Web Masters Episode #53: Genevieve Field


Genevieve Field:

The content that we were publishing, that was the big question mark. Could we get away with publishing really honest, often explicit, but not pornographic writing and photography about sexuality of the human body. And we didn’t know if we were going to get away with it. We were sure that we would not get away with it if it were a print magazine, if we went to any publishing conglomerate and said “Can we do this nerdier version of Playboy? Will you give us the backing to do it and let us publish very literary, non pornographic writing about sex, that is not likely to bring in big bucks?” The answer would’ve been no. So we knew we had to publish it online, to publish the kind of writing that we wanted to publish, and the kind of images we wanted to publish. But we had to actually wait until the Communications Decency Act passed, to let us go live online without fear of being sued or fear of being shut down.

Aaron Dinin:

And could you explain the Communications Decency Act? Because I’m guessing a lot of people listening probably don’t know much about the early legal battles around what would be considered acceptable online content.

Genevieve Field:

So the CDA, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was Congress’s first notable attempt to regulate pornographic material on the internet. And we needed to find out what was happening with the Communications Decency Act, to know if we could actually publish sexually explicit content online without being arrested. And so the way that it all worked out was that yes, we could. So on the Eve of the Communications Decency Act being ratified, we went live. And since our right to free speech was protected, so we could tell the stories we wanted to tell, that was a big moment for us.

Aaron Dinin:

The passing of the Communications Decency Act, the CDA, was a big moment for everyone, really. It was pretty much the earliest attempt at legislating content that would or wouldn’t it be allowed online. It’s kind of funny to think about now, considering just how much crazy, strange, and let’s be honest, terrifying stuff is online. Controlling it is pretty much impossible at this point, that wasn’t always the case. Initially, there was an attempt to create more boundaries, and one of the sides pushing up against and expanding those boundaries was created by the person you just heard talking. Her name is Genevieve Field, and she co-founded a risque online magazine that felt built a reputation for itself, it was Nerve.com. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hi, welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the web’s most impactful innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University, and I study the history of the internet. When we look at that history, some of the most seminal moments were related to regulation. The decisions early on about what would and wouldn’t be allowed online, who would and wouldn’t be held responsible, and how content could and couldn’t be regulated. Those all had major ripple effects that led to the internet as we know it. For better and for worse, I suppose. And on this episode of Web Masters, we’re going to explore one of the early websites pushing the boundaries of what kinds of content were possible and available online. But first I’m going to take a quick moment to thank this podcast sponsor.

Web Masters wouldn’t be possible without the support of Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers in the acquisitions brokers that helps people buy and sell cash flow, positive internet businesses, and digital assets. That includes things like eCommerce stores, Amazon FBAs, Shopify sites, SAAS apps, web publications, domain portfolios, and any other type of work from anywhere digital business. If you’re running one of those and thinking about selling it, contact the team at Latona’s.

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Technically, Nerve.com didn’t shut down until relatively recently… 2018 actually, but its heyday was well before that, back in the late 90s and early 2000s when it was a popular part of internet culture as well as in some ways, a bridge between internet culture and mainstream media. Just in case you never encountered it, I’ll start by letting this episode’s guest Genevieve Field, give a quick explanation of what kinds of things readers would find on there.

Genevieve Field:

Nerve was an online magazine dedicated to sex and gender, and looking at every facet of life through sexuality. So my partner and I Rufus Griscom were both book editors, and we both loved great essays. We both were just fans of so many of the hot young writers like Rick Moody, and Jonathan Lethem, and Mary Gaitskill, Lucy Grealy, all these people we thought “Oh, they are not given a place where they can really write about sex. There’s not really any okay place for them to do that, maybe except in their novels.” But as far as in the magazine world, that just wasn’t being published. And we also thought that sex was a great topic, because it was something that people often lie about. Whether in storytelling or in their real lives, it’s just an area that you either don’t go there or you gloss over what’s really going on in your sexual life or you glorify it.

