Mike Slocombe looks like the kind of person who would try something different on the Web. Dreadlocks snake down the back of his slightly tatty T-shirt, and he punctuates his conversation with London slang (hence the translations in brackets).
But Slocombe ranks among the big cheeses of the UK Web design community, not least for his innovative e-zine, Urban75, which is known for covering the kind of news and information that mainstream news sites usually pass by. His site includes an informative drugs section, news of political activism, an irreverent soccer news section, and most famously of all, the interactive Shockwave game, 'Slap a Spice Girl.'
Urban75 is run by Slocombe on a not-for-profit basis, and it doesn't pull its punches, especially when it comes to the likes of Bill Gates or certain British politicians, who are the targets of the zine's popular 'Who do you want to punch today?' page.
Slocombe's other plaudits include designing sites for Snickers, Internet Service Provider Direct Connection, Morgan Stanley and Zenith Films; he is also Internet Magazine's Web expert. Before launching his e-zine, Slocombe graduated with a first in graphic design from London's Camberwell College of Arts. (Yes, he designed their Web site as well.)
Online Journalism Review guest contributor J.L.Perrone spoke with Mike Slocombe in Brixton, London.
J.L. PERRONE: Urban75 has been described as a political activism site, a football zine, an e-zine... what is it?
MIKE SLOCOMBE: I think it's different things to different people. Some people go there just for the games. I just put a game there a couple of days ago, it's called 'Eco-Draughts,' it's total nonsense, but it's fun. For some people it's just a fun site -- they play some games, they have a laugh. I think a lot of people who aren't interested in politics, they shape the alternative politics. I hope it offers an alternative, I think you can make a point and have a bit of a laugh. Some people use it for the drugs stuff, some people for news and events. It is politically motivated. It aims to be a site that has something to say, but says it with humor, not just the usual, dry pages and pages of rant.
PERRONE: When did you start Urban75?
SLOCOMBE: Two years ago. I did issue one, which was about four pages, and I was dead chuffed [happy]. By luck I blagged a job. The first job I had was doing the Snickers Web site entirely on my own, and I was completely out of my depth. I mean, luckily I knew about football. I got great experience. When I started, the Levellers [British indie pop group] helped me out, they bought me a modem and an Internet account, and that's kind of when Web sites were quite rare. This guy did the site at first, I sent him the stuff, I didn't know how to do it. So within the space of a week I had a fax line, two phone numbers, e-mail, Web site, so people assumed that it's a big organization. That's what's kind of good about the Web. If you've got the content, you don't need hundreds of people. A lot of it's just cut and paste -- you find stuff, you adapt it, slap it in. There's a lot of resources out there. It's just finding it and presenting it.
PERRONE: Do you get a lot of feedback from readers, and do you take a blind bit of notice of it?
SLOCOMBE:A lot of feedback is from the 'Who do you want to punch?' thing. Because the site is so popular, it attracts people to send me stuff, so that obviously shapes the content a lot. There are quite a few sources I use that I know are credible who I have used before, because I write on my own. The best e-mails I get are when someone says, 'I've spent two hours I disagree with every word' -- great, they've spent two hours reading the issues.
PERRONE: How frequently do you update Urban75?
SLOCOMBE:As and when. The news and events is daily, the 'Slap' nominations about once a week. Articles as they come up. It's about 400 pages -- it's a big Web site. I have skills as a graphic designer to present it in a manner that people want to read it. It's won loads of awards and stuff because it's interesting to look at and easy to download. Initially it was going to be a magazine, but the printing costs made it prohibitive. Not just that -- the second it's printed it is out of date, whereas the Web costs virtually nothing to upkeep. The site is sponsored by Direct Connection. I did their Web site for them. They had to put [Urban75] on a separate server -- it's one of their busiest sites. It's the flip side of having a successful Web site -- I was originally on Demon [a UK Internet Service Provider] but they chucked me off because the traffic was so high.
PERRONE: There's very little multimedia on Urban75. Why not?
