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VICIOUS RUMORS about wemedia.com


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Those few wonderful months when disability issues were news

By Mary Johnson

Half The Planet. We Media. Access Life. I Can Online. Names dreamed up by marketers or parsed out on the backs of envelopes, they were the "supersites" -- the websites that got the tens, the fifty millions of dollars or more in venture capital, all on the sweet hope that the Internet was really the village without barriers, where crips and friends of crips, families of crips and crips who had never heard of ADAPT or Mouth or Ragged Edge -- or the Americans with Disabilities Act, for that matter -- would come and browse and buy products.

Especially buy products. Wheelchairs. Screen readers. Catheter supplies. On this floated the hopes of an increasing group of entrepreneurs.

Disability megasite have shifted and re-opened. CHECK OUT

It seemed like such a good idea; such a sensible idea. Crips had money to spend, too. They could spend it on the Internet as well as the next guy. And it would be so easy for crips, too -- no need to get out of the house, into the van or find an accessible bus, go to a store that might or might not have what you wanted -- one you might or might not be able to get into; no need to worry that a sales clerk couldn't understand ASL. Not to worry: the global village for the crip was now online.

The Wall Street Journal trumpeted it as "handicapitalism." "These people are here," wemedia.com president Cary Fields insisted to The Wall Street Journal's Joshua Prager just a year ago. Wemedia.com was running ads in the likes of the New York Times, crowing that the "disability market" had "$1 trillion in consolidated buying power." Maybe, maybe not. But it sounded good. And it drew the venture capitalists like vultures, which was, of course, precisely what it was intended to do.

The sites were called, in the self-inflated jargon of the Internet, "web portals." Heidi Van Arnem, head of iCan! Inc. was quoted in the New York Times: the company would "partner" with grocery delivery sites, restaurant delivery sites, real estate firms, the Brave New World of Online Everything Delivered.

In order to create interest for visitors, so they'd remain on the site long enough to wander around and buy something, the sites had to have "content" -- something that in pre-Internet days used to be called writing and reporting.

And so, because the conventional Internet wisdom decreed that sites had to have content, and because the sites had millions to spend, the supersites began covering the disability rights movement. For it, indeed, could provide them with all the "content" they needed.

And so they reported. They covered events. They sent entire news teams to cover events. News teams! At the ceremonies at the FDR memorial during that week of events in Washington in late July that marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the "media tent" for once actually had "media" in it -- not just one or two stringers, but entire crews of people, with vans, tape recorders and cameras. Real media, treating the event as real news.

A news team from iCan! Inc. had outfitted a van and followed the ADA Torch Relay across the nation. The Torch Relay was news because the disability megasites treated it as news.

This, of course, is no different than any event that becomes news or even super news: would Elian Gonzales have been news, have remained news, week after week after week after week, had no televisions stations provided coverage?

The Torch Relay was tailor-made to provide "content" for the websites; and the websites had enough money to hire people who actually had backgrounds in news reporting to treat this not that far differently than the reporters from the newspapers in the 1960s that covered civil rights issues in the South. No; this was celebratory, not dangerous. There were no firehoses or Klu Klux Klan robes; there crips running and wheeling with an Olympics-style torch and making speeches. It was the 00s, not the 60s. But the coverage was just as real. It existed not in the pages of the Charlotte Observer or the Nashville Tennessean but on websites. But it read as real news, the same as real news always reads.

The websites reported on the Clinton ADA Anniversary speech. They reported on the White House's disability initiatives announced in late July. When the Bush campaign announced its own proposals, they reported those, too. Macy's dept. store was sued for access; it was reported on the websites. Clicking around the web from halftheplanet.com to icanonline.net to accesslife.com, one could almost believe that the disability movement, its ideas and opinions, had finally begun to get the kind of coverage many of us had long hoped for but believed would never happen. Real news, breaking news, ongoing news, news that was followed up with more news.

The sites were reporting news, offering commentary, treating disabled people as a real audience. There were stories on lawsuits and interviews with the lawyers. There were articles about web access, articles about the Supreme Court and disability rights. There were reports on Harris polls done by the National Organization on Disability. There were articles about employment problems; access problems. There were features and profiles and movie reviews and book reviews and sports coverage.

If a little voice in the back of one's head suggested that the stories would exist only so long as the websites could attract the millions of dollars in venture capital that paid their staffs, it was easy to ignore the voice. After all, wemedia.com had told the Wall Street Journal the crip market was a trillion dollar mecca. Who worried?

Well, plenty of people worried behind the scenes. A report from the Disability Statistics Center noted that people with disabilities in general were far less likely to go online -- or to even have computers, for that matter -- than the general public. A warring study, done for halftheplanet.com about the same time, reported that in fact disabled people were online more than nondisabled people. One didn't know what to believe. But the highly-guarded proprietary website traffic statistics were telling their own truths.

After the breaking-news pace of those heady days surrounding the ADA anniversary, it wasn't surprising that coverage had slowed, particularly in the always-slow-news month of August. But as summer turned into fall, a careful observer would notice that website "front pages" were changing less often; fewer new stories were appearing. Wemedia.com, with the deepest pockets of all, had moved to become the "official" webcaster of the Sydney Paralymics, with streaming video that relatively few crips could access, given the high costs of high-speed access. Other sites covered the Paralymics, too -- but the frenzy was slowing.

As fall moved toward winter, the Internet chill that was cooling the e-commerce frenzy could clearly be felt. News stories, a necessity to "build traffic" and provide "stickiness" to web pages, were being jettisoned for a harder sell. Sites like cando.com changed their look -- now they clearly looked like online product pushers; news was secondary. There seemed to be a kind of desperation as sites tried to prove to venture capitalists that they would indeed make profits from selling those bath chairs and voice-input systems.

