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The Best and Worst/Internet: 1999

Legit Digital Downloads, Blair Witch Website and dot-com ads gone wild are among the year’s Best and Worst

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1 Digital Music
Phenom of the Year

The threat was easy for the recording industry to dismiss when it was just a bunch of kids pirating MP3 files. But then came the second wave: A horde of computer nerds stormed the green room and somehow convinced headliner acts like Alanis Morissette, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Creed, the Beastie Boys, Tori Amos, and Metallica that traditional music distribution was as worn as a used eight-track tape. Legitimate digital-music distributors like Liquid Audio, EMusic.com, and Mjuice.com signed them up, followed by online record labels like Atomic Pop. The Diamond Rio portable MP3 player, fresh from winning a courtroom battle against the Recording Industry Association of America, was soon being imitated by such consumer-electronics powerhouses as Sony. And Internet music sales even earned their own Billboard music chart. On the downside, the music industry’s attempt to have a secure digital-music format in place for the Christmas shopping spree has failed, and the music-buying masses are getting fed up with a kajillion competing software players, formats, and prices—at a certain point it’s easier to just go back to the Virgin Megastore. ”I don’t really think this is going to break until the car-stereo revolution happens,” says Ice-T, whose own label, Coroner Records, is now completely Internet based. But he still likens digital music to ”a spaceship that’s about to take off.” And record labels that aren’t on board will definitely be left behind.

2 http://www.blairwitch.com The first time movie buff Jeff Johnson saw the Blair Witch Project website, he thought the story was real, just like everyone else. He paged through Maryland newspapers online, and even dispatched a query to the FBI’s website. But after discovering he’d been duped, Johnson was less angered than impressed—he even had the infamous stick man tattooed onto his right shoulder three days before opening night. ”For me it wasn’t about whether or not the movie was going to suck,” says Johnson, 34. ”It was about the whole spectacle that led up to it.” Most of which happened online. The success of blairwitch.com immediately inspired imitators: Movies from Fight Club to Scream 3 scrapped the traditional PR formula in favor of a stand-alone website. But translating Blair Witch’s potent Web brew into box office dollars has proved a difficult trail to follow thus far.

3 Short Films on the Net ”This is like the great billiard hall of bulls — — ers,” says former NBC prez Warren Littlefield. ”The number of losers in all forms of entertainment are now reborn with the Internet.” True enough, but Littlefield — an adviser to the short entertainment site AtomFilms (www.atomfilms.com) — also knows that with instant worldwide distribution and easy access to new talent, the number of possible winners on the Internet has increased as well. Among the people hoping to cash in are the founders of Pop.com, a website offering the short works of bigwigs like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and funded by tech guru Paul Allen. The upcoming year is looking like a long day at the movies for lunch-hour cinema lovers.

4 Personal Video Recorders If you had never commandeered a remote control, it would be hard to imagine that such a device could change your living-room habits. The same can be said of Personal Video Recorders, the new line of set-top boxes that let you pause Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in mid-Regis, or custom-create a channel full of X-Files episodes. With the help of ReplayTV, TiVo, or an EchoStar/Web-TV combo, your prime time can be at 3 a.m. and filled with exactly the programs you want to watch. How will the networks cope with the time shift created by these newfangled VCRs? ”One could argue that you actually increase the amount of viewing,” says ReplayTV CEO Kim LeMasters, a former head of CBS Entertainment. Yeah, because you can finally fast-forward through the commercials.

5 Entertainment Robots When Terminators rule the world, what’s left of the human race will recount stories of the day when an android was just a cute little toy named Furby. They’ll say that when Lego released the best-selling line of do-it-yourself MindStorms robot kits, it seemed like humans were still in control. But then Cye-sr, an $845 vacuum cleaner and delivery bot, started rolling around the home, and gadget-happy consumers lined up to pay $2,500 for a plastic-coated dog from Sony named AIBO. Even if the current robot fad slackens, one thing has become clear: They’ll be back.

6 Celebrity Auctions Ally McBeal’s pajamas—sold! Titanic life vest — sold! Autographed Moesha script — um, still available! Now studios have taken the next step on the e-commerce tie-in ladder and begun simply selling the name brands: the Black Flys sunglasses used in Blade, or the Humanity Bracelet seen on Guiding Light. With every vaguely entertainment-related item being peddled on the Net, however, the whole business is looking tarnished: One entrepeneur even claimed to be selling the eggs of fashion models. Let’s face it, there are some things money shouldn’t buy.

