Is the Web losing its cool? Maybe so, say Cool Site of the Day gurus

BY DAVE MAYFIELD, The Virginian-Pilot
Copyright 1996, Landmark Communications Inc.

It's 9:30 on a recent weekday morning and Richard Grimes has already witnessed the power of his pointing finger.

Grimes, 29, is the master of a small but influential place on the Internet's World Wide Web. As the man behind Norfolk-based InfiNet's ``Cool Site of the Day,'' he turns a virtual spotlight daily on some corner of the global computer network.

Tens of thousands of Web surfers from Singapore to Salt Lake City veer to the sites that the buzz-cut, goateed Grimes recommends. But on this morning, the computer that has been serving up his pick -- a site simulating routines of comedian Dennis Miller -- has already crashed from too many ``hits'' by Grimes' legions of followers.

So he hustles for a replacement -- a site that offers music-video clips -- then turns to his electronic mail. He's already received several complaints about his first choice from people who couldn't reach it.

``Some days you can't win,'' Grimes says.

It's another day on the Web, that sprawling, chaotic network of networks that splices together text, graphics, photos and, increasingly, sound and moving pictures.

Some say it will eventually become the world's main medium for information, entertainment and conversation. Important companies like Microsoft, Intel and AT&T are betting on it. Institutions -- schools, churches, hospitals, newspapers and political parties -- are scrambling for a presence on it.

But the World Wide Web, for all its promise, remains largely a vast wilderness of mediocrity. The truly interesting, entertaining and useful sites are relatively few -- and, for many, not easy to find.

That's why beacons like ``Cool Site'' have found a niche.

Two years old last week, the service is a small part of InfiNet, a partnership of media conglomerates Gannett Co., Knight-Ridder Inc. and Landmark Communications Inc., parent of The Virginian-Pilot. InfiNet's main emphasis is building a nationwide on-line network of newspapers.

But among Internet enthusiasts, ``Cool Site'' is InfiNet's main claim to fame. Its creator -- a since-departed computer whiz named Glenn Davis -- draws crowds to his speaking engagements. He was named last December by Newsweek magazine as one of ``50 people to watch'' on the Web.

Meanwhile, ``Cool Site'' has spawned so many imitators that a Northern Virginia Internet-services company jokingly created a ``Cool Cool Site of the Day'' competition. A computer randomly picks a site from dozens of contenders ranging from ``Geek Site of the Day'' to ``Dynamite Site of the Nite.''

For Grimes, a former computer-industry-manual writer who was an editorial assistant at The Virginian-Pilot before joining InfiNet last year, his job at ``Cool Site'' is a perfect fit. A self-described ``information addict,'' the talkative, quick-witted Grimes careens through hundreds of Web pages a day from outfits ranging from the American Museum of Natural History to Luddites Online. With a T-1 phone connection, he cruises the Web more than 50 times faster than Internet surfers using conventional modems.

He says he thrills in the daily search for coolness. But sometimes, Grimes admits, he doesn't make a final decision on which site to feature until a half-hour before the midnight posting time. And even then, he often second-guesses himself. Some of his choices, he concedes, are ``very much on the line between tasteful and tasteless.''

In many ways, the cool-site phenomenon in which Grimes is caught up is illustrative of the Web's overall development.

For one thing, the proliferation of cool sites mirrors the Web's runaway growth. Yahoo!, the best known cataloger of Web sites, adds as many as 3,000 a day to its locater service. That's a fraction of the new appendages actually created.

And copycatting is rampant not just among cool sites, but everywhere on the Web. Davis, who left InfiNet last November, decried the trend recently in an on-line column he writes for his new company, Project Cool Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.

``It's all starting to look the same,'' he wrote. ``Not completely so, but there is a level of mediocrity that everyone is starting to reach.''

In large part, Davis chalks up the growing sameness of Web page design to commercialization. With more and more corporate sites on the Web, he says, professional designers hired by the companies are gaining prominence. And these people, with their backgrounds in print media, tend to follow rules rather than challenge convention, he says.