Signs of trouble were apparent to those who looked. Despite the brave front pages of the sites, a click to most of their discussion forums showed the real story: just one or two postings; on a hot topic maybe a dozen or two, no more. People, it seemed, simply weren't using the sites as places to visit with friends -- not in the numbers that had come to matter on the Internet, where success was measured in millions of visitors, not the hundreds that most of the sites were, in truth, getting.

Despite broad smiles at July's Washington galas, website executives had known the party was almost over. Staff was cut, cut, and cut again. The terms one heard were "reorganization" and "re-focus," but the terms fooled no one.

The Nasdaq tumbled in the fall, and sites tumbled with it. Halftheplanet.com, bleeding staff for months, laid off its last few dozen. Although its website remained, president Patricia Vance told reporters the venture had not been able to secure a new round of capital. Like many Internet start-ups, halftheplanet.com executives had bragged about their "burn rate" -- indeed, they had run through millions of dollars in mere months.

KTV.com, website of the Kaleidoscope TV network started years ago for the Deaf community, laid off the rest of its staff about that time too; in early December, bankruptcy notices were mailed to creditors.

Like ghost towns, the sites remained -- it's dirt cheap to keep a site online -- and only repeat visits and a careful eye would clue the visitor to the fact that nobody was home anymore. Some would continue with skeleton staffs; others would simply remain, the online equivalent of an abandoned house, broken shutters flapping in the wind.

Just a year earlier, Cheryl Duke, president of W.C. Duke Associates Inc., a disability-consulting firm in Woodford, VA, had bragged to The Wall Street Journal that "targeting disabled people for purely altruistic reasons" wasn't going to bring any "return on investment."

"If you do it because it's a moneymaking project, it will continue," she said. And if it isn't, she should have added, it won't.

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge magazine.

Some of the 230 comments posted at fuckedcompany.com's Super Happy Fun Slander Corner:

11/23/2000: I heard that in the first six months of the company the owner didn't want to put in a handicapped bathroom in the office. The one wheelchair guy on staff had to go outside if he needed . . . .

11/24/2000:[T]hat is absolutely true . . . just to confirm the rumour. Wemedia was very reluctant to make any of the bathrooms or the building itself accessible until . . .  pressure was put on them to do so . . . I also know of an instance where they had the opportunity to hire an authority on handicapped accessibility to the web. He was rejected because his cerebral palsy was "too severe" . . . .

11/29/2000 11:21 PM: If your comment is true, did it ever occur to you that WeMedia doesn't own the building it is housed in and the owner wouldn't let them make the necessary accommodations? You should also do a some research on the principals of the company. You will find a lifetime of devotion to helping people.

11/29/2000: . . . .this board demonstrates the lies, slander and horrible attitude evident in our industry . . . .

11/29/2000: Many of these comments sound like they are from ex-employees who are bitter over losing their jobs. Wemedia is an idea that is new and exciting. All new ventures go through growing pains. I was in Sydney for the Paralympics. It was thrilling and inspiring to watch the athletes compete. Knowing what they have to go through every day and the obstacles they have to overcome, makes my bad days insignificant. When you say that 280 people were laid off, how many of them were temporary employees for the Paralympics?

11/30/2000 04:41 AM: Did it ever occur to you that the the building was chosen to be the headquarters of a website for the disabled knowing full well that there wasn't a bathroom that could be used by disabled employess? Did it occur to you that the owner said that the employee should get a colostomy bag instead? Did it occur to you that the owners are real estate moguls who know exactly about building codes and how to get building owners to fix things?

11/30/2000, 12:32 PM : are you aware that the company forced the building to reconfigure all pertinent bathrooms to be accessible? I guess not . . . .

11/30/2000: to be precise we media laid off 21 people. [The] 250 people [laid off] were contracted temps in Australia handling different aspects of a rather large webcast which was completed at the end of October . . . .

11/30/2000: [B]eing one of the first employees hired into the company, being one of the guys who wrote the business plan, being one of the guys who raised the funding, I can tell you that there is a fair amount of greed within the upper echelons of this company.

11/30/2000: Their designers created a drab . . . unattractive, depressing grey site . . .  like some German art school project gone awry . . . .

11/30/2000: Did it ever occur to you that the the building was chosen to be the headquarters of a website for the disabled knowing full well that there wasn't a bathroom that could be used by disabled employess? Did it occur to you that the owner said that the employee should get a colostomy bag instead? Did it occur to you that the owners are real estate moguls who know exactly about building codes and how to get building owners to fix things?

12/6/2000: . . . imagine what they could have done to help the disabled with the $45 million they burned through if someone had actually been concerned with doing so . . . .

12/9/2000: Yep, it's true . . . the sanctimonious fucks over there did make it so he had to out and piss between 2 parked cars. . . . i was there. . . . 

12/22/2000: The information posted on this board is personal attacks on various WeMedia employees and management. WeMedia is actively attempting to identify the individuals posting on this board. Computers using websites can be identifying as they connect to webservers by a unique IP address. WeMedia will take steps to prevent the personal, racial and bias attacks against its personnel both past and present . . .  Enough is enough, we urge you to move on . . .  WeMedia will deal with the current economic environment and persist. Its management is dedicated to creating a for-profit suite of services utilizing the Internet and Media to help people with disabilities, their families and friends. The mission is the same. No one has been intentionally singled out, but a company must act in its economic best interests if it intends to be successful and survive.

2/1/2001: Where has everyone gone? Is the Huge Banner outside of 130 William St. [in New York] that says "WeMedia" still there?

2/2/2001: l there are about 30 people left I believe - pretty dead . . . all is now outsourced . . . .

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