Michael Kinsley, the former New Republic editor and Crossfire cohost, couldn’t have picked a better name than Slate (www.slate.com) for his weekly Microsoft-backed public-affairs webzine. As a color, slate is decidedly yuppie — the kind of ambient tint used for boardroom decorating schemes. And as an online presence, Slate, which went up on June 24, is tasteful, understated, and not a little smug in its patrician ease.
In other words, it’s a decorous spit in the face of prevailing Internet culture. That scene is more clearly represented by the recently launched Stim (www.stim.com), a weekly webzine that is the struggling Prodigy online service’s signal attempt to adapt itself to the larger World Wide Web. Hewing closer to the HotWired model of obnoxious graphics, bleeding-edge Net widgetry, and rants disguised as articles, Stim is as garish as Slate is reserved. The question is which one — if either — portends the future of the Web as it embraces the mainstream.
”There is a deadening conformity in the hipness of cyberspace culture,” Kinsley writes in Slate’s debut editor’s note, and few would argue the point. But is replacing that with the deadening conformity of the East Coast literary establishment the answer? I’ll grant him one thing: With provocative articles by such heavy hitters as Atlantic Monthly national correspondent Nicholas Lemann (on Asian-Americans as ”the new Jews”) and Stanford economist Paul Krugman (on the Clinton administration’s labor policies), the sheer quality of Slate’s writing stands as a massive improvement on the average cyberdude Web stylings.
Still, what makes the Web special is the way in which traditional text can be expanded via embedded links to sounds, moving images, and other text: At its best, the medium explodes linear prose into something resembling three-dimensional chess. What the Web isn’t is a ”good read,” as anyone whose eyes have glazed over while scrolling through a long on-screen document can attest. Yet Kinsley has embraced the linear experience with cheery perversity. Slate is willfully underdesigned: a lot of white space, elegant large-scale fonts, a handful of brittle illustrations, a few hyperlinks to relevant background resources. There’s one lone video clip and a minimum of audio embellishments.
One of those sound clips features the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney reading his ”The Little Canticles of Asturias,” and hearing that pointed brogue wrap around those words is a wonderfully unsettling example of what this project needs. The bulk of Slate’s first issue feels cantilevered from existing magazines: The review section could have been lifted from The New Yorker, the Mark Alan Stamaty cartoon from TIME, the ”Good Word” column from William Safire’s ”On Language” in the Sunday New York Times, the ”Is Microsoft Evil?” roundtable (quite feisty, actually) from Harper’s, and the sneering ”Henry David Thoreau’s Home Page” parody from…MAD.
Kinsley is keeping one foot in home territory: Highlights of Slate will be available in monthly paper form (for $29.95 a year) to those who want to subscribe (Slate will cost $19.95 a year over the Web, though it’s free until Nov. 1). On the other hand, Stim, with its high-tech 3-D games and virtual chat room (designed by underground cartoonist Kaz), could exist in no other place but the World Wide Web. Its articles announce any of the specific software add-ons you could use for enhancement (”frames”! ”QuickTime”! ”Shockwave”!), and the subjects range from radio pirates to a history of ”skanky” women (starting with Catherine the Great and ending with Courtney Love) to Puerto Rican goat-sucking vampires to a semiotic analysis of pizza-box illustrations. Basically, it’s a website for the Quentin Tarantino in all of us.
Some of Stim’s offerings are exactly the kind of arrogant Net swill that Kinsley decries. An ”AutoSurf” feature that peppers random images from the site onto your Web browser? Who cares? Yet the caliber of prose here (by such established cyber-arena writers as Wired contributor Gareth Branwyn and former Future Sex editor Lily Burana) is nearly as high as Slate’s. Whatever you think of it, the folks behind Stim aren’t slumming. Kinsley and company, however, keep their distance, and the result, for now, is a blank Slate. Slate: C+ Stim: B+
”I [went online] once with my daughter, who brought me into a chat room. I wanted to say really mean things, but she wouldn’t let me — because it was her ID. I wanted to go into the weird sex rooms, because I’m basically 11 years old. Computers scare me. I think they’re satanic.”
— Roseanne on Prodigy
”I find it very hard to listen to any music and relax. I’m forced to analyze everything I hear, and that includes the worst elevator music, musical wallpaper in the supermarket, and whatever is on the radio in passing cars. It’s a form of torture.”
— Sting on America Online
”[Arnold Schwarzenegger] is a joy to work with. And we had such fun. His wife, Maria, said if we were in school together we would have definitely had to [have] been separated.”
— Eraser’s Robert Pastorelli on CompuServe
”There’s no question that [Tom Cruise is] a very big and popular star. And I certainly find no fault with…his performance, nor any of the others in the film. I question his taste [as a producer of the ”Mission: Impossible” movie] in presenting this material.”
— Peter Graves, who played Jim Phelps on the Mission: Impossible TV series, on Prodigy
”Someone said I had more unforgettable 10-second [appearances] in Hollywood than anyone! My favorite was ”Passage to Marseille.” Humphrey Bogart was in it. Warner Bros. dropped me because Bogart was unhappy with my performance because it was so stellar. Bogart insisted that I be off the lot by 5 p.m. I think he thought I was a threat.”
— Mr. Blackwell on the Microsoft Network
”I’m not a part of the marijuana issue. I am promoting industrial hemp as an agricultural alternative that is beneficial to the farmer, the economy, and the environment. Millions [of] acres of forest are chipped for pulp to make paper every year and, as my name will attest, I am a friend of the trees.”
— Woody Harrelson on AOL