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Highlights | Boston Globe

You Oughta Be in Pixels
December 1999

1999 was the year the Internet helped 'Blair Witch,' other unknowns make it big.

It's Howdy Doody time on the Internet - at least when it comes to online entertainment. 1999 was, after all, the year that the Internet emerged as the Next Big Thing in Hollywood, with producers scrambling to invent a new form of digital entertainment. It was like the days of early television; there was a kind of giddy excitement about the creative potential of this (relatively) new medium, tempered by a fear that it has already become a great global commercial. As for the programming itself, most initial Web shows (offered by upstarts like Den.net and Pseudo.com and major studios like Warner Bros.) were as primitive as early television, with frequent technical glitches, grainy Webcasts, crude story lines, and characters that will someday seem as inexplicable as Buffalo Bob or Milton Berle.

One thing was clear, in popular culture as well as the fine arts: Nobody can afford to ignore the Internet anymore. The fine-art market, one of the most elitist of trades, went online with a vengeance, with venerable institutions like Sotheby's joining dozens of start-ups targeting first-time art buyers. Likewise, the music industry, which had fought the medium, finally accepted the inevitability of online distribution via such technologies as MP3.

But the great Net/entertainment breakthrough of the year occurred in the independent film industry. We're talking about The Blair Witch Project, the low-budget horror film that became a phenomenon online long before it even opened in theaters. The quality of the film by two unknown artists didn't matter as much as the online buzz, and its overwhelming success at the box office added to the mad dash to create online programming. Everybody wanted to create the next Blair Witch, and big names such as Sam Donaldson and Drew Carey and Adam Sandler tried online experiments, with limited success (unless you prefer a kittenish Donaldson to his old bulldog persona).

But the real message of the Blair Witch success had nothing to do with existing celebrities: It proved that real-life nobodies can become virtual superstars through the power of this mass medium. Just ask Mahir Cagri, the Turkish Lothario who invited the whole world to his house on his earnest Web site and won international acclaim. Just ask Zack Exley, the Somerville, Mass., computer programmer whose online parody of George W. Bush became an issue in the presidential campaign.

Individuals still found room to get their message across online - even as the media giants carved out their territory in cyberspace. A modest fellow named John Breen figured out how to harness the power of the Internet for a good cause with a simple initiative called thehungersite.com. At the site, individuals click on the words "DONATE FREE FOOD"; sponsors, in turn, donate money per click to the U.N. World Food Program. The efforts of this one computer programmer from Indiana had more of a long-term effect on the public consciousness than the big, splashy corporate-sponsored NetAid Web site, a U.N. project that wasn't able to attract a devoted following despite three star-studded concerts in October.

Individuals also flocked to the Internet during the conflict in Kosovo, the first "cyberwar." Individuals on all sides became self- appointed war correspondents, making it possible for ordinary folks all over the world to track the human tragedy (not to mention the propaganda) in real time. Communication will never be the same.

To be sure, the Kosovo crisis proved the Internet's power as the ultimate mass medium. But let's not get too rosy about it. For all of its democratic potential, the Net is still driven by commerce, and it got even more commercial in 1999. Witness one of the biggest Net events of the year - the Great Victoria's Secret Affair. After the lingerie maker aired a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl, some 1 million voyeurs ran to their computers to check out VictoriasSecret.com. The site was overloaded with would-be viewers eager to check out the fine points of the site, notably the minimal apparel on model Tyra Banks. This single event showed both the potential and the limitations of the Internet as a marketing tool (as well as the everlasting appeal of pixel-perfect models.)

But some folks offered a counterpoint to all the online ads and e- commerce schemes. A nonprofit organization called Web Lab continued to fashion itself as a sort of PBS of the Internet; this year, it launched online discussion groups about the PBS documentary An American Love Story, bringing together strangers to participate in intimate - and volatile - debates about race and class. And the Boston Cyberarts Festival focused exclusively on digital art, bringing a dose of purity to the overwhelmingly commercial medium.

The Cyberarts Festival offered a chance to stand back from the gee- whiz commercialism and simply ask, "Why?" This was, after all, a year when the line between fact and fiction blurred online. Everything was entertainment; everything was for sale. Some Web sites advertised medical procedures - live births and liposuction - as if they were episodes on ER. Former child star Gary Coleman tried to resurrect his flagging career by selling off his personal junk in an online "charity" auction. One savvy performance artist satirized this thirst for attention, this desire to bare it all for a bit of fame, by putting his own demographics up for bid on eBay; alas, nobody made an offer. Maybe he'll succeed in 2000.

PHOTO(S): Associated Press (Copyright 2000)


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