Gated com.munities

Once upon a time, when the Web was young and Net geeks were off the cultural radar, there existed various touchstones that bound us together. Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, the Church of the Subgenius, Blade Runner, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—these were our shibboleths. We proved our love and our subcult cred on fan pages, in Usenet-published parody and tributes (a.k.a. fanfic), in our very user names. Even the servers (the machines were our friends back then, and shared many of our personality traits) were called Mordor, Fnord, Spock, and so on. Nobody cared but us. And it was good.

Then came the hipsters. Then came the entrepreneurs. Then came the lawyers. Then came, as it inevitably does, trouble, and our humble homages became intellectual-property lawsuit bait. But don't blame the lawyers for hoovering the last drops of cool out of the Internet; blame the places that are supposed to take you to the cool stuff. Blame the portals and the communities for turning what had been a Web into a series of cul-de-sacs. And now they're making money off the backs of us, the humble page-creating fans.

Lawyers have head-butted online fan sites for years. Elvis' estate savaged a fan for posting a "cybertour"—photos—of Graceland back in 1994. The band Oasis got so busy threatening 15-year-old fangirls that it neglected to check the elapsed time on its collective Warhol clock in 1997. And Star Trek's corporate keepers at Viacom have decided that the best way of shoring up their aging franchise is to attack their most loyal, creative, and vocal supporters.

Some corporate entities have (in the past, alas) been more kindly disposed to fans. For instance, Warner Bros. has been mellow about tribute pages and fanfic, mainly ignoring unofficial sites as long as they conformed to basic decency standards, didn't disrespect the characters, and weren't making money for someone else. Warner quite reasonably saw the online fan base as a more powerful and omnipresent force for the good of Warner properties than any corporate entity could be.

It took the portal trend to do in that happy relationship. Last week, WB Online head Jim Moloshok claimed that Geo-Cities, home to 3.5 million "homesteaders" and familiar to most Web surfers as the perpetrators of obnoxious pop-up ad windows, is using its population's pages to lead readers to GeoCities' "preferred" partners, mainly by means of their Related Sites search. By Moloshok's accounting, potential revenue from links and ads could reach nine figures for GeoCities—but not for Warner, and not for fans.

I tried Related Sites for myself on a few Bugs pages and Marvin the Martian pages on GeoCities, and discovered that Moloshok is right. The search results that came back most often and most prominently were fans' pages for Dilbert, The Simpsons, Rugrats, and Disney. Dilbert has a joint promotional campaign with GeoCities; Disney is a major advertiser; Fox (The Simpsons) is in a long-term deal with Yahoo!, which is itself in the process of acquiring GeoCities. There were no links to other Bugs or Marvin pages, on GeoCities or off it.

Obviously, being a successful portal is not about the quality of one's links, but about the dexterity of one's dealmaking. But so what if it's pay-for-play? It's not like it's a real search engine. It's not like it's Yahoo!--yet.

It's also not like GeoCities' page builders have much choice. Moloshok is not gunning for the fans who compose these tributes; he says that they're pawns in the portal game, since GeoCities knows that Warner would take a big public-relations hit if it fires on homesteader pages. Instead, Moloshok hopes that fans will consider relocating to other community portals; say, Warner's own Acme City. As for those fans who think that a browser window is a sufficient portal for using the Web—think again, old-timer. Search engines are so 18 months ago. Portals and community sites encourage users to treat them not as the jumping-off point but as the destination (albeit, a destination disguised as a jumping-off point); whatever's beyond the city walls is simply not worth the work of getting to. It's not even worth feeding to the lawyers.

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