And we thought “What a great opportunity to get writers to do their very best writing, is to do it through writing about sex.” So, that’s what we did. We said “Let’s do it.” And we launched Nerve.com in 1997, and another big aspect of it was the photography. We loved the idea of being able to represent the human body in all of its different forms, not what you get online everywhere, not the perfect female body just presented up on a platter. We wanted to show real people, real bodies, men and women shot by both genders. There was really no lines with Nerve.com as far as what kind of sexuality you owned or you wanted to identify with. So I think very early on… I guess right now, if I’m going to pat myself on the back, I think we were allies very early on with gay, transgender, people of all stripes. Everybody who was artful and who was talented, was welcome to express their version of sexuality on Nerve.com.

Aaron Dinin:

As Genevieve alludes to, Nerve wasn’t just a content creator, it was also a unique community. In fact, that’s a big reason why I’m excited to share the story of Nerve here on Web Masters. You see, I think we take for granted the fact that no matter who you are and what you care about, on the internet, there is a place for you, and a community where you can feel like you belong. That didn’t just happen magically, it took people like Genevieve to create those kinds of pioneering spaces and communities early on, as the internet naturally stretched its boundaries from what already existed, to what could be possible.

Genevieve Field:

Back 1997, I was working at a small book publishing company with Rufus Griscom, We were both editors. And he had an old friend from high school named Steven Johnson, who with Stephanie Simon, was editing probably the very first online magazine I’m guessing, called Feed. And they were really smart and kind of satirical. They had a lot of writing by Sam Lipyste, who was another high school friends of Steven and Rufus, who went on to be a fantastic novelist and New Yorker writer. So Steven and Stephanie were kind of our inspiration and what they were doing on Feed. It was so exciting to us to think that they could have a magazine with very little overhead. You could actually put your mark on the world without having a gigantic trust fund to start a [literary 00:09:07] print magazine.

Aaron Dinin:

As you heard, Nerve was inspired by, and a sort of evolution of a slightly earlier web magazine called Feed. We talked with feed co-founder Stephanie Simon in Web Masters episode number 40. Feed helped bring something called Zine culture online. Zines, Z-I-N-E-S, were small batch print publications that appealed to niche communities, for example, Star Trek fans. Feed magazine was particularly interesting, because it showed just how big a “niche” audience could be, when it was supported by a massively more accessible publishing platform like the web. Nerve.com is important, because it took the precedent set by Feed, and pushed the boundaries of what kinds of content could be profitable and sustainable on the web. After all, as Genevieve explained for us, a magazine like Nerve, publishing the type of content it was publishing, simply couldn’t have existed before the web. Though that’s not to say it was easy to launch.

Genevieve Field:

We knew that we did need an investment. We did need somebody to help pay for us to do what we pretty quickly found out would be full-time work producing this magazine. So Rufus and I went about seeking out investors. We found an early investor. He quit his job first, I quit my job a few months later, and we were both book people and just real literary nerds, especially me. I was thinking about the stories and commissioning the stories that we would publish. So I actually just focused on commissioning stories, and then we found a designer named Joey Cabella, the very first designer of Nerve, and started building a website.

I don’t know if you could find it… You could probably find it somewhere in the way back machine. The very first version of Nerve was our living room, coffee table, and it had these different objects on it, and you would roll over the objects and it would take you to different sections of the site. There would be a little hill on the coffee table, and you’d roll over it, and it would take you to the essay section. We thought it was very cutting edge and cool at that time, but I’m sure it looks really quaint at this time. All I really had to do to put the first version of Nerve online was some very basic HTML, and then I would give it to Joey and he would put it online. So it’s just very, very rudimentary, what we were doing in the very beginning.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So it was inspired by Feed, and you got investors, and you launched it, but how did you grow it? How did people find out about it?

