Perhaps, like me, you've been mildly curious about those ambiguous TV commercials we've seen lately, commercials that make up the ad campaign for networkMCI Business (tm). During the past several months we've been treated to a series of installments in an on-going corporate saga set in the offices and hallways of a New York publishing house called Gramercy Press. In each 30-second installment we eavesdrop on the conversations between various staffers -- a gray-haired curmudgeon with a neat bow tie, a perky receptionist with a wry smile, a sophisticated editor with a European sense of fashion, and more -- each cryptically conversing about their office antics and business ventures: hints of a corporate takeover in one episode, an attempt to sign a Swiss writer in another, ideas about new textbooks for kids in yet a third. And all, of course, are interspersed with comments about how networkMCI Business (tm) is making corporate life at Gramercy Press a little easier.
Yet with each viewing we're still not sure of what's going on here. What are they selling? What are we buying? It feels like we've just walked into the middle of a passionately shallow conversation at a Hollywood cocktail party.
The photo of the building, it turns out, is a clickable map. Click on a window and you're transported into the offices of the characters you've seen in the television commercials. Here you learn their names and read a little narrative about them as you view what look surprisingly like the homepages of "real" people on the Web. Each "office" page includes a picture of the person (albeit professionally staged and photographed), the person's name, and a brief note (written in chatty, email-style) that provides a little insight into their personality and character -- and apparently into that ongoing saga to which the TV commercials allude. The perky receptionist, we learn, is Darlene Davis; the stodgy curmudgeon, Martin Banks; the sophisticated editor with the European flair, Ellen deRosset, currently in pursuit of best-selling author Marcus Belfry.
But the glossy photos and chatty text aren't the whole story. The site has been designed to provide a sort of interactivity between the viewer and the characters. Click on the desk in Darlene's picture and you see a card she's recently received. Click on the print hanging on her wall and you view the artwork close up. Click on the computer screen and you can read her email -- and send her a message too. When your curiosity is sated, click on the door, enter the hall, and "walk" to another office to continue your interactive adventure.
Despite the novelty of this intimate, interactive adventure at Gramercy Press, the purpose of the site is as ambiguous as its television counterpart. Sure the site is an example of very creative use of Web technology. But what's the point? Entertainment? Information? Interactivity? What's really going on here?
The attempts to pique our interest with a pulp fiction tale of love, power, and betrayal are flat, uninteresting, and condescending. Perhaps if we made more of an effort to piece together the fragments of the plot, we'd enjoy it more. But why would we go to a commercial Web site for this sort of experience? And even if the point here is to entertain us, then I think that most of us find the incessant intertwining of constant allusions and testimonials to networkMCI (tm) patronizing and offensive, like being bombarded by the neurotic housewife-needs-to-get-the-spots-off-her-goblets ads that were prevalent on television during the 1970s.
If the point if to provide useful information about networkMCI (tm), then I think that the sort of users -- presumably level-headed business sorts -- who travel to the Gramercy Press site seeking information about how networkMCI (tm) can work for them are likely to be put off. Who has time for the gratuitous perkiness of Darlene and Ellen and their text-based banter about signing best- selling author Marcus Belfry. What is needed in this case is information, not conversation.
All that's left, then, is interactivity: pointing and clicking throughout the site for the sake of, well, pointing and clicking. Yet what sort of interactivity is this, really? We can voyeuristically snoop around offices, read over shoulders, listen to messages, even send email to Darlene and Martin and Ellen. But wait -- they're fictitious characters. We don't share their concerns. I think that most of us would rather point and click our way through the Web to seek out and establish contacts with people who share our interests and provide us with useful, irreverent, or entertaining information.
In their rush to commercialize cyberspace, many of the first wave of firms setting up shop on the Web have merely placed electronic versions of print-based materials -- marketing brochures, catalogs -- online for perusal. Now that their Web sites are established, many of them are just starting to think about the new medium and how to take advantage of its possibilities. Moreover, most are struggling to figure out just who they are trying to reach, and are getting confused in the process.
Why the confusion? Part of the allure of the Web becomes apparent if you've surfed around checking out the homepages of people from diverse locations around the world, people who, presumably, frequently traverse the strands of the Web (though, of course, the Web populace isn't limited to this group). If the content and links on personal homepages are any indication, the Web at this point is valuable to many because, on a personal basis, it provides a forum for them to:
But here lies the problem. It seems to me that the dilemma businesses are running into when developing Web content is that they're struggling to figure out how they fit into the eclectic mix of values and uses -- values that range from the bizarre (pictures of Howard Rheingold's painted shoes) to the mundane (discussions of the TV series "Saved by the Bell") -- that individuals and institutions are using the Web to express. The confusion arises when trying to satisfy all of these values and uses at once, without discriminating between them.
This is exactly the problem that MCI has run into. The Gramercy Press page is an attempt to appease those Web users who seek out entertainment. Conversely, it attempts to capture business-minded users with its overt promotional appeal and product information. Taken separately, each of these appeals is legitimate. When combined, however, they muddle the intent of the entire site.
Sponsor or establish sites of creative expression and entertainment (virtual, interactive art galleries, game rooms or theme parks). I think that MCI has the right idea with wanting to provide an entertaining and creative site. This meshes well with many users' vision of the Web as entertainment. Where I think MCI fails is in the mixing of this creative, game-like interaction with overtly promotional efforts and with the gratuitous and absurd pseudo-interactions with fictitious corporate types hocking MCI technology.
As an alternative, why not take a more benevolent approach, perhaps by providing Web space for developing artists working in electronic media? Or by allowing multimedia authors to develop Web-based hypermedia stories, sans the overt corporate promotions? While this would not necessarily attract the choicest customer demographics to the site, it would disseminate a corporate ethos of benevolence and playfulness, which of course matches the ethos of many of the current and future Web users.
Set up "real" employee homepages. One of the most off-putting aspects of the Gramercy Press site is its trivializing of the real possibilities of interacting with businesses and people in cyberspace. Think of the potential of setting up a site similar to that of Gramercy Press, but for a real business. Replace the mindless narratives with descriptions of each employee's area of expertise, interest, or role within the organization; and replace some of the interactive features having no real purpose, but retain such things as true email connections to each employee. In this way, current or potential customers could then go to the Web site and seek out the people who seem likely to provide them with needed information, and perhaps begin mutually beneficial interactions.
These are just two speculations on directions that commercial sites might take. They're directions worth thinking about in an effort to assure that the Web continues to develop as a creative realm of entertainment and expression by and for ordinary people, while also allowing for businesses to establish their on-line presence. Like it or not, the commercialization of the Web is under way. The key is to find ways for all of those finding value in the Web to allow the values of others to remain intact, and even to support them, if possible. ¤
Kevin Hunt, an assistant editor at Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, has written to Darlene Davis a few times, but has yet to receive a response.
Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.