Hitting the Spot

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S1: Hey, this is Josh Levin, the host of one year, I hope you’re enjoying our season on 1995. This week, I’m turning things over to one year’s producer, Evan Chung. When Paul Mousseau first logged on to the internet at the very beginning of the 1990s, he didn’t find it all that exciting. There really wasn’t much anything. I mean, basically there were bulletin boards. You know, there were forums, there was information. There was news services. Very, very basic, though. I mean, it was just all more tech related and nerd stuff. Paul was working for the software company Lotus. If you weren’t a tech geek like he was, chances are that you’d never heard of the internet, let alone used it. They would text only non graphical interfaces. Basically, you had to sort of keep a little notebook that had IP addresses. I mean, it was that simple back in those days. But in 1995, everything was changing, the internet was becoming more accessible thanks to something called the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is

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S2: the fastest growing segment of the internet. But most importantly, it is the most fun.

S1: The web was simple to navigate with the arrival of search engines. Type in the topic and click on search.

S3: Oh, cool, everything I need is right here,

S1: and the web was graphical thanks to the slick new Netscape Navigator browser.

S3: Programs like it are the future of the internet.

S1: But then, you know, we had gotten to use URLs, so it was a little bit easier to interact and it was becoming a little bit more social. The internautes of 1995 saw limitless potential to transform the planet.

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S3: Imagine a world where every word ever written, every picture of a painting, every film ever shot could be viewed instantly in your home for an information superhighway. That’s remarkable. Having the internet around is going to be very useful.

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S1: But there were some skeptics you say in the future,

S4: everyone’s going to be Wired and we’ll all have to know

S1: computers. OK, come on. That’s the astronomer Clifford Stoll. In February 1995, he published an article in Newsweek with the headline The Internet Far. But like it or not, the internet was doubling in size every 53 days, according to one estimate by the summer of 1995. Everybody had heard of it, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

S3: What do you say? You internet out anyway? The internet is that massive computer network, the one that’s becoming really big now.

S1: What do you mean? That’s how does one get? What do you write to it like mail? It all seemed to have happened overnight. It was the summer of 95, when an online bookstore called Amazon Open for Business. When people started listing their stuff for sale on auction web soon to be renamed eBay. When Wired profiled a radical new experiment in cyber love called Match.com, and when multiplexes were showing cyber thrillers like The Net and hackers hyped up blood and hyped up their shopping cart. And it was that June when Paul Camacho discovered the website that would change his life. He found out about it from somebody on a message board, some random girl named Tara Hartwick, who was basically posting saying, Hey, my friends and I thought of a really cool idea. We’re a group of roommates and we’re going to put our lives online. Tara Hardwick’s website didn’t exist yet. She said it was going to be called the spot, and she was explaining a little bit of like how the setup was going to happen. We’re going to do diary entries and we all live in Santa Monica at this beach house, so come join us as we launch on June 6th, 1995. When that day arrived, he pointed his browser to www.youtube.com. I clicked it and it opened up, and it said, Come on in. So I clicked the come on button and I got to the diary page. The first thing he saw was a photo of Tara Hartwick published hours earlier. She was blonde in her early 20s and next to her picture. There was a welcome message

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S3: then that gives us all an opportunity for self-expression in the most candid and provocative way, with a potential audience of 20 million and counting and a captive audience as long as we don’t disappoint. So I hope you guys out there will hang with us regularly at the spot. Share in the unpredictable wackiness that this place brings out in all of us

S1: at the top of the page. She’d written something in bold.

S3: No box is big enough to contain our imaginations,

S1: and I thought that was the coolest comment ever. And I was hooked. That’s all it took, it took that one post to hook me. Paul wasn’t alone. The spot would go viral before the phrase going viral had even been invented. Reporters jockeyed for invites to Tara’s house, and as the internet exploded, corporations saw the spot as a template for making billions. All this despite the fact that Tara, her roommates, her house. None of them existed. It felt real. That’s really all that there was to it.

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S4: I mean, we were frickin we were hot as hell because there was nobody like us.

S2: What we did was a big deal. We changed the world.

S1: On this week’s episode, how an online soap opera revealed the power of the internet as a venue for creative expression and as a tool for destruction. This is one year, 1995. Hitting the spot. OK. The website that hooked Parker Mousseau was not invented by a blonde woman in her early 20s.

S4: This is Scott Zucker and I am the creator and producer of this spot.

S1: Scott had been making movies since he bought a camcorder with his bar mitzvah money in 1995. He was in his early 30s, living in Los Angeles, and he felt he was just one big idea away from stardom.

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S4: I knew it was coming. You know, I was hoping that if I did something cool, how he would notice. And then next thing you know, I was directing big movies.

S1: He’d actually written and directed a movie, already a self-financed thriller. But distributors weren’t interested. So he took a job at the Playboy Channel.