Genevieve Field:

Well, that was the beauty of it. Because we were launching at this very early moment and there wasn’t a lot of literary content online to speak of, and because we were doing something that was kind of buzzy, it was a magazine about sexuality and we were a young couple, Rufus and I had been dating for six months or a year when we started the magazine. Suddenly people heard about us, and right after launching, [inaudible 00:12:19] went on the Charlie Rose show. Then the New York Times called wanted to write an article about us. We quickly were profiled in Newsweek and Time, and we were on 60 Minutes, and all of this happened without us really doing anything. This is, I think, before we had a publicist, we eventually got a publicist to keep us in the media. But early on, we were just a new thing.

We were doing something new, we had a good story, people liked the fact that we were a couple doing this magazine, a couple who ostensibly have sex writing about sex. And there was just this huge interest. And we wrote it, we just took it for all it was worth and just worked as hard as we possibly could. In those early days, we were running the magazine out of our very small apartment. We eventually moved into a bigger apartment when we increased our staff… A loft actually in downtown New York. About three quarters of the loft was desks, and the staff as of at that time was probably about 10. And then we had a little bedroom and a kitchen in the corner where Rufus and I lived. And so things really organically grew. It was the kind of thing that could never really be duplicated in any other moment in history. But because of the moment that we lived in, it all kind of fell into place for us quickly. It was very exciting.

Aaron Dinin:

And what was so appealing about the web as a publishing medium.

Genevieve Field:

So today, we think of the internet as a place where you can just publish lots and lots of short stories and constantly update, and they’re a little bit more disposable. And what we were excited about was a place where we could publish really, really long stories, as long as we wanted, and not have to worry about page count or advertisers or any kind of limitations on space, because the internet was this expansive place where you could publish as much material as you wanted, and there were really no cost issues for us as far as how much we could publish. So a lot of the stuff that we published on Nerve was very long. We could publish photo essays and just publish as many pictures as we wanted. So there was really this sense for us, I think, of limitlessness on what we could do.

Aaron Dinin:

But the long stuff kind of didn’t work out. The short stuff is really what became popular on the web, right?

Genevieve Field:

It did. There are still amazing publications online that are small and struggling, the way that Nerve struggled to keep relevance, that are publishing longer material, and that is what we had hoped to be able to do, that was our dream. That we would be able to find the advertisers, find the backing to keep this machine going and just get better, and better, and better with the journalism, but that’s not the way it worked out. The commercial forces were working against [inaudible 00:15:25]

Aaron Dinin:

Talk a bit more about those commercial interests

Genevieve Field:

As we grew, eventually needed to start making money. And the first thing we did to start making money was launch a community which morphed into Nerve dating, which was really one of the very earliest online dating sites and which did end up being the backbone of Nerve.com for a number of years, until it just got too expensive to keep up with the match.com’s of the world, and that kind of infrastructure that would’ve been necessary to take Nerve dating to the global level, to be one of the major players. It did continue to be a trendsetter, I think, in online dating, but we just couldn’t keep up with the people who had the mega million dollar investments.

Aaron Dinin:

How did you all come up with the idea to launch a dating website and tie it to an online magazine?

Genevieve Field:

It was a natural spinoff in the beginning, of a community. I think we called it Nerve center, sort of this slightly hokey online community where you could just talk to each other online, a little bit like MySpace, finding people to connect with and sharing stories about yourself, and people started to meet up through that, independently of us. And we started to think “Oh, well, all these people identify with the brand of Nerve, then why not help set them up with each other?” It made Nerve.com dating site so successful early on. It attracted like-minded people. So there was a sensibility that you knew if someone was on the Nerve dating site, you knew you were getting a person with a certain sensibility. And a lot of the relationships really worked out, and I ended up having friends around the world who met and married, through Nerve.com

So I continually… Still to this day, I’ll be talking to someone on the phone, maybe interviewing them for an article, and they’ll say “Oh, I have to confess something. I met my husband through Nerve.com” I guess that’s one of the most exciting legacies for me. It brought people together, and many of them stayed together. I think that Nerve, because it was a magazine about sex, and it had a sort of edgy reputation, the expectation was that it was more of what a Tinder would be today. It was just more about hooking up. But I think because people were coming together with such similar sensibilities, it very often ended up being much more than just about hooking up.