SLOCOMBE: The trouble is they're just so heavy. There's actually a video clip sat on my server and it's just too big. There's new video streaming coming through -- Microsoft Netshow is quite good. That makes it a bit better. It's fine if you're on a network powered by a two mg pipe from the States, but if you're just sat [sitting] at home, it's just annoying really. I can't wait for it to speed up because I like video stuff. I've got loads of great footage, it's just too big. I think it's good for me as a designer, the fact that I work from home, I am reminded every minute of the day what it's like to see some fabulous animated gif that weighs 50k -- I just don't do it any more.
PERRONE: Do you use any cookies on Urban75?
SLOCOMBE: Only one, which is on the 'Useless' page and doesn't do anything. I think you make the choice whether you trust the site. In themselves they are not very harmful. The truth is anyone if they wanted to could see where you've been on your computer, I generally don't like them, but I've given up refusing them. I am thinking of sticking an HTML tutorial on my Web site. There's a lot of the HTML purists, they think you should do a page that can be read by everything from Netscape 0.1 upwards. I did a test which tests whether your site can be used by blind people or not. I got three out of five. I'll specify the font face, and it works on every single platform I've tried it on, but they hate it -- but who cares as long as you can read it.
PERRONE: Why is the site lacking a search engine?
SLOCOMBE: I've tried three times to do it and I've failed. I am currently working on one -- I've got this list of things to do. It needs a search engine, definitely, because there's a lot on it. But most of the site is pretty well indexed.
PERRONE: : What is more important, content or style?
SLOCOMBE: : Both go hand in hand. It's presenting in a manner that is interesting to look at. I look at sites that are really well designed and there's nothing in them! Urban75's basically a magazine format but adapted to the Web. There's a lot of things you can't do. Text is hard to read on the Web, go past two screenfuls and you get an eyeful. It's hard to organize, there's a lot of information. The hope is that people look at it, like it, interact with it and take on board an issue or two. It's also a resource. Hopefully it's been up long enough to be trustworthy. One of the nicest things was the Electronic Telegraph sometimes links to my reports, like the last 'Reclaim the Streets' event [an anti-car protest group] which I thought was great. It's nice to get that kind of credibility.
PERRONE: What is your opinion of the mainstream news sites?
SLOCOMBE:They are all right. They have their uses. I mean the way they present the news, obviously a lot of the things that I would view as interesting doesn't get presented, so that's probably why sites like mine exist. What is good about the Web is that nobody knows -- I mean, people assume I'm an organization. I ran a thing called 'Football Fans Against the Criminal Justice Act.' The fact was, it was only ever a 'football fan,' it was me!
PERRONE: What sites do you have bookmarked?
SLOCOMBE: I get asked a lot what sites do I like, and I can't say, not because I am saying mine's so wonderful, but there's so few sites that I can say, 'great, I go there all the time.' There's one called Sound of Print [LINK TO THIS?]. I plugged it in this month's Internet Magazine. It's done by loads of students, the graphics are great. I like the site because it's just pure enthusiasm, and they're really good graphic designers, and that's the content. There's others -- it's all to do with what market you're trying to attract, but if you're trying to attract the casual user to look at your issues, I think you have to put some design in. I see these Web sites, they've brought Frontpage, and they look the same as the next one. It's like advertising, it's very sophisticated. Some of the corporations I work for I think they're starting to realize that it doesn't have to look like a corporate brochure, and the same with a Web site, you can be quite adventurous. People expect it because it's a more informal medium.
PERRONE: Was all the publicity from the 'Slap a Spice Girl' game good for Urban75?
SLOCOMBE: I've never advertised the site as such, and Urban75 had been gaining a lot of popularity -- it won awards, it was site of the day, it was in all the Internet magazines -- before the game went on. At the moment, it has leveled off, it's been regularly about 20-60 thousand every day and it has been that way for about two months. A lot of people are regulars. It's been on Australian TV, American TV, it was in Rolling Stone last month, so you get peaks. That's the thing about Web sites. If they're good, people link to them and it kind of rolls on. To me, Urban75 is like an advert, it draws in attention, it's how I get all my work. All the corporate work I've done is off Urban75.
