prove just as important as the advent of cities. But projecting what it will be or what it should be for is unknowable. What are cities for? It’s impossible to say.”
James Verini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org