USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

When Automatic's Teller Ran Dry
Part One: The rise and fall of

Part One of OJR's look at the rise and fall of Part Two is called 'Plastic is All I Do.'

It was unbeatable. The royal flush of Web content sites. Feed. Suck. Alt.Culture. Web content visionaries Steven Johnson and Joey Anuff, working together. Legend-makers of the Web, packaged and commodified in a Plastic wrapping. And then there were the affiliate sites. Spin, Inside (remember Inside?), Nerve, TeeVee, NetSlaves, Modern Humorist, Movieline, and even The New Republic. Nerve and The New Republic! Together!, the realization and amalgamation of all that was good about the World Wide Web.

What a concept! What a team! What a corps!

And yet today, just days after Plastic celebrated its 365th day in existence. Today, there's just Carl. Carl, who was never really a part of Automatic Media, has become Plastic's sole proprietor.

Gone are the affiliates. Gone are Feed and Suck. Gone are Steven Johnson and John Aboud and Joey Anuff. Gone are the 'Web's smartest editors.' Gone are the latter trappings of Plastic -- a wounded and limping thing that loaded with all the speed of a cheddar log making its way through Strom Thurmond-the paypal beg boxes and the Karma contests. Gone, is Automatic Media's old office in New York. Once the uber-hub of uber-cool uberuberistic media hyperbole, it's now a Pilates studio.


Instead, there's Carl. And Carl -- yes, that Carl -- spends his days alone in a server room in Berkeley, working.

Part I: Swimming Pools and Movie Stars

Plastic began life as a 'live collaboration between the Web's smartest readers and the Web's smartest editors, a place to suggest and discuss the most worthwhile news, opinions, rumors, humor, and anecdotes online.' In most respects, it was no different than any other community Web log. It even ran on Slashcode.

But the second half of that live collaboration, the premise as promise, set Plastic apart. Stories wouldn't merely be posted by users, they would be selected by the best editors to be found across the whole of the World Wide Whatever. Billions of billions of bytes distilled down to manageable KB chunks by a handful of affiliated editors, the smartest editors of them all. In return, the smartest editors would get a cut of Plastic's advertising revenue, traffic, and Plastic's interactive discussion forum. And this, along with the Automatic Media pedigree and Joey Anuff as editor-in-chief, allowed Plastic to launch with considerable buzz.

News of the site's launch appeared in The New York Times (repeatedly). 'The eyeball has only one word to say about this....just one word... whythehelldidthistakesolongtofigureout?,' gushed Min's New Media Report's 'Roving Eyeball.' And Web mavens from sea to shining sea generally agreed.

But the most telling blurb came from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 'How the site will make money from people just talking about stories they've read is another issue,' wrote Frances Katz. 'But the hallmark of parent company Automatic Media is keeping costs down.'

True enough. Suck and Feed both came from the school of econo publishing. But the problem is that even if you keep costs low, they're still costs. You've got to have money coming in to cover those costs. And in 2001, that just wasn't happening. So neither Automatic Media, nor any of Plastic's affiliate sites, saw any money from the venture. Plastic was too damn late.

'We were promised a cut of the ad revenues from our TV section; however, that was only after Plastic made money, which it never did, so we never saw a cent,' says Jason Snell, editor of Plastic affiliate site TeeVee. 'Nor did we really gain much traffic from being on Plastic. Our hopes were that it would boost our profile, which I suppose it did, but in the end it wasn't by much.'

Steve Baldwin made similar comments about Plastic in a June 9 article on the demise of Automatic Media. 'It failed badly,' wrote Baldwin. ' didn't get any real traffic, Our content mix didn't jibe too well with Plastic's post-graduate brand of uber-ironism. Plastic didn't sell any ads beyond a few house banners - they tried but, well, as we were told 'you boys know how bad the market is.''

'Unfortunately we, like just about everybody else selling ads online including our partner sites, weren't selling any ads,' says Anuff. 'So [affiliate sites] got all the promotion and the branding and linking. The one thing they didn't get was any money. We didn't get any money either. There wasn't money coming in.'

'I strongly believe that Plastic's affiliate system -- in which the partner sites had access to Plastic's discussion technology, as well as an additional distribution channel for their content -- did benefit everyone involved,' says Tom Dowe, Plastic's former managing editor, via email. 'Although I understand that there were tensions that persisted throughout the life of some of those partner relationships. I feel badly that we weren't able to do more for our partners than we did -- most of them were very patient and nice to work with.'