7 Totally MAD Before Spy, the National Lampoon, or The Onion, MAD magazine poked fun at everything this country held sacred. The result is nearly 50 years of smart-alecky humor—and now 564 back issues have been gloriously preserved by Broderbund Software on seven CD-ROMs. From early television parodies like ”Dragged Net!” to such trademark features as ”Spy vs. Spy,” MAD has been a bad influence on generations of kids. Totally MAD is both a nostalgia trip for that crowd and a perfect way to spread the ”What, Me Worry?” virus to the next generation.

8 Sega Dreamcast If you think the Sega Dreamcast is just a temporary fix until the PlayStation 2 or the new Nintendo — code-named Dolphin — comes out next year, you haven’t experienced the mind-numbing speed of Sonic Adventure, or the bone-crushing realism of NFL 2K. Dreamcast’s built-in modem is also impressive — even if it only lets you post scores online — because it means you’re getting the power of a desktop PC in a gaming machine that costs just $199. Sega, the videogame industry’s perennial third-placer, mounted an impressive comeback in 1999, selling 514,000 consoles in two weeks alone. If new Dreamcast games keep pace, Sega might finally see its dreams come true.

9 Gobler Toys (www.goblertoys.com) After reading the ad for Rodeo Rover (”Turns ordinary dogs into buckin’ broncos!”), I revisited this website for ”the greatest toys that never existed” countless times, hoping to find an online store that really did exist. But all I found in this virtual fun house were newer, more dangerous playthings from the devious minds of toy inventor Steve Casino and toy-industry product manager Steve Fink. Inspired by fictional 1940s-era toy magnate Ira Gobler, the site paints a Comedy Central-worthy corporate history that even includes theme music. In a year of great Web spoofs, this is the one that completely transported me to another, less sane reality.

10 Timothy McSweeney’S Internet Tendency (www.mcsweeneys.net) Even though this Web magazine has been praised as The New Yorker of the Net, the literate and witty writers at McSweeney’s would still like you to think they’re obscure nobodies. Which explains the no-frills design, lackadaisical publishing schedule, and proofreading by ”an unqualified person.” What it doesn’t explain is how 29-year-old founder Dave Eggers finds brilliant stories like ”Jedediah in Love,” Todd Pruzan’s hot-tub limo adventure through Vegas; or Christina Nunez’s highly literate reviews of random anecdotes she’s heard recently; or Michael Genrich’s deadpan comparison of lyrics by R&B artist Maxwell with the equations of Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell. This print quarterly with a website offshoot probably won’t ever be flush with cash, but it’s the salon du jour for tomorrow’s literary stars — and something for readers to treasure while slurping the soup of the day.

The Worst

1 Dot-Com Ads Run Amok Those cute kids doomed to a life in middle management. The old guys with the whips. The mail-room punk hipping the boss to e-trading. They were all funny…at first. But now that every commercial is for a dot-something-or-other, the trend is as forgettable as the banner ad on top of a slow-loading Web page.

2 Netaid This U.N.-endorsed concert benefiting Third World poor had a great-looking website, and an even better lineup in Bono, Jewel, and Puff Daddy. But NetAid ended up looking downright poverty-stricken. Despite 2.4 million online viewers, only around 6,000 people registered as volunteers, and the event has to date raised a sickly $12 million — only about $1 million of which has thus far been granted to people in need.

3 RealJukeboxx Listens In? It’s bad enough that installing the RealJukebox gave it control over every song on my computer, but now it turns out that the folks at RealNetworks had the capability to track every CD I listened to and how many songs I copied. The company, which has been smacked with three class-action lawsuits, denies any invasion of privacy — but it still released a software fix. Somehow my PC feels…violated.

4 Mahir Mania Haw-haw, someone stumbles onto the personal Web page of a lanky Turk who writes in broken English, looks awful funny in them pictures, and invites women to his country for sex. The URL rockets around the world, the poor guy’s phone starts ringing off the hook, and he becomes the Net Generation’s latest found object. Now that Mahir Cagri may be hired by an Internet start-up, can everyone go back to watching reruns of Steve Martin playing the ”wild and crazy guy”? Please?

5 The Videogame Backlash There’s no denying that videogames are more realistic, and often more gruesome, than ever. But the joystick tilted too far in the other direction when games like DOOM and Duke Nukem were held up as direct influences on the tragedies in Jonesboro, Ark.; Paducah, Ky.; and Littleton, Colo. If all it takes is a videogame to blur the distinction between a flesh-eating zombie and a flesh-and-blood human, why aren’t millions of devoted gamers out there shooting each other up?

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