Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits, and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet

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Editorial Reviews

Industry Standard
The Internet Economy has a rotten memory. Just a year ago, push software products like PointCast were considered duds. Now AOL, Lycos and other companies are developing nonbrowser-based applications that stay open on your desktop and feed you stock quotes, chat and Net radio. Sound familiar?

Similarly, media and technology companies have begun to create and fund Web entertainment ventures. Warner Brothers Online is building an Internet portal called Entertaindom, and Microsoft has invested in Digital Entertainment Network, which makes short TV-like programs for viewing on a PC.

However, content has been a dirty word since e-commerce became king. John Geirland and Eva Sonesh Kedar's Digital Babylon explains why. The blow-by-blow account of Web entertainment's messy beginnings is a must-read -- especially for those just now jumping on the Net content bandwagon.

The book examines the first experiment in Web entertainment -- the Spot. Erected in 1995 by frustrated L.A. advertising exec Scott Zakarin, the Spot was a "Webisodic," a daily updated site that belonged to a fictional Santa Monica beach house of five twentysomethings.

Through diary entries and photographs, the group spilled the details of their soap-opera lives and drew fans and positive press. As detailed by Geirland and Kedar, the site marked the dawn of Web content. Soon AOL, Microsoft and major movie studios would follow the Spot's lead: For instance, Microsoft created "programs" for its Microsoft Network and AOL built Entertainment Asylum, neither of which succeeded.

On a shoestring budget, Zakarin and his buddies created the Spot after hours at the Fattal-Collins ad agency in Marina del Rey, Calif. But when press clips and fan e-mail started rolling in, Fattal-Collins management decided to create a new company around the site, with plans for more Webisodics and an IPO. The company, American Cybercast, never got too far. After ramping up the head count, seeing Zakarin and others depart and spitting out several anemic Webisodics, the company filed for Chapter 11.

Geirland and Kedar describe such failed efforts as a result of a culture clash between wildly different groups. There were "the ponytails" -- frustrated Hollywood creatives who could barely use e-mail but saw the Web as a place to let their bright ideas shine. There were "the suits" -- dealmakers who saw content as a way to draw traffic, as long as it wasn't too expensive or time-intensive to create. Then there were "the geeks" -- techie types who dug the challenges of programming audio, video and animation for the Web and wanted the technology to take center stage.

Digital Babylon's insider account of these power struggles is full of great gossip. For example, the authors managed to acquire a diagram created by "ponytail" Bob Bejan, hired to head up MSN's programming efforts. The diagram purported to show how "left-brain" technical elements would eventually converge with the "right-brain" creative elements to produce a "mastery of the medium" of online entertainment.

The book reproduces the graphic, then goes on to describe how Bejan distributed the feel-good message to Microsoft employees, only to be ridiculed behind his back by geeks who felt content's real goal was to show off Microsoft's technology.

Web entertainment hopefuls take heed: History repeats itself.
Lessley Anderson

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
On the Web, where art, entertainment and commerce commingle, developing fresh content that is both successful and compelling can be a daunting job. Here are the stories of those who undertook the challenge in the mid-to-late '90s, told from the perspectives of the creative types (whom the authors dub "ponytails"), the techies and a number of executives sprinkled in for good measure. In sharp, lucid prose, the coauthors spin a tale as dramatic as any Web serial, as the players and their companies angle for advantage in ways that only the intersection of Silicon Valley and Hollywood could engender. It begins in 1995 with the launching of The Spot, a Web soap opera and sleeper hit that served as the archetype of future projects. As the Web develops, new media companies like Digital Planet and Entertainment Asylum, AOL`s Greenhouse division and Microsoft all try their hand at the form, independently and sometimes together, with various degrees of success. The growing pains of these startups are described in meticulous detail, from the financial troubles and skittish IPO market that doomed the company American Cybercast, to the narrow bandwidth and glacial downloads that plagued the early years of the Web. The authors draw few conclusions from these examples, and they tend to overplay the significance of such ventures, while underplaying the vast cacophony of the Web. Their story is told with panache and accuracy, but ultimately proves to be as flashy and lightweight as the programs they chronicle. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another peek inside the unfolding universe of the World Wide Web. A broad cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds and work experiences (hence the subtitle) populates this short chronology, which looks at what has been accomplished in the brief history of interactive entertainment on the Internet. Geirland, who writes for Wired and the Los Angeles Times, and Kedar, a management consultant, cover only a few ventures and give little background or explanation as to why some are included or what might be left out. The introductory section covers the birth and short life of "The Spot," a quirky Web-based production that combined elements of television soap opera and call-in radio. Another start-up, "The Greenhouse," helped pioneer some of the tools and interactive uses of the Web environment. Larger ventures, such as the Microsoft Network, (MSN) did not suffer from lack of capital or talent but erred in their premature assessment of which way the Internet was developing. Rapid growth, deadline crunches, shifting competition, and lack of business savvy were shared problems as these and other companies struggled to succeed. Many of them generated material while grounded in creative bases in southern California that were awkwardly opposed to the technology-based teams working to the north. The authors claim that "online entertainment failed" in these and other efforts because it was too different from established practices, but they add that it's already "coming back" because of demand from the huge Web audience. All this may be true, but their poorly organized presentation makes the argument hard to follow. Meandering and erratic; rarely imparts any meaningful understanding of thetopic it covers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559704830
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/17/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.67 (h) x 1.04 (d)

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2004

    this book rocks

    This book is the best book in the world Eva Sonesh Kedar did a magnificent job on this book. I think this book is worth the money.

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