S4: I became the director of On Air Promotions, which meant How do you sell wet and wild six different than what Mile seven?

S1: That promotional work led him to his next job at an advertising agency. It was called for talent Collins, and it had an office overlooking the ocean in Marina del Rey. But Scott was tucked away in a back corner, far from the view. He was making radio spots and sales reels for Gold’s Gym and thrifty Payless drug stores. They weren’t the big Hollywood flicks he dreamed about, but Scott put everything into his work.

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S3: Scott is a giant kid. He was fun and he had so many ideas and he just loved to brainstorm and spitball and play with.

S1: What if Laurie Shier’s was Scott’s assistant on the ad agency’s production team?

S3: Scott is the visionary, for sure. He he always had the biggest dreams, and his enthusiasm was really infectious.

S1: Scott’s team was a small, tight knit group, and none of them really wanted to work in the advertising business.

S2: Oh no, no. That job was always a means to an end.

S1: A lot. Nick was a producer on the team.

S2: That job was about giving us time to write screenplays, making connections so we could eventually make our own movies and things like that.

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S1: Scott and his crew looked for inspiration wherever they could find it. One day it came from something on Troy’s computer.

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S2: I started playing a game called Myst.

S1: Missed was a CD-ROM puzzle game set on a mysterious 3D island with

S2: amazingly beautiful graphics and imagery and really immersive sound. Yes.

S1: Scott was instantly captivated,

S4: you get caught, you get caught in this environment. Following the story drags you to the next thing and you’re always looking for what’s the next clue as really fascinating.

S1: The world building and the interactivity of mist excited Scott. But that was nothing compared to the next thing Troy showed him.

S3: We were just in our little office and Scott was standing over Troy’s shoulder.

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S2: You know, I was messing around on something called I.R.S. Internet Relay Chat. They were just chat rooms, endless, endless chat rooms. I showed it to Scott and he lost his mind. He was just he. I remember him getting mad at me for not telling him this existed before. Like, why didn’t you tell me this was here?

S4: I spent a lot of time in those chat rooms. People love to talk about themselves. So I listen. I’ve always been a good listener. The most important thing for me is press a button, see how they interact.

S1: Scott quickly figured out that he’d get a better response if he didn’t interact as himself.

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S4: Literally, there were no women in there. And because, you know, men like to talk to women. That gave me an opportunity to become women.

S1: He invented male personas, too. But whenever he pretended to be a woman, the people in the chat rooms with light up.

S4: A matter of fact. One of them changed the title to the chat room that said, There’s a girl in here. I started to create a character called Tara Hartwick, who is a 23 year old film student, and she idolized Martin Scorsese. And, you know, basically try to do the best I could to to capture that voice.

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S1: I mean, did you ever feel a little bit weird that you were, you know, pretending to be a woman when you weren’t? No, you know,

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S4: I didn’t, honestly.

S3: Yes, it was weird. It was. It was weird. It wasn’t creepy. Weird. It was kind of like research for a film or something.

S1: Scott believed that all of these people hanging out in chat rooms were itching for something to do, something to entertain them, and there wasn’t anything like that online.

S4: The Erin that was right there, there’s an audience right there, there’s an international audience right there. This is such a cool storytelling device. I thought, OK, what can we do that uses the internet for what it is?

S1: There had to be some way to harness the collaborative spirit of the internet to build something immersive like Myst. He just had to figure out what that would look like. One night in early 1995, Scott went to bed after a long evening online.

S4: I was so obsessed with the chat rooms. I actually started to dream about these people living in a house.

S1: He woke up repeatedly each time, scribbling notes about his chat room, characters inhabiting a space together, and the next day he brought that paper with him to work.

S3: And he said, I have this idea come in and there’s so there’s a huge white conference table that takes up almost the whole room with all the chairs around it. And Scott said, I had this crazy dream.

S4: I go, I have this idea to tell a story in ways that nobody is told before.

S3: I think what Scott already had was that it was a house in Santa Monica, and he starts saying, You know what, if we could actually make this real?

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S1: They could make something that no one had tried yet. An episodic show on the web. It would be about the relationships between these 20 in a beach house, a kind of mashup of friends, Melrose Place and the real world. Some of the hottest shows on television and the house would have a name, which would also be the name of the website, one that Scott hoped would be prophetic.

S4: It was let’s have the spot on the internet. That’s where they’re going to come to the spot.

S3: We all kind of went, Yeah, it just it just captured our imagination. Yeah, let’s play.

S1: The whole production team was on board, Scott Laurie Troy and a video editor named Rich Hackenberg. But there was a lot to figure out.

S2: I think we immediately started talking about the technology of it and how we were going to do it.

S1: The spot couldn’t be a TV show in the traditional sense because it was pretty much impossible to put video on the web. On the dial up modems of 1995. It could take hours to download a 30 second movie file. But Scott had an idea.