Aaron Dinin:

This is what I mean about the importance of Nerve as a community. Prior to the web, lots of people around the world could enjoy the same movies or books or sports or well, whatever. But the idea that everyone who likes a certain magazine could easily date each other, that’s unheard of. It’s kind of amazing, right? And so Nerve becomes more than just a place for content. It becomes a community and a cultural phenomenon that sits at the of New York city’s burgeoning tech scene.

Genevieve Field:

The late 90s early tech scene was amazing. It was so much fun. We were called Silicon Alley. Jason Calacanis was the early tech entrepreneur and kind of whizkid, and he had a magazine… A print magazine actually, called the Silicon Alley Reporter. And it was kind like the Vanity Fair of Silicon Alley, and kind of talked about all the parties as well as the business deals. And there was just a lot of money flowing into a lot of these companies. Not into mine sadly, but startups popping up everywhere, and they had a lot of money to spend on parties. We were one of the companies… Nerve.com was one of the companies that I think was known at the time for its parties, and I admit that we probably spent a good part of our budget on these parties.

They weren’t at the scale of some where there would be mountains of sushi and a rented top floor in a high rise, but our parties were known for being really, really fun and crazy. And we always had something called the Exhibitionist Booth or room, and we’d have a little permed off corner… Whether we were in a night club or we were in the loft where our offices were, and we’d have one of our photographers just shooting party guests going into the booth and doing whatever they felt like doing. And so there was always this kind of this risque element of our parties of, what was going on at the Exhibitionist Booth. And as our parties got bigger and more well known, we started to have them in nightclubs and then they would project what was happening in the exhibitionist booth onto the walls. And so I’d see my poetry editor getting a blowjob from his wife or something projected onto the wall of this giant club. It was really quite comical when I think about it now.

Aaron Dinin:

I’ve heard stories about the early New York tech scene parties from other entrepreneurs I’ve been interviewing on the show from around that time. I didn’t realize a lot of those stories were about Nerve’s parties. That’s actually kind of interesting to know.

Genevieve Field:

Oh, last thing I will say though about the Nerve parties was that they kind of got so big and well known that, that’s how we attracted the attention of HBO and they wanted to do, and eventually did do, a special on Nerve. Just a lot of little vignettes and segments about the daily life of people at Nerve, and the writers that were working for us and their stories. And they attempted to recreate for a television show, a Nerve party, but all the lights had to be full blast, and all of us were wearing mics, and we were styled, and it was very much like everything you see on reality TV today, but we were a bunch of book nerds and really not good at playing for the camera, and that party failed epically, because we were all just so out of sorts by having to be on camera.

But in general, it was just a time of great optimism, and I think everybody was following their dreams, and a lot of our friends were having a lot of money thrown at them to just build, and build, and grow, and grow, and grow. A lot of us were growing too quickly, obviously the bubble eventually burst, but before it did, it was just a very heady time and there was a lot of interaction between different companies, a lot of meetings. We would definitely talk with other people like the people at [Salon 00:22:08], the people at Feed “What are you doing? What’s working.” There was a lot of sharing of ideas and approaches to figure out, how are we going to navigate this moving forward? There was also competition. Felt like a competitive time when everybody was trying to rise to the top and be the most relevant, but there was always a sense of “We’re all pioneers here in this internet thing, so let’s help each other out.”

Aaron Dinin:

And just for some context, how big did Nerve get in terms of things like readership and reach?

Genevieve Field:

That is a very good question, and I do not recall what the readership was. It was all page views. And this is 20 years ago, so honestly I do not remember exactly what our page views were. But we were big enough that the magazine continued to grow, we continued to win many awards. We won several Webbies. We were nominated for a National Magazine Award for general excellence online. So we worked really hard to keep the literary magazine really relevant, and to continue to seek the very best writers or very favorite writers, and that gave legitimacy to the dating site. So we kind of created buzz as this edgy magazine for people who did not feel they fit into the mainstream sexually, or just people who felt like they were not conventional in any way.

