Memories of Automatic-Media.com
Automatic-Media.com was the corporate shell for a small but once thriving network of affiliated content sites, namely Feedmag.com, Suck.com, Alt.Culture, and Plastic.com. The first three had been early Web pioneers; the latter was an experiment in cheap content creation that was a kind of super "pre-Blog" which ran the same CMS (content management system) that powered Slashdot.org. (Some disclosure is perhaps appropriate here: in late 2000, I was placed in charge of one of Plastic.com's external partner sites, netslaves.com, which supplied content to its "Work" Channel.)
Automatic-Media's flagship site, Plastic.com, which channeled and linked content from Automatic's network affiliates, as well as the Web at large, was launched in early 2001 with high hopes that it would soon become "The Slashdot of Culture", i.e. a central gathering place for "culture nerds" in the same way that Slashdot gathered traditional computer nerds. Plastic's revenue model was advertiser-based, which was an unfortunate choice, because it was evident by late 2000 that advertising alone could not pay the freight for most general interest content sites.
Despite gaining rave reviews from high-profile mentions in The New York Times, a sizeable number of participants willing to post topical links and engage in online discussions, and the willingness of its channel partners to work "on spec", Plastic's traffic never reached the critical mass required to either pay external content partners (I worked full-time on the project for several months and never received a penny), much less to pay for all the bandwidth it was using up.
The venture limped along a few months until its $4 million of VC-supplied capital ran out. Carl Steadman, one of the founders of Plastic alongside Suck-alumnus Joey Anuff, took the Plastic.com site over and began paying for it out of his own pocket, and it remains today as a place for users to post links, rate stories, and conduct quasi-Socratic debates on issues of the day.
With 20-20 hindsight, it's clear that Automatic Media could have survived disaster had it broken with the ad-supported model in early 2001. Its collective offerings claimed sufficient mindshare among the so-called "digirati" elite to attract several thousand paying subscribers to its services, which provided status-minded elites a way to ascend its unique hierachical pecking order system, which allowed comments and users to be rated up or down by users.
My bet is that had smart programmers used Slashdot's powerful software to meld discourse, Blog-style linking, "is my argument hot or not"-style intellectual gaming, and the Steadman-Anuff-Steven Johnson personality cult into something interesting, a sizeable, loyal, paying audience of status-minded elitists would likely have been attracted to Plastic by the end of 2001. But there is no evidence that Automatic Media's managers did anything but hope that the ad market would revive before their funds ran out. By June of 2001, the die was cast, the staff was fired, and within two years the novelty of Plastic's software was eclipsed by the rapidly evolving set of Blog-based tools.
Interestingly, Suck.com also remains on the Web, in permanent re-run mode, but Feed.com and Alt.Culture are now just fading memories.
If you have other information, including amplification and/or corrections concerning the history of Automatic-Media.com that you would like to see incorporated into this WebElegy, please send e-mail to Steve Baldwin and I will try to include it as time provides.