S4: So I’m like, OK, so we have these different characters. Everybody has a diary.

S1: They would write what today we call blog posts. In a sense, the spot would be more like a serialized novel. But in the eyes of its creators, it was a show, and the diary entries were the episodes, and actors would pose for photos to accompany the writing.

S3: Once we kind of got that, it was a still image and a journal entry that became real. And Scott said, What if you, Laurie, were the main character?

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S1: Laurie would become Tara Hartwick, the persona Scott had created in the chat rooms in the world of the show. The website was Tara’s experimental art project. They laid it all out in Tara’s first diary entry, which I asked Laurie to read.

S3: I’m Tara Hartwig, a 23 year old graduate film student trying to make it as a director, and I know I’ve got talent and a point of view, and I see no reason to hold back just because of the lack of funds to produce my celluloid dreams. And furthermore, I like collaborating and my housemates are mostly into being involved. So this is our story.

S1: They call themselves the spot mates. They each write about the goings on in their house. But Tara had one big rule for her friends and

S3: just to make things interesting, we’ve agreed not to read each other’s pages.

S4: The thing that turned me on the most was the ability to hear these stories from the different characters point of views.

S1: There was Tara’s roommate, Lorne, a clownish, somewhat misogynistic aspiring actor. Then there was Michelle, a beautiful model who was smarter than everyone assumed. Kerry was a mousy bookstore employee. Jeff was the sullen and aloof owner of the house they all lived in, and the team decided the spot would have a dog.

S4: And Troy then said, What if he was Sputnik because he was the first dog in Cyberspace?

S1: The team went to work making the spot real, mapping out plot lines, coordinating photoshoots, hiring web developers. Scott’s boss, the owner of the advertising agency, was excited by the project. He gave his blessing to use company resources and even put in some seed money.

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S4: You know, when he said to me, I want to put this in the agency? That was the flash point. I would have otherwise.

S1: Scott’s boss hooked him up with a publicist who she reached out to internet cafes, a new type of business where you could pop in to buy a drink and surf the net. And she had flyers distributed outside screenings of the cyberpunk movie Johnny Mnemonic. The year is 2021. It is no longer safe to transmit information. The Spot creative team did its marketing online.

S3: We would go into these chat rooms and we’d say things like, Hey, have you heard about this thing called the spot? And hey, did you hear that they’re having a party at the spot? And all of a sudden people were talking about the spot.

S1: It was June 5th, 1995, the night before the launch, the team did one final promotional tour around the chat rooms. Then it was time to leave the office.

S4: Everybody was like, OK, let’s go. We’ll see what happens on the spot. I could not deal with it.

S1: Scott never went home. He spent the whole night in chat rooms, sharing the link and typing out the same three word message hit the spot. After all that work, none of them knew what was going to happen the next morning.

S3: I mean, we hoped it would be interesting to people, but we had no idea. We had no idea.

S1: Harry Zinke worked in a technology lab for Disney Studios in Los Angeles in June 1995. He was hanging around the office, surfing the web, and there was a site out there called like cool site of the day or something like that. And so us nerds were pretty much always glued to that every day. And one day the spot sitcom was featured on the cool side of the day, I click on the link, which took me to their front page. Oh, it’s like a bunch of kids there in a beach house, and I just started exploring on the front page. Enclosed in a circle was a photo of a house, a couple of stories tall with a roof deck and a veranda. Harry found photos of the residence. Three women, two men, all beautiful. Each photo led him to a diary entry posted earlier that day with every click. Harry discovered something exciting and you go, Wait, what was there before and what’s the next thing? And and before you know it, it’s like six hours later and you haven’t actually done any work. Michelle wrote about getting creepy phone calls from an ex-boyfriend, Lon confessed, to knocking over Madonna’s water glass. Kerry talked about being sexually harassed by her boss and after a wild party at the spot on June 10th, Tara revealed that she’d made a pass at her film professor.

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S3: It was freaky, but the smell of vomit in the air actually worked on me like an aphrodisiac. I sensed the moment and I went with it. I tried to kiss Professor Alex Samuels, and that’s when he hit me with it. He’s happily married, sucks.

S1: And so it was exciting, and it sucked a lot of us in at the lab. So it wasn’t just me, but it was like a whole bunch of people that became daily readers at that point. New posts from the spot mates would go live seven days a week sometime around midnight. Tara might write a poem or upload an extremely brief video.

S3: Hi, this is my very own, very short film about love, Carrie. Tell everybody out there about your first experience of love. Oh, I don’t think I can tell everyone about that.

