Spring break is dead. So why does the Wildcat keep getting all kinds of web-related press releases pertaining to spring break web sites? What strange phenomenon makes this happen now that every college in the United States is weeks past spring break?
It makes a certain amount of sense that a few post-break sites are springing up now that break is over because they obviously needed to gather content,
but what is happening is a little deeper than that. Only slightly deeper, but it still makes for a good case study on web commercialization -- and perhaps why the Web will eventually fail as a commercial vehicle.
Take People magazine's spring break web site as the first example. It went online at the beginning of this week, and a press release came zooming out of the fax and across the print Wildcat's news desk. Nevermind the fact that it zoomed right across said desk and landed in the recycling bin, but I ended up with the fax and I can't resist the lure of any URL that crosses my path (The news editor wasn't checking out the online bikinis. I swear. He told me to say that).
Here's a snippet from the press release:
SPRING BREAK! Smell the hotel rooms! Taste the beer! Feel the body piercing! Hear the roar of the crowd!
An intrepid team of PEOPLE Online reporters and photographers ventured into this no-man's land to take in the sights, sounds and (unavoidably) the smells of spring break. What they found: no group discussions of French literature and the American political system -- but plenty of people willing to drink beer from a funnel. There were plenty of thongs (and not the plastic flip-flop variety) and dozens of men willing to participate in a "Wet Willie" showdown.
OK, it's a professional site run by a national magazine. The first expectation is a site full of high demographic-pleasing content (read: flesh) a few ads, and whatever interactive portions the crew at People Online worked in.
In some respects those assumptions are true. The site sports a Shockwave games & interfaces, Quicktime, VRML panoramas ... bikinis. A simple user interface, decent layout, and lots of help for the first time plug in users give the site that "We sunk time and money into this" look.
What's really inside, though, and why am I even taking up space to give you my thoughts on a People magazine web site?
It typifies a typical commercial site, that's why. Go back and take a good look at every portion, view every picture, and watch every movie. Then tell me if you'd need or even want to return to that site again, even if I bribed you.
Neat-o, let's play with it, OK - NEXT! The mantra of the insatiable web surfer shines through yet again, and I'm sure the site creators knew beer, sand and college kids only go so far. Don't think I'm attacking the site creators, either, because I'm positive they geared the site in exactly that manner. Besides, if they managed to hang out in Daytona Beach and become a part of the madness on People's checkbook, more power to them. If running around with video equipment in Daytona on someone else's bill is how you fill the market niche, so be it.
What disturbs me is the fact that this niche even exists. I know the 'net needs to generate profit as investors start questioning the web's profit-generating abilities, but what the heck is this site other than an electrified archive of college kids doing silly things? It's not a money maker, that's for sure.
It's a demographic magnet, that's what. As People Online spokesperson Marianne Goldstein explained, the site's main purpose is to increase overall People site traffic through an appeal to the younger crowd.
As part of Time Warner's Pathfinder I can't imagine they're exactly struggling for hits, but then again who ISN'T making an appeal to the younger crowd on the 'Net these days?
The same explanation lies behind all of these threads, and it's the same reason Id Games' Quake and the Bud-Ice screen saver have been on shareware.com's "Most popular download" list for something like 40 straight weeks. The average web surfer is pictured to be a twentysomething male because to date they are the most active portion of the web's wanderers.
In a marketing twist that defies the old stereotype about men who are interested in computers, everyone has shown that a certain amount of hormonally-driven hits are guaranteed to a site by including the words 'bikini' and 'beer' somewhere on the front page.
Right now, yes, hit-generating sites like the People Spring Break site serve a purpose. Five years from now, though, nobody is going to get away with a spinoff site like that, because the demographics are changing. Clinton is wiring the schools, WebTv has taken off, and the twentysomething male web-dominance paradigm is going to fly out the window.
As much as I hate to give them credit, those black-and-white MCI ads touting the equality of race and sex on the Internet hold a certain amount of truth. It's going to take time, but I'm willing to bet men lose their grip as the force behind Web direction long before any gender progress is made within national politics or corporate pay scales. That might look like an easy, cop-out statement to make, but wait five years and get back to me.
All in all, the day when hits are no longer guaranteed by including a few key words and pictures into a site are approaching. Slowly and stubbornly, but approaching nonetheless, and we can only hope that this changes or eliminates the state of web commercialization we're stuck with today.
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