Like the rest of the Web, many cool sites themselves are becoming platforms for commercial exploit. InfiNet's site, for instance, pulls in ``six-figure'' annual ad revenues, a company executive says. The site's current sponsor: Netscape Communications Corp., maker of the most popular software for browsing the Web.

Pop figures like horror author Stephen King, science showman Bill Nye and rock musicians Butthole Surfers now drop in to the InfiNet service as guest ``agents of cool'' to tout favorite Web sites.

But the service's growing commercial cache is perhaps most evident in InfiNet's second-annual ``Cool Site of the Year'' competition, which The New York Times last year tagged the Oscars of the Internet. Media giant Time Warner Inc.'s People magazine signed on as a co-sponsor of this year's event, which will climax with an awards gala Oct. 3 in New York.

From his West Coast perch, it's all ironic to Davis. When he began work on ``Cool Site,'' he says, his superiors at InfiNet wanted to keep their distance. For the first year, he was required to post a disclaimer saying that he -- and not InfiNet -- was responsible for its content.

Though InfiNet eventually embraced its commercial potential, Davis says he longed to create his own Internet-services venture. So he left the company to co-found Project Cool. Among other things, Davis and his partner design Web pages. But he keeps spotlighting his own cool ``sighting'' each day.

Davis takes his role as a finger-pointer seriously.

``When you look out there,'' he says, ``you see such a proliferation of everything on the Web that people need a lens to look through to find things that are good.''

The job has temptations. Davis says pornographers offered him women and software developers promised him money if he spotlighted their sites while he was at InfiNet. He says he declined.

Grimes says he, too, has turned aside efforts to influence him -- although he says he can't recall being offered an actual bribe.

One bad part of his job, Grimes says, is having to wade through the depravity that marks parts of the Web. He has occasionally been so depressed by vulgar or violent images that he has stumbled onto, ``that I haven't been able to function the rest of the day,'' he says. He refuses to spotlight such sites and tries to avoid choosing any site that has links to violent, grotesque or sexually explicit images.

The most trouble he's had over a pick, Grimes says, was ``The Daily Babe Test,'' a politically incorrect product of a couple of Dutch computer types. It graded contestants' knowledge of the names of ``beautiful women'' based on their head-and-shoulders photos.

Grimes was derided as sexist and later wrote an on-line column calling the flap ``a four-executive controversy.'' That's how many executives at InfiNet took him aside afterward to question his selection.

Most often, Grimes says he's bored by what he sees. ``I spend 75 percent of my time looking at crap,'' he says, ``trying to find something worth pointing to.''

And a lot of sites, while valuable to some, are simply too narrowly focused for him to feature, he says, leafing through an e-mail bagful of suggestions.

``I'm going right by things like Hoists for the Automotive Industry,'' he says wryly, deleting as he goes. ``You'd be surprised at the number of people who send me suggestions for accounting sites that they believe are cool -- maybe so, if you're an accountant.''

Mark Mooradian, editor of New York-based Interactive Content magazine, understands Grimes' difficulty.

``Everything is turning into niches,'' he says. ``And there's just a lot of garbage out there. You have to sift through a pile of it to find a few treasures.''

It's late in the morning. Grimes, clad in a greenish-gray crew neck and cuffed Levis, stops at an e-mail message labeled ``cooler than a swimming pool of Barry Whites.'' He checks out the suggested site, but finds he's already chosen it. The search goes on.

Perhaps the biggest mistake made by people pitching him sites, Grimes confides, is assuming that the creations must have a cynical tone. He has chosen several Australian Web sites, he says, ``because they're fun without being mean.''

He has also chosen ``useful'' sites like those of new Internet search engines, corporate sites ranging from Forbes magazine to Pepsi, and sports sites such as the National Basketball Association.

Mixed in, of course, were choices like the Timothy Leary Homepage, ``500 Ways to Annoy Your Roommate,'' and the Flaming Ford Owners. Grimes prefers sites created by individuals. ``You're cooler,'' he says, ``if you're an underdog.''

When critics try goading him with what they think is the ultimate insult -- ``You're not cool'' -- the self-deprecating Grimes tosses a disarming reply: ``Hey, I know that.''

``My job is not to be cool,'' he says. ``My job is to find out what is.''