May 13, 2003
Cyberbegging: What Works, What Doesn't
Journalists, it has been said, are like starlings on a wire. When one flies off, they all do.
For reasons that remain opaque, in late 2002 and early 2003, a lot of flighty tech journalists began circling a tree we shall call "the online begging tree". Convinced that they had found the latest and greatest Net trend, they landed in this tree, producing several high-profile stories that appeared in Wired News, the Associated Press, CNN, and elsewhere. "Cyberbegging", as these journalists called it, was all the rage.
These stories were chocked with links to sites such as savekaryn.com, helpmeleavemyhusband.com, savebuster.com, and hundreds of imitators that sprang out of the woodwork in a matter of days. Yahoo even added a new category dubbed "e-panhandling" to accomodate this new wave of home-grown, pity-driven e-commerce.
What has happened to these sites in the intervening months? Have people gotten enough money so that they will now shut up and move on? Or have they simply dried up, now that the journalistic starlings have moved on, as starlings always do?
An initial report, conducted in my own late-night, somewhat ad-hoc, somewhat pissed-off style, follows.
First off, it's intriguing to me that the proprietress of www.SaveKaryn.com - the mother of all cyber-begging sites, reports that she has signed a book deal with Harper Collins. Without knowing whether the advance is five, six, or seven figures, it's probably enough to cause anyone who really needs money to shut up and go away for a long long time. Frankly, I don't think this woman is much of a writer (but that's hardly an impediment these days). But of all the cyberbegging sites, she seems to be the one who made it - big. And it's important to ask, beyond citing her first-mover advantage, why?
Okay, I'll put any incipient envy or disgust behind me here and spit out the truth: SaveKaryn.com does a very good job of making clear that its proprietress does know how to run a web site. She canned her old (really ugly) design awhile back (but preserves it for posterity), put a new one in place (only slightly less ugly), but more importantly, she runs a daily journal, posts advice for the debt-ridden, and, like it or not, does everything she can to introduce strangers into her peculiar world. It works.
Why? Because it provides value. Maybe not for you, or for me. But for the people who she is targeting. And that's really the only thing that matters when you're doing this kind of work.
Over at www.sexysinglestrugglingmomneedsyou.com, the situation appears far grimmer. The proprietress of this site hasn't updated her site since Novemeber 2002, and has apparently not yet sold her own book on cyberdating. She does offer a lot of information on issues which may or may not be important to people who come over, but it's not really foccused. In fact, becasue most of this information is related to cyberdating, not the issues of poverty, debt, or fund-raising, many readers will simply conclude that she's trying to raise money to publish her own book, a noble, if non-donation-worthy pursuit.
At www.helpmeleavemyhusband.com, the situation is no less murky. Although the proprietress was reported to have raised $2,000 in early news reports, it is not clear whether she has raised the remaining $10,000 required for her to actually leave her spouse. She does promise to update her page "at the end of the quarter", but which quarter? Q1? Q2? Q4? Frankly, I would not give this woman any money unless she was a lot more reliable in terms of reporting what she's getting.
Worse, there is absolutely no content relating to herself, her husband, how women can leave their husbands, why it costs her so much, or anything else. This woman has a fascinating story (perhaps) that could probably be turned into a movie of the week. And yet we know nothing about her - zero.
www.helpjennifer.com, on the other hand, does what I think a proper cyber-begging site should be doing: providing a more or less realtime update of the money that's coming in, flowing out, etc. She suffers from Lyme disease, and has been thoughtful enough to post links and other information related to this malady. At the very least, people can get a view of the human being that they're trying to help, and see that she is conscientious - at least about updating her page.
By the same token, we can readily see that the proprietress of www.SaveElaine.com has gone completely AWOL, hasn't even touched her page since January, and may have even found a job without telling us a thing about it. Also AWOL is the guy who ran www.dollardonations.com (last updated in August 2002). And so is the guy who runs www.helpoutbrian.com; his last updates were in late March. For a guy who got his mug plastered all over CNN.com, as well as getting his site featured in all the big stories on cyberbegging, he's blowing it big time (this guy wants to be a paramedic? Well, seconds count a lot in that game, don't they?). Perhaps he'll improve his reliability - if not, well, he won't be soon seeing any money from me.