S1: The idea that I could watch a soap opera in real time online. That was amazing. That was the most amazing thing in the whole world at the time. Pulka Mousseau found the spot hours after it launched. Dialing into the net and catching up with the spot mates became his evening routine, even though he was being charged by the minute to go online. I would be online like sometimes a couple hours a night, and the bills would come quarterly, so I would get literally a Manila envelope that was like this thick with every single call I made for the spot. So I was paying at the time like 4400 dollars over a three month period to connect to an internet site. I’m a little obsessive, maybe, and it was worth it for me. In my mind, it was worth it. Scott Zagorin had no idea how many people would get lured in by the spot. A survey published in the fall of 1995 said that only three percent of Americans had ever logged on to the web.

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S4: I remember I went in and said, Hey, you know, if we get like 5000 views on this first day, we know we got something.

S1: They actually got 15000 hits. The next day there were 55000.

S4: And at that point, it was giddy excitement.

S2: That’s when we started looking at each other and going, Oh my gosh, this is going to be enormous.

S1: Visitors to the spot weren’t just reading diary entries, they could also interact directly with the spot mates.

S3: So with each post, with each journal entry, we would kind of ask a question or invite the audience to email us and we’d email them back. So in character, Ian character? Yeah, oh yeah. In character.

S1: Like, we would

S2: schedule chats where the spot mates lived in the house would be online within context of the stories. I had this big problem. Should I tell so-and-so about this or should I not? Can you guys talk to me at four o’clock and help me with my issue?

S3: There was at one point there were so many emails coming in and I couldn’t do them within business hours. So I remember doing something so crazy and it was it was printing out all of the emails that were sent to Tara Hartwick and putting them in a binder and taking them home on the weekend and then handwriting my responses as Tara. And then later going back to the office and typing in the emails

S1: for spot Fans. The center of all this connection was the site’s message board. It really catapulted interactivity into the stratosphere. It allowed all these Fans now to interact with each other. We’re not alone. I’m not the one guy who loves the spot. There’s like 40, 60, 100 more people out there that are liking it and there are talking about it. On the spot board, Harry and Paul voiced their concerns about the choices the spot mates were making, and the spot mates responded. And that’s something televised entertainment never had. I mean, literally, you could. You could start a rant about one of the characters making a mistake as she’s going on a date with the stalker guy. And then she would come back and she would go such and such was so right about this. And you know, you felt you were a little bit part of that character’s conversation and life. It’s sort of like somebody who’s famous. They’re on the internet and they mention me, Oh my God, I’m being a Techie that I was, you know, I go, Wow, I’ve got a pretty girl to like, say, Hey, you know? And at this point, you understand these to be real people. Yes. The spot creators played coy, not giving any indication that the spot mates were fictional characters.

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S3: I think Scott wanted to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

S4: We thought that eventually people would figure it out. So I would say that the idea was, let’s make it real for as long as we can.

S1: Not everyone on the message board was buying it with, you know, some people just going like, Dude, it’s all scripted. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I was on that side of the people of like, No, it could be real. What made it seem plausible to you that they could be real? Well, it all felt, well, very gritty. It didn’t feel like a slick production, so it made sense. It was good world building. And you know, and one of the first videos that they did was Tara on the Beach. And she said, If I wasn’t real, could I do this? And she twirls on the beach, and that was it. I think it’s like ten seconds. It took forever to download.

S3: They did not really understand that we were making up a show because nothing like this had ever been done before. And so when we said that there was a party in Santa Monica at the spot, you know, people were wanting to find the address.

S1: And so Harry Zink lived in L.A. and he knew the surefire way to prove to spot mates existed was to track them down and knock on their door. So I spent a weekend literally driving up and down Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach Park in the car, getting out, looking for the beach house, right? And I would find houses that had parts of it where I’m like, Oh, this is, oh no, it’s got a different roof. And Oh, this looks like the veranda off. No, no, it’s different. He never found the house because it didn’t exist. The image on the site was a camera of a bunch of different beach homes. The debate over whether the spot was real reached its climax on July 15th, 1995. One fan challenged the model character, Michelle, to prove that her diary entries weren’t scripted ahead of time. It goes like, Well, if it’s real, take a picture standing in a bikini in front of a refrigerator, holding up a strawberry and just a couple of hours later on Michelle’s diary entry. It was a picture of her in a yellow bikini, holding the strawberry in front of the refrigerator, calling out the poster who made that challenge with wore to the effect like eat your heart out, such and such. At that point, I was like, Oh wow, this is cool. The photos on the site were taken weeks in advance. Typically, the actors were only around sporadically for shoots. It was a stroke of luck that they happened to be on set the day that challenge was posted

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S3: and we scrambled to get Kristen Herold, the actress and fries in front of a refrigerator in a bikini holding a strawberry. They loved that they went crazy, that all of a sudden they actually could influence the storyline, and that’s part of what made the spot special.

S4: We would put out a hoop for the audience to jump through, and it turned out they would give us the whoop back. I mean, the audience was so powerful.

S1: The actors who played the spot mates didn’t do any of the writing on the site. The woman with the bikini and strawberry, her diary entries were written by Troy.

