Attitude queens: A success story

In our second instalment in a series on user-contributed content (read the first), we examine how attitude and starting small can lead to sparkling, lucrative Web content. As long as you have a slush fund backing it up.

We refer to the triumvirate of sites owned and operated by Tara Ariano (“Wing Chun”) and David T. Cole (“Glark”), namely Hissyfit, MightyBigTV, and Fametracker.

Back in the day – and we’re talking four or five years ago here – we read Hissyfit constantly. The site, based on the now-ubiquitious Ultimate Bulletin Board, nominally centred itself around a feature rant or hissyfit, which would then be discussed in the site’s message boards. Quickly, though, the balance of power was reversed, and the message boards, home to discussions of movies, music, TV, relationships, and suchlike, came to host the real action.

You’ve never met a smarter, snarkier group of malcontents in your life. Many worked in the grand Internet industry, but had better taste than your typical geek (and you know how gormless they are at times); many more had real lives. A heavily pink-tinged site, you’d be hard-pressed to stumble across an heterosexualist male, Glark excepted. You surfed to Hissyfit and you knew you’d run across someone who was at least as dissatisfied yet energized, literate yet obsessed with pop culture as you were yourself.

Wing Chun staked out an almost entirely new discursive form with a sibling site, Dawson’s Wrap, a fan site dedicated to Dawson’s Creek. Emulating what girls of all genders do while watching TV at home – talking back at the screen, taking nothing seriously, mocking the program from a basis of love – Dawson’s Wrap detailed each episode of the show minute by minute, with slings and arrows in abundance. (We say the discursive form is almost new because it amounts to a highly non-objective and opinionated form of continuous audio description. In fact, describers could learn a few things from dawsonswrapesque manners of observation.) The resulting “recap” could occupy a dozen screens of text, which you avidly devoured, putative difficulty of reading onscreen be damned.

Impressively dense, nuanced, and so singular in ethos, tone, and worldview that it could do nothing but attract attention, Wing Chun and Glark’s sites gained more and more renown through word-of-mouth. We recall reading, some years ago, Wing Chun’s diary posting on Hissyfit detailing a San Francisco meeting with a doyenne of ChickClick, the regroupement, as the French say, of zine-like grrrl sites larded over heavily with attitude. Suddenly the flow of banner ads in the bottom frame increased: Hissyfit had become a ChickClick “sister site.”

But enough history

Wing Chun had a day job for quite a while – as assistant to the editor of Saturday Night, a perpetually-troubled Canadian monthly whose final editor of note, Paul Tough, now runs an Internet content minisite we will discuss some other day. It rapidly became clear that banner-ad revenues were rapidly overtaking her OL salary, so she quit.

Ah, but no resting on laurels for these kids. Wing Chun and Glark franchised the Dawson’s Wrap concept to an entire coven of television programs under the umbrella site MightyBigTV. The duo hired on a whippersnapper inexplicably codenamed the Man from F.U.N.K.L.E. (Adam Sternbergh, met during the Saturday Night days).

The banner-ad slush fund is eyebrow-raisingly lucrative for the Hissyfit kids. While she refused to disclose her income in a key Maclean’s miniprofile, Wing Chun outed herself in the June 2000 Toronto Life:

Tara Ariano, writer, editor and producer of the snarky pop-culture Web sites Hissyfit, Fametracker and MightyBigTV, is slowly learning where the dot-com dollars lie. Now brokered by ChickClick, her sites are bringing in enough advertising that she could just quit her day job and finally pay her contributors. Ariano’s personal revenue for February (in U.S. dollars): Fametracker, $2,229.61; Hissyfit, $3,886.23; MightyBigTV (soon to be franchised into movie, book and music sites), $5,349.50.

Annualized, the peddling of sarcasm is netting the couple something like US$137,000. Not bad for repackaging other people’s work.

The paradox of a chatty user base

We’re not knocking Wing Chun and Glark, not at all. While the archives don’t go back quite so far as to prove it, we’ve contributed to Hissyfit on many an occasion – happily. A modified network effect is at work here: Being around lots of similarly sarcastic, intelligent, articulate people prompts you to contribute, further attracting sarcastic, intelligent, articulate people.

The duo’s sites are the antithesis of the much-despised, self-incriminatingly bland, entirely discredited portal strategy: Presenting a definable point of view not shared by some amorphous assumed mass majority succeeds brilliantly in cultivating a miniature community.

Currently, we worry about the sites’ future, given that wymmynz Web sites are in notorious flux. ChickClick’s founders no longer work there; ChickClick itself is one arm of a budding conglomerate. Wing Chun and Glark’s sites now bear at best a tenuous link to “chicks,” apart from being co-owned by one. (A letter to Salon confirms as much.)

If ChickClick disappeared, or simply pulled the plug – well, goodbye, yellow brick road.

Seemingly every wymmynz site on the net peddles middle-class fluff. We interviewed for a content-editor job at a Canadian wymmynz portal where subject-matter would be limited to the following: parenting, health and fitness, money and finance, astrology (inevitably), food and nutrition, shopping, and fashion and beauty. In short, a Web portal for secretaries who can name five distinct shades of off-pink lipstick. How do the dynamic duo’s sites fit into this nebulous, debris-strewn cosmos, if we imagine the absence of ChickClick’s patronage?

And nearly everything presented on the sites in question is written by contributors, not Wing Chun, Glark, or the Man from F.U.N.K.L.E. True, some contributors are now paid. We understand that pay rates hover around $50 per item. And in fact, the MightyBigTV FAQ states:

Why aren’t you recapping JAG? Family Law? Providence? Law and Order?
Money. We pay our recappers, and the more shows we have on the site, the more money we have to pay out. We’d love to recap every show on TV, but at the moment we can’t afford it.

The FAQ also warns that “All the recaps that appear on the site are the property of Mighty Big TV. Posting our content without permission is legally actionable, and we will protect our intellectual property to the fullest extent of the law.”

We applaud Wing Chun and Glark for their audacious midwifery of a rampagingly successful, smart, even groundbreaking network of content sites. In future instalments, we’ll explain how this kind of tight focus, this willingness to offend, this elitism, have worked wonders for community-building in other miniature content sites. The couple’s approach is worth studying, if not poaching outright. (But watch out for lawsuits.) In this case, user-contributed content is the heart of the sites, and its greatest strength.

But the sites’ proprietors are rolling in dough, and these former wage slaves appear to emulate the worst habits of publishing cartels in asserting full ownership of other people’s intellectual property for a payment of peanuts. (Recapping The West Wing for fifty bucks meets no defintion of work-for-hire, kids.) And then, when other would-be community members suggest expanding the stable, the duo declare poverty, while also permitting a magazine to publish the duo’s plans for expensive new sites.

We wonder if Wing Chun and Glark are morphing into minimoguls. We’d love to find out for sure, but Wing Chun replied to a polite request for an interview with a nominally polite but frosty, dismissive “No, thank you.”

She didn’t call it Hissyfit for nothing.

Posted on 2000-08-29