But that warm snuggly feeling wasn't shared across the board. 'What we learned from that adventure,' wrote NetSlaves' Steve Gilliard, 'which hurt us a great deal financially, is that we shouldn't trust slimy, lying ... like Joey Anuff.' Gilliard also lays the blame for poor ad sales directly at Anuff's feet. 'But Joey not only was boss of an ad sales team which couldn't sell a single ad in months, he was never honest about this gross failure.' (This was not the first time Gilliard had taken shots at Anuff over Plastic.)

'When have you ever heard of an editor selling any ads? It's bizarre that he would pick me as the villain, not that he should be picking any villain,' says Anuff, who says he has made a point to never before publicly respond to Gilliard's comments. 'But if he were picking a villain it shouldn't be somebody on editorial. There were ad sales people, there were business development people. I didn't negotiate any contracts with him and I certainly wasn't on the phone selling ads. I didn't have anything to do with them. I think it's not so much that I was the one he was dealing with so much as I was the one he wasn't dealing with.'

And as to which stories were picked for the front page (full disclosure: I myself have made snarky comments as to what did, or did not show up on the front page), Anuff says those were merely determined by the stories that were generating the most discussion and interest. 'Whatever was generating any kind of heat,' says Anuff, 'I just put it on the front door.'

'As managing editor and one of the primary liaisons with the affiliates,' says Dowe, 'it was a useful lesson for me about the difficulties inherent in trying to create the appearance of a unified editorial sensibility when, in fact, there were always 11 different editorial sensibilities (including Plastic's) jockeying for attention.'

But editorial sensibilities aside, as it is with everything else, Plastic's fate was ultimately all about the Benjamins. On the eve of winning a Webby, Plastic, by way of Automatic Media, ran out of cash.

'At the time [Automatic Media] ran out of money, all the dot-coms were running out of money. It was just impossible to either sell any ads or raise any money,' says Anuff. 'It got to the point in our fundraising round that we just didn't have enough money to go on.'

Part II: Bologna, Cheez Whiz, and Bailing Wire

'It didn't mean that any of us had given up on Plastic. Plastic was both a cool site to have built and a fun site to participate in,' says Anuff. 'Even though we ran out of money and I was laid off, I kept working on it, and Tom kept working on it as long as he could. I spent four months or so working on the site for free. Because I knew eventually we'd take over the site.'

'Not one person inside the company, to my knowledge, even thought about looking for a new job until the doors closed,' says Dowe. 'Even some of the people who were laid off kept coming in for days, if not weeks, after they stopped getting paid. Joey, Jon Phelps, Freyja Balmer, Michael Kolbrener, and several other people (including me) kept showing up at the office literally until the day the landlord kicked us out. This may be typical for Internet startups, I don't know, but it made a big impression on me. People didn't want to stop working on Plastic.'

Meanwhile, Plastic was quietly ending its relationship with the affiliate sites, and finding a new group of the Web's smartest editors, Plastic users themselves. Those with the highest Karma were assigned to pick stories from Plastic's submission queue and post them to various sections, while Anuff still chose the stories for the front page. Although user-editors were assigned before Automatic Media went ka-plooey, Plastic was suddenly in the position of relying on them almost exclusively.

It was relying on users another way too. Despite snide headlines such as 'Begging as Business Model,' Paypal boxes encouraged users to donate money to the troubled site, which was becoming more and more troubled by the day. Technical problems abounded. From a 'constipated,' submission queue, to interminably long load times, to periodic outages, Plastic spent much of the late Summer and Fall limping along like a half dead horse that needs to be put down.

And while all that was going on Automatic Media was trying to find a buyer. There were offers on the table to buy Plastic for $30,000, but Anuff wanted to try and put together a deal with his old friend Carl Steadman, who he had already worked with once when the two of them created a little site called Suck.

'We tried to figure out some way to figure out to get a buyer for the site. At one point Lee deBoer, our CEO was interested in purchasing it. But I started talking with Carl, and Carl said that he thought that he could raise the money through some of the ex-Wired people to buy the site, and we could take over the site,' says Anuff. 'So that was the plan and I really wanted to work with Carl.'

But that's not the way things worked out. Instead, Steadman put up $40,000 of his own money to buy the site, plus several thousand more in operating expenses. And so on November 2, 2001, became the property of one Mr. Carl Steadman.

Next week -- Part Two, 'Plastic is All I Do.'

Updated: January 25, 2002