S2: I wrote the character of Michelle, who was beautiful. She was played by an actress who had previously, I think, been in Playboy, and I tried to write her against type and make her very thoughtful and pensive and, you know, sort of deep.

S1: Laurie Shires was an exception. She was both an actor and a writer. She gave Tara Hartwick a face and a voice, drawing inspiration from her own life

S3: in the spot where she had planned to have Tara take this trip to Paris and meet a boy and two years prior. I had been to Paris and had this intense thing with the boy. Home was a little two room cottage near Le Clos de la kontra Scarborough. We had a view of all the clotheslines in the area and the very tip of Notre Dame. I closed my eyes as he kissed me and said over and over. Welcome back, Moshiri. It was really creatively fulfilling to use all these pieces of my life in a new way. I loved it.

S1: The storylines were not always so true to life. The spot horse appeared to be haunted. Its original owner had been murdered in the bathtub by his spurned lover, a clown. Naturally, seances were held, but hey guys. The goal of the spot had been to get noticed, and that happened very quickly

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S2: because it was right at this time where. The media, the mainstream media was starting to become aware of the Web, and so they got wind of it, and that was it.

S4: And it was just it was so exciting. I mean, we were being called by everybody.

S1: It’s called the spot, and it’s the first interactive episodic series on the world wide system of connected computers known as the internet. The spot was a whole new art form. It was called a Web Exotic, a Cybersoaps, a sitcom, the spot one of the very first Webby Award. And already there were copycats, including a parody set in a Missouri trailer park called The Squat. The site wasn’t generating any revenue at this point, but it seemed like that could change. NBC approached them about some kind of internet TV hybrid. Microsoft and AOL saw the potential to. They began developing their own online entertainment divisions, a merger of the Silicon Valley and showbiz worlds that became known as Silkwood, and nothing was generating more buzz than the spot.

S2: I remember it happened so fast,

S3: and all of a sudden, yeah, that idea that maybe we could be the next big thing was crossing everybody’s mind about Melrose. There’s a new spot in town.

S1: It was becoming impossible to sustain the ruse that the spot was real. Now that CNN and extra, we’re doing features on the site. Creator Scott Zagorin believes his show offers Fans something prime time TV programs can’t the chance to read whatever stories they want and a talk by computer with their favorite characters through electronic messages known as e-mail. Online sleuthing had uncovered the site’s connection to the ad agency for Talon Collins. The fact that spot Nick the dog was writing emails might have been a giveaway to Fans like Polka Musso and Harry Zink, who had defended the authenticity of the spot. They had to grapple with the fact that they’d been duped, and, you know, it didn’t matter. That was the weird thing. The majority of the Spark fans couldn’t care. It’s like watching a good movie. If if a movie makes you suspend disbelief, you accept the world that it builds. The veil had been lifted, but the Fans still interacted with the characters exactly as they had before the spot mates. They had become a part of their lives. How many with a special? She’s so special. Please give us a chance.

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S5: I love you. I love you. I need you.

S1: Blond became convinced that their new friend, Audrey, had a secret identity. Michelle nearly drowned trying to contact the ghost that was haunting her and spot Nick. The dog vanished without a trace. Not everyone was a fan. A New York Times columnist called the spot a soap opera so thin it makes Melrose Place look like war and peace.

S4: I don’t think we were writing it to be higher. We were writing it to be entertaining. Writing it to be funny. All depends on what you call high art, right?

S1: The spot didn’t feature nudity, but it could get raunchy, like with the storyline about blondes, nymphomaniac girlfriend and with putting the actresses in bikinis with or without strawberries.

S2: One of the things that I didn’t love about the spot was that we played too much to the male audience who wanted to see pretty women. I just think we pandered too much. I think if we probably I’m guessing, I don’t know. I’m theorizing that if we had more women writers, maybe that would have helped avoid it, but probably not. It was just it was the direction. Scott was a very strong personality and this is where he led us, and that’s where we went.

S4: You know, it was obviously, you know, looks are a way to bring people in, especially then. But I didn’t have anything with the women that were not with the men. If you look at it, the guys were also hot and in bathing suits.

S3: There wasn’t a lot of care around. Is this an actual woman’s perspective? And I was the only sometimes dissenting voice in the room. You know it. I hesitate to get too deep with this because it wasn’t meant to be any kind of political statement or anything more than it was. We didn’t have the time to be precious about it because if we were going to put something up every single day, sometimes it was going to be good and sometimes it was going to suck. And that’s OK because the next day you had a chance to do it all over again.