No quick survey of online begging sites can, unfortunately, escape the case of www.helpjacqui.com, a site maintained by a woman who was massively disfigured in a drunken-driving accident. The facial injuries suffered by this once-attractive woman are so horrifyingly nightmarish that one is shocked, after clicking through a few innocent looking pages, to confront her tortured visage.
It cannot fairly be said that this woman does not deserve all the help that she can get. But it is also clearly evident to me that this web site has been designed to shock and horrify the casual web-surfer into giving, and this, at least in my opinion, is a major mistake that is more than likely to drive off people who might otherwise give anything to help her.
What is one to make of this quick snapshot of a few sites which, briefly and spectacularly, occupied the minds of so many tech writers in the late 2002-early 2002 period? I would offer the following:
If you are serious about taking donations for your personal project on the Web, you must provide something of value in return. This, at the very least, means that you can provide reasonable assurances to your donees that you will stick around for the foreseeable future (several sites, such as myfirstfilm.com, have actually disappeared, which is in my opinion, inexcusable).
You must also provide, at the very least, a weekly update of what you're taking in and what you're spending (and certain sites, such as savejennifer.com, do this reasonably well). Diary entries that are updated more frequently, perhaps day to day, but certainly once every week, will create the impression that you care (and why in the hell should donors care if it seems that you don't?)
Finally, take a look at savekaryn.com's "Other Broke Folks" page (www.savekaryn.com/OtherBrokeFolks.htm). These are sites that she personally feels strongly about to recommend to other people. The point is that if you want people to help you out, and they are helping you out, why not help out others who you've spent some time checking out?
Lastly, about those circling starling journalists. They not be back anytime soon, but they will be back, maybe as soon as September, when Karyn's book hits the stands, but maybe much later, when, one hopes some of these people - the real ones - have gotten back on their feet. And, sadly, if the U.S. economy continues its downward slide, they'll be fully justified in reviving this story - reporters are always looking for a good human interest story combining tragedy, hope, and the possibility of redemption. When these peculiar, clawed, crowing scribes alight on your page, you've got to be ready, or you'll look not like a beggar, but like a thief, which is the last thing you need.
That is all, good, broken, suffering, pity-proffering citizens of the World. Now let's fire up our FTP clients, our PayPal buttons, and our bonafide tales of woe and make some goddamned cash!
You're on the web a lot. You've seen many a dead site. You've forgotten our email address... and you don't feel like coming back here to get it.
What do you do?
The Ghost-o-Meter opens a small, movable window... if you've found a Ghost Site, fill in the blanks, fire it off, and go back to foolin' around. Its that easy.
You can also use this form:
What the ??!
Well, this is all very interesting, but what the heck is Ghost Sites anyway? Why devote a live site to Dead Sites?
If you're interested in this Ghost Sites thing, it is a project that I began in the summer of 1996 while I was working for Time-Warner's Pathfinder. Late in the evening of July 4th, while piloting a small craft across Long Island Sound, I had what only can be described as an epiphany.
From out of the depths came a cruel vision of the World Wide Web. It wasn't a friendly place - an innocent place of community, commerce and chat. It was a great and utterly pitiless electronic ocean that swallowed up sites, careers, and venture capital like a ravenous killer whale. Great sites - sites like Mecklerweb and iGuide - were going down with all hands. Great fortunes were collapsing and proud content sites lay wrecked on the bottom. No one seemed to care. The future was a vast abyss - who would record these days of New Media folly, disaster and despair?
Back on shore, but still haunted by this vision, I launched Ghost Sites as a modest attempt to document the great disappearing fleet of web sites sinking beneath the waves. This project briefly made me spectacularly famous, and then I was quickly, and completely forgotten.
By March of 1997, Ghost Sites had succumbed to the same deadly entropy that had settled over the Internet, and became a crewless wreck itself. For six cruel months, it drifted like a despised garbage barge, broke its keel in a summer squall, and finally washed up on Geocities.
On an icy November morning, Morbus boarded the wreck, inspected the damage, and offered the captain a safe harbor. The bilge pump was started, and the squealing, rusty hull lifted off the sands again. It soon arrived here - in the dark, unquiet waters of Disobey.Com.
If you have a favorite rotting site that you'd like to mention, email me at Steve_Baldwin@hotmail.com.
Ghost Sites has appeared in a number of places including Time Magazine, ZDNet, The Netly News and more. For a list of all those we know of, as well as links to online counterparts, click here. You can also take a look at the limited edition t-shirt we once offered.