And that helped to grow this online dating site that eventually got big enough, that it helped to sustain the company for up until, I think eventually… This was after I left the magazine, but Nerve.com the dating site was eventually sold and folded into another dating site. But in our heyday, which was probably around 2000, we were publishing a nationally distributed print magazine, we had a TV deal with HBO, we had the dating site, we had a number of books published with Chronicle Books. We were doing whatever we possibly could to fund the core heart and soul of Nerve, which was the literary magazine.

Aaron Dinin:

I feel like a lot of your pure publications at the time tried to monetize with only advertising, and that just wasn’t possible back then. It sounds like you all kind of did it the right way by having alternate revenue streams. Is that fair to say?

Genevieve Field:

I wouldn’t say we did it the right way, because I think then Nerve would be Match.com today, If we had done everything the right way. And honestly, the print magazine… It was funny because this was in the year 2000, and a photographers and writers that we wanted to work with were still not that interested in writing or publishing their work online. We Just didn’t have the cache of publishing a print magazine. So partly to kind of raise our cache, we started this print magazine. And I guess probably we thought this could be a great revenue stream, and we were very optimistic, but everyone knows that print magazines lose money for many years before they make money. And it was just a really expensive endeavor. To feed it, we had to get more investors involved, and I would definitely not say that launching a print magazine is the way to make money back then or today.

Advertising was another tricky one for us. The problem with Nerve is, because of the content, the content was what drew people, the content was what drew our audience, but it was also what scared investors and advertisers away. So we were always kind of walking a tightrope between “Well, could we publish this picture? Can we publish naked men?” We want to publish nudes of men, because that’s what we’re all about is, both sexes, equality, but that’s not what some of the advertisers were about. They were scared off by the idea of showing a nude male form. So we would have to have meetings about how to stay true to ourselves and how to keep the lights on. Really the lifeblood for many years was the dating site. So I think because we had that, we lasted a lot longer than some of our peers in the literary magazine world online.

Aaron Dinin:

And Nerve did stick around for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t close down until 2018, meaning its run lasted more than 20 years. Though Genevieve stepped away a good bit before that.

Genevieve Field:

My relationship with it ended well before the magazine ended. I was only there for… Gosh, I guess about three, four years, the early formative years. And when the .com bubble burst, we were kind of scaling back, scaling back. We closed the print magazine. We just focused all of our resources on the dating site. And my place there at the magazine was as the editorial director. And there wasn’t funding anymore for the longer stories to be able to pay writers, to do the kind of work that we had become known for. So I went part-time, I think I was working on a novel at the time and wanted more space for that. And then eventually I just left the magazine entirely and, and went and became the editorial director of Seventeen.com.

Rufus stayed on and continued to build the site with Jack Murnighan, who was an early editor in chief, and then Michael Martin became the editor in chief in 2005. And at that point, Nerve kind of found its footing again. I think they found a way to fund the writing and photography, and the magazine started winning awards. It won another National Magazine Award in 2007 under Michael Martin. And then eventually in 2014, Nerve was acquired by HowAboutWe, which was another dating site. So that was kind of the end of the Nerve era, but it did continue to live on. They took all the content from Nerve.com and they put it in archives and it lived on, I think until 2018.

And then I guess 2018 was really the rest in peace state for Nerve. But a spinoff of Nerves, Babble.com, was started by Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, who Rufus married years before. And she had actually worked on Nerve.com. We had overlapped on Nerve.com before I left. And Babble became very successful, and it was a parenting magazine for… I guess pretty much for all of the cool kids, cool Nerve readers who grew up and started to have kids. That actually, I think for a number of years, was bigger than Nerve and eventually sold to Disney, and then eventually folded.

Aaron Dinin:

And looking back, why do you think Nerve was never able to fully capitalize on its early success and grow into something bigger and longer lasting?