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S1: Every day the spot got updated and every day the site’s obsessive fans devoured the new entries and debated the spot mate’s latest shenanigans. But in January 1996, seven months after the site launched, Harry Zinke started to feel like something was off. This whole story

S2: arc started

S1: about the professor who was, you know, a mentor for Terra wanting to destroy the spot and the spot mates defending it. Torres film professor fabricated documents showing that he owned the spot. The professor took over the Beach House and the spot mates vowed to fight back. And people were like, Oh, that’s a great story that’s going on. And I was like, There’s more to this. There’s more brewing between the lines here. We got those heads. I couldn’t directly put my finger on that, but that was really the storyline of it. This is the death of the spot. The success of the spot surprised everyone. And as the daily hits grew, so did the scrutiny. Troy Plotnick could feel the pressure ratcheting up.

S2: It went from being us on a pirate ship, just doing this kind of sneakily at night to. This is a business we have to monetize as the pressure to monetize it became very strong and we were, you know, kind of under a microscope then.

S1: By now, the spot had started to get some revenue from banner ads. Sponsors like Swiss, Honda and Activision had all signed on. They’ve been brought in by four and Collins, the ad agency where Scott, Troy and Lori were employees. They’d started the spot as a scrappy side project, but by the end of 1995, the ad agency had invested $500000 to keep it going.

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S2: I think it really started to go south when the head of the agency started to get territorial over it in the sense of saying, Well, this is ours, this belongs to the agency because we did it on our time and our computers and used our artists and you have jobs here.

S1: The agency was actually happy with its investment. They were so encouraged that they decided to build a whole stable of online shows. A network called American Cybercast Scott Zagorin thought it was a terrible idea.

S4: It’s too soon. I mean, there’s no question we hadn’t quite figured this one out completely. You know, we whatever magic happened with the spot. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to happen in other shows.

S1: American Cybercast had some big investors like Intel and CAA, and Scott says the more money that was at stake, the more the company started interfering.

S4: Suddenly, they were looking at the numbers, and when they looked at the numbers, they were like, Oh, this character’s more popular, let’s use that character. I’m like, But if we do that, we’re not telling the story, right? And at that point, we’re like, Well, if we can’t do the show the way we’ve been doing it, what are we doing?

S1: The spot fan, Harry Zinke, had been right. There was more to that storyline about Tara’s film professor taking control of the house. The site’s creators were sending a not so coded message. Polka Musso was startled by what happened next. Tara just disappeared one day and nothing was found. Nobody knew where she went. Nobody knows she was alive. She was dead. The evidence suggested the Tara had been abducted by her professor and possibly murdered. And then you have all these people going, What the hell is happening? What’s going on? Oh my God. Fans of the spot were used to over-the-top storytelling, but this was different. Tara was the show’s backbone. The one who had beckoned them to the site to see this kind of violence against her. It was shocking. In May 1996, the L.A. Times published an anguished plea from a spot fan.

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S6: I am confused as well as worried. I never imagined that I could get to know someone over the internet the way I’ve gotten to know Tara Hardwick. Tara has the most amazing combination of intelligence, creativity and beauty of any woman I have yet observed Tara. If you are out there, just come home to your brother and your friends. If anything has happened to you, I will never be able to erase you from my memory.

S1: But it was too late to save Tara.

S3: It was really hard to walk away from something that we had invested so much time and energy, and it felt unnerving to not even have a hand in what would go down.

S1: Laurie Shires, the face and voice of Tara, had already left the spot. So had Scott Troy and their co-creator Rich Hackenberg. Scott had negotiated an exit for all of them. The website they’d all built now belonged entirely to American Cybercast. The spot had launched less than a year earlier. It looked poised to become the future of online entertainment and the vehicle to stardom that they’d all been searching for. And they were walking away from it.

S3: When we left, it felt like there was unfinished business, for sure. I wasn’t done. I wanted to feel complete with it, and it didn’t really feel complete.