The site had a hit rate five times more than Snickers, and Snickers was touted as, quote, 'the most successful European Web site.' What I made a conscious decision not to do is, you know, banner advertising. I am losing at least four 400[pounds-NEED SYMBOL] [about $600] a week, minimum, by not having adverts, but I don't like the idea of having adverts. I just think it would spoil the message and it would lose its credibility as a Web site that is totally free, it's full of stuff. Some people just play the games -- they'll go to 'Slap a Spice Girl' and ignore the rest -- the idea is that's the pretty shop front and people look at it. It was made as a political comment, although to most people that comment's probably completely lost. A lot of people look at the drugs section. In America it seems there's not much in the way of good information. I just try to be honest. People want to know what the drugs do.
PERRONE: Is there a point at which publicity can become negative?
SLOCOMBE: The site gets worldwide publicity. The 'Punch Bill Gates' was on the BBC Nine O'clock News a few months ago -- it turns up all over the place. I think it's just there to make a point. I get really blasted about the fact that I get people writing to me from New York, New Zealand, Australia, as a matter of course, but I think it's great for activism because you can link up so much better. For campaigning it's great. ? PERRONE: What are you planning to change?
SLOCOMBE: Structure, graphics. What happens is you have a section and you don't know how big it's going to be, and it grows. The action section is getting bigger and bigger, and when you have a choice that grows to about 15, it's too big. I restructure as it goes, but it's difficult because you just don't know how busy sections get, or don't get. The photography section, I set up five pictures; I had so many e-mails saying they really liked it, I ended up doing a separate section for it. There's a section with short stories, that has grown. It's kind of organic really. The good thing about a Web site is, with a magazine, you have an issue, and you have to start all over again. This stuff just stays up, so it just grows, and you prune the old stuff.
PERRONE: What advice would you give to people who want to produce their own e-zine?
SLOCOMBE: Buy a cheap book on HTML, number one. Top of the pile, because you get stuff like Frontpage, it's fine until you want to do something a bit different, and then it makes it very rigid. HTML isn't that hard -- I'm totally untechnical, I've no background at all, I bought a computer three or four years ago. Within a day you'll be able to do a basic Web site. Then, be inspired by graphics -- don't just look at other Web pages because you end up with a very limited style. Look at magazines, photography -- most of the work I do is photography based. I'm often arguing with fellow designers on this, but if you look in magazines, it's the picture that grabs your eye, and text, but for some reason when people go to Web design, they think 'now what we'll have is a spinny thing in the corner.' I don't understand why photography ceases to be strong in some people's eyes. Keep it simple, put as much of yourself in it and make it as original as possible. Look at design books. And no clip art! It's not like you have to compete with publishing, where you need a budget to produce the magazine. Anyone can do it -- my first Urban75 was around for six months on demon it was done on a tenner [about $15] a month, and it became really popular. You just need a bit of imagination and a cheap computer.
PERRONE: What is going to be the 'next big thing' on the Internet?
SLOCOMBE: It's always content -- if there's good content people will go to it. A lot of the gizmos -- like dynamic HTML -- are all right, but does it make it a better experience because the text is flying around? There are a lot of nerdy techheads -- you can see a nerdy techhead site because it's always got spinny things. I think the Internet will become a lot more integrated, just in terms of what you do -- shopping, commerce.
PERRONE: Does Internet publishing spell the end of print?
SLOCOMBE: No, people like hard copy. Magazines are one of the biggest growing sectors in Britain at the moment. Computers have made magazines cheaper to produce, but I think people like to have paper copy. If I had endless money I'd produce Urban75 as a magazine but then I'd have to employ someone. There's no way I could do it on my own.
PERRONE: Why the name Urban75?
SLOCOMBE: Er... um... well it sounded good and I liked the way it looked when it was written. There's also a slightly dodgier reason that's got something to do with my first girlfriend...and that's all you'll get out of me!