Ty Burr
November 15, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Imagine those community-activist tents that sit off in the back 40 at Lollapalooza have taken over the event and the musical numbers are just a sideshow: That about sums up Webstock96 (www.webstock96.com), the Internet Community Festival that unfolded on the World Wide Web from Nov. 1 to 4. The site (which is still extant on the Web) was an outgrowth of Do Something, a nonprofit organization cofounded by actor Andrew Shue (Melrose Place) and dedicated to assisting community projects and emerging local leaders. With Shue and Kimberly Williams (Relativity) on board as celeb organizers, Webstock had no problem signing on such sponsors as MTV, America Online, Blockbuster, and Fox TV, not to mention corralling personalities ranging from Joey Lawrence to Michael Stipe to Newt Gingrich for chats.

Of course, it was all a massive bait and switch. Once the online hordes dialed in to meet the stars and hear the Cure and Porno for Pyros playing live from various venues, whammo, they’d get hit with, say, a chat with a staffer from the child-literacy program Jumpstart, or a discussion of environmentally safe crop rotation. ”That’s the way our society works,” says Shue, defending the strategy. ”We want to enjoy ourselves while we’re working to build a better place to live.”

In fact, the socially conscious side of Webstock was undeniably impressive and easily the most successful aspect of the shebang. The site was graphically set up to resemble a festival village, and while such sections as the Game Arcade and the Acts of Kindness bulletin boards appeared to have been half built and left empty, most areas bristled with suggestions, information, and good deeds. Town Hall offered advice on how to spark local political initiatives. The University linked to a résumé-spamming E-mail service. The Library contained resources for further reading and action.

It was the ”entertainment” part of the festival that was almost comically disorganized. Like any website worth its ambitions, Webstock96 put the tools needed for full appreciation of its multimedia dingbats right behind the front page for downloading. Trouble is, there wasn’t much technical support. You could check out the live appearances via Virtual Places, a graphical chat system that attaches to your Web browser like a high-tech remora, but the software slowed your surfing to a crawl. There were live video hookups for the evening parties held at such clubs as L.A.’s House of Blues, but they were full of bugs; audio interviews with the likes of Dean Cain, Noah Wyle, and George Stephanopoulos served as the sole ”live” aspect.

In the end, all the good intentions came up hard against the hall monitors and dudes who appeared to make up most of Webstock96’s audience. Of the former, let it be said that there’s nothing so touching as watching young Republicans bond online: The folks waiting for the Gingrich chat were cogent, informed, and really self-defensive. As for the dudes, I’ll let them speak for themselves, in a partial transcript of the chat with CNN reporter and political analyst Farai Chideya:

Farai: You know, if we young Americans don’t vote, then the politicians don’t have to care what we think. White Zombie, what issues are the most important to you?


WHITE ZOMBIE: i dont know

Funcky Cheese: I’m confused

Daizy: I’m so happy !!:))

CLUE(C): that sucked

Farai: Show up at the polls on Tuesday and tell America that young adults are not just a bunch of idiots!

There was more, but I’ll spare you. The ultimate irony was that what Andrew Shue and his Do Something pals want you to do is turn off your computer and get involved in the real world. Unfortunately, they’re telling this to kids for whom computers are the real world. The Webstock96 organizers hope to make it a yearly event; the medium will undoubtedly grow to match their ideals. With any luck — ahem — so will the audience.

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