S1: American Cybercast vowed to keep the spot going. A new staff took over the diaries and tried to channel the remaining characters personalities, but spot Fans weren’t buying it. After a while, you know, you know how your friends are, you know their personalities. You know, how do you react to certain things like you could almost finished your sentences for them? Suddenly, everybody spoke different. They all spoke with a different voice. And those are our voices. We were no longer familiar with those other voices we we actually didn’t like anymore. They didn’t seem to even know who they were, let alone what the history was. American Cybercast was trying to build that stable of online shows that it had promised. It launched a sci fi project called Eon4 and a mystery series called The Pyramid. Neither of them gained much traction. The company was in financial trouble. I saw the whole thing just coming undone, and that essentially happened eventually when the world famous spot fan boycotts started. Harry, you know, gave us all a reputation as a one man show. He just completely like, just caused the most collateral damage he possibly could. It started in November 1996, when a friend, Harry knew from the spot message board called him up very agitated, but said they just fired Jeff. They laid him off as a cost cutting measure. American Cybercast had let go of one of the last remaining staffers from the original spot, someone the Fans knew and loved to us. This was the last goodwill connection you had to the Fans and you got rid of this guy. We didn’t care. For what reason? Harry was angry about how the spot had changed and about the corporate overlords he thought were wrecking it. The only thing that matters to these guys is hits like You want to get somewhere. You have to take those hits away from that. Harry had a plan. He opened up his clunky laptop and started building his own site with its own message board. Fans could gather there without generating hits for the actual spot and in about an hour, an hour and a half the spot Fans board was launched. And I go, Hey, you guys go to town, let everyone know. Remember, if you click, you take away from them. Hard stuff. Later that evening, he checked in on his new creation, and it was it was packed. It was live conversations rivaling, if not exceeding what the spot board actually had some like, Oh, let me check what the traffic on the spot for it is. And it was dead. It was Tumbleweed City. And pretty much the next day there were like plaintive cries from the characters. Hey, where is everybody? Come on, guys. Some Fans tentatively came back and I kind of scolded them at the time saying, You’re just letting the terrorists win where there are people who took issue among the Fans with the strategy that you were implementing. Oh, Paul did. Paul was completely disagreeing with my strategy. He just he went way overboard. Harry Harry takes it to a Levin and he really does. Everything is a Levin with Harry, and I’m like, OK, let’s just bring it. No, no, no. We have to. This is what we have to do. We have to do this and I’m like, Oh my God, like, how are you on your own? Paul didn’t like the spot’s new direction, either, but he couldn’t understand Harry’s motivations. You can’t bring the sport back because the actors are gone. You know, the writers are gone. What’s the end goal? Here are the end goal was exactly that, putting them out of business? This was the ultimate in fan interactivity, breaching the fourth wall with a grenade. The Fans had made the spot what it was and if it couldn’t be the way they remembered it, it would have to be destroyed. Harry didn’t stop at trying to siphon off the spot’s traffic. He also targeted the site’s advertisers. We don’t like you supporting these guys. You had a very successful program here. These new guys who took it over alienated every one of the fans, got everybody disgruntled. And now nobody wants your product anymore because you’re associated with something that destroyed something we liked. And within a matter of weeks, they lost pretty much 99 percent of their advertisers. Paul thinks that Harry is inflating his impact, but American Cybercast was clearly spooked. Paul says he got a call from someone within the company, and he was basically asking me like, Well, what can we do about Harry? And I’m just like, Look, you can’t do anything about Harry. You have to ignore him. He’ll go away if you don’t give him any ammunition. The last thing you want to, Harry, is to shut up. When people do that, it just pushes my button that says, Oh, they want to play. Let’s see where that takes us. The same publications that had covered the spots rise now gave regular updates on the war between the network and its Fans. American Cybercast told the L.A. Times that the protest was Harry’s single handed effort and that he was bitter about being turned down for a job at the company, which Harry denies. In December 1996, American Cybercast held an in-person summit with the Fans. Harry says he was specifically not invited and he wasn’t interested in brokering any kind of peace. I cared about the spot. You guys destroyed the spot, and this isn’t like a vindictive, Oh, you took my toy away and I’m going to take your toy away. But I’m like, You’ve hurt a lot of people. You’ve put a lot of people basically out of jobs because of your own ego thing or whatever. Let’s let’s teach them a lesson. Let’s show them, you can’t do this. The end goal was essentially the bankruptcy of American Cybercast. Isn’t that also then taking jobs away from people? Well, yeah. But these are the people who took jobs away from people. On January 15th, 1997, American Cybercast laid off most of its staff, just as Harry had hoped it was filing for bankruptcy. It’s hard to say how much of a role Harry’s campaign actually played in that it was clear that the network was not working out. They had wanted to create an empire of internet shows. But audiences just weren’t that interested in anything that wasn’t the original spot. Scott Zagorin have been trying to get past his old creation, too. He had led his creative team out of the ad agency, and he was sure that this was the beginning of bigger things for all of them.

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S4: OK, it’s about the people, it’s about the team, and we’ll go start something new and we’re going to make it even better in this spot.

S3: I mean, I think his confidence saw all of us through to where we would end up next. He and he I mean, he had confidence and bravado that he did not earn. It’s just incredible.

S1: Scott Laurie Troy enriched Hackenberg launched a company called Lightspeed Media. It created web content for clients like Activision and Playboy. But that’s not all they wanted to do.

S4: I think I had a little bit of a competitive feeling about the spot, and I wanted to beat it with my next show.