Genevieve Field:

I think we lost our focus a bit. We were just trying everything for a while. As I said, we were an online magazine, and we spent a great deal of our resources on the print magazine project. And we were trying to do TV shows, we were doing… Books, I don’t regret. I think the books were a really natural offshoot of the online project, but we were always running after the next potential investor. Who was going to keep this thing going? Who was going to save us whenever the coffers ran low? And I just think we got spread too thin. And if we had stayed true to just the core mission that we had originally started with, and been comfortable with the idea “Okay, we’re just going to stay small, and we’re going to stay organic.” We’d probably still be around. Just sort of scraping by, but at least this great magazine, and this great content would still be out there and being produced. And instead we just spread ourselves too thin.

Aaron Dinin:

And that’s really the biggest point of failure for any rapidly growing entrepreneurial endeavor. You can either stay rigorously focused on your core product and, or service, but that’s going to limit your potential for growth, or you can try to expand your offerings in order to reach a larger scale, but it comes at a cost. Can you afford to have your attention pulled in so many different directions? According to Genevieve, Nerve couldn’t afford that, and it ultimately undercut their main ambitions as a literary magazine, but again, to be fair, it did last more than 20 years. So it had a good run and in the process, it had a lasting impact on the web.

Genevieve Field:

I am proud of being one of the earliest editors working online to bring really good content. I’m very proud of the fact that we, from our very, very earliest days, knew that we wanted to publish all of our favorite writers. And we were Gutsy enough to actually do that, just to write letters to people like Norman Mailer, and Mary Gaitskill, and Rick moody, who was definitely my favorite novelist at the time, and tell them about this pipe dream that didn’t exist yet, and ask them “Will you write for us for this little bit of money that we can afford, because this is what our vision is, and this is what we believe in?” And they felt our sincerity and contributed.

So I think it was very much about the kind of contributors that we insisted on publishing, and insisted on devoting the magazine to, that we had the success that we did. But yeah, I guess I’m just proud that I had the gumption in my twenties, to reach out to people who really had no reason to want to write for some non-existent online magazine, when the internet didn’t even really register on people’s radar yet. My conviction and my belief in what we were doing obviously came through to them, and so they did it. And that, that level of journalism, and essay writing, and fiction, continued for… Really throughout Nerve’s tenure. I’m very proud of the body of work that exists, and I guess some of the only places you can probably find that body of work is now in the Nerve anthologies. And there are several that are still in print. I definitely feel a great sense of pride at that body of work and just how good the writing was.

Aaron Dinin:

And what do you see as Nerve’s ultimate legacy on the web.

Genevieve Field:

I think Nerve’s legacy was, it was a safe place for people of all genders to express themselves, and to show their artwork, to show their bodies. On the cover of… There’s an anthology that came out called Nerve: The First Ten Years, essays, interviews, fiction and photography, and on the cover of the book is a young transgender woman. And I feel very proud that we put a beautiful transgender nude on the cover of our book, and that we did things like that from the very beginning. I think we were one of the only safe places for artists who were doing this kind of work 20 years ago. That was probably what I’m most proud of.

Aaron Dinin:

We can’t underestimate that legacy. For all the social problems of the internet, the seemingly endless bickering and fame seeking, and whatever else you might want to lament, the internet is also an incredible space for finding your community, whatever it might be. Nerve showed the value of creating a space online where people could truly be themselves, and it’s a precedent we all continue to benefit from, arguably this second, because by listen to this episode, well, that makes you a part of the Web Masters community. Sure, it’s a niche community, but I’m glad to have all of you as part of it. By the way, you can help expand it by being sure to share this episode with someone who might enjoy being a part of our community too.

A big thanks to Genevieve Field for spending some time with me to share her story. After Nerve, she went on to have an incredible career in magazine publishing, and has put out a few books too. She’s a great writer and you should definitely check out her work. You can find links to everything on her website, it’s genevievefield.net.

And while we’re talking about lots of great content on a website, don’t forget to check out aarondinin.com, where you