S1: That next show was called Grape Jam, it was about improv comedians and featured members of the L.A. comedy troupe The Groundlings. It was, in many ways a more advanced version of the spot. The technology of the internet was rapidly improving and grape jam offered streaming, audio and a lot more videos. You’re short. Eat your own vomit and you have no testicles. I’m just kidding. Grape jam had its Fans, but like the new American Cybercast shows, it just never took off. When the spot launched in June 1995, there were fewer than 25000 websites a year and a half later. There were 650000. The spot helped fuel some of that growth. But now the odds of a single web site breaking through were a lot slimmer. The spot, it turned out, was one of a kind. You know, when you go apartment hunting and you look at 20 apartments, then you walk into one and you go, That’s it. And it’s that kind of blink moment where you see a show and it just immediately resonates with some magical things within you that glom onto it, that it hits all the right notes and hasn’t really been anything like that out there. In 1997, the remaining spot characters posted their final diary entries. One of them said, I know that the Spot House will always be here, and the spot project will be a rock solid icon in the history of the net forever. Today, the spot has basically vanished from the internet. The diary entries and the photos and the threads on the message board, they’re all gone. The only person I know of who has a complete copy of it is Harry Zink, and that includes the spot’s creators.

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S3: I mean, I wish I could access it, even to show my son what the experience was like. But I mean, it’s just not there. And that’s a bummer.

S2: I don’t sit here bitter about it at all, but nobody nobody knows about this anymore, that I made very, very few people who ever heard of it right or even aware that this existed. And you have to kind of be like,

S1: Yeah, this was a big deal. Despite all its initial promise, the entire format of webisodes shows disappeared from the internet. In 1998, AOL and Microsoft slashed their interactive content divisions. A big part of the spot’s original appeal was its interactivity. But Troy thinks ultimately that’s what held it back.

S2: I think people started to figure out that there’s two kinds of entertainment that lean back and lean forward, right? And the mass public doesn’t want to lean forward for their entertainment. They wanted to just come home, sit on the couch and watch friends write and escape. They didn’t want to make because interactivity requires effort and energy.

S1: In many ways, the spot was a cultural dead end, but Scott’s Akron’s initial hunch that there was an audience on the web dying to be entertained. That was right. The spot presaged the forces that would come to dominate the internet, the rise of blogging platforms like LiveJournal and of YouTube creators with millions of followers. Artists like Issa Rae would accomplish exactly what Scott had set out to do, making the leap from independent web shows to mainstream stardom. And with the rise of streamers like Hulu and Netflix, any distinction between internet series and TV shows has basically evaporated. It would be going too far to say that the spot inspired those trends, but the spot was there first at a time in internet history when there was no roadmap, there was more like a really exciting journey into the unknown and into new stuff. And people came out with some really imaginative ideas back then and some really shitty ideas as well. It felt like a frontier kind of like environment where you always saw something new. The spot and community kept on going even after the diary entry stopped Harry and Paul live near each other in California now. Yeah, and Harry, you know, as as horrible of a person as he appears to be online, he isn’t that bad of a person in real life. I mean, the one thing I’ve taken away from the spot over these 20 plus years is that what a great group of people that this this idea brought together and brought together so many people from all over the place. Twenty six years, and they’re still friends of mine. It was the coolest experience ever with with a website, and I don’t think it can be duplicated. You really can’t. The SWAT team members moved on to other things. Laurie Shier’s is a creative development coach now. Tribal lot. Nick is launching a spirits brand. Scott Zagorin has created lots of projects since the spot. He was an early adopter of MySpace as an entertainment platform and YouTube as well. But he hasn’t recaptured the glory of that one great idea he had in 1995.

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S4: Oh, I really miss it. Spot, if it was magic, it was just magic. I very much in the year since feel the emotional pang of not being able to continue to spot it is my favorite thing I ever made. There is nothing like it. I miss it terribly. I would do it tomorrow. You know, if the opportunity was there.

S1: Evan Chung is one year producer after we finished reporting this episode. Scott Zagorin told us that he’d worked out a deal with the rights holders and that he’s now planning to relaunch the spot rt.com. Next time on one year, 1995, when a serial rapist strikes the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a DNA investigation and Snares more than 100 innocent black men. All the nurses are standing around and they’re looking at you, man. There’s nothing worse than a woman with her hands on her hips, looking at you like you’re a killer. It’s the worst feeling in the world. This episode was written and reported by Evan Cheyna. It was edited by Laura Bennett. One year is produced by Evan Chung and me Josh Levin Madeline Ducharme is our assistant producer. Additional production help came from Shane Iraq, with editorial direction by Levin Lu and Gabriel Roth. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1995 and one year at Slate.com, and you can call us on the one year hotline at two three three four three zero seven seven seven. We’d love to hear from you. Our mix engineer is Merritt Jacob, the artwork for one year by Jim Cook, Digital Babylon by John Garland. And ever since Godard and open TV by a margin Christian were valuable resources for this episode. Special thanks to Rich Hackenberg, Russell Collins, Charlie Flint, Joshua Handset. Maria Gigliotti, Aymar, Jean Christian, Benjamin Fresh, Jared Holt, Derrick John, Hollie Allen, Katie Rayford, Ayesha Saluja, Amber Smith, Seth Brown, Rachel Strum, June Thomas and Chao too. Thanks for listening! We’ll be back with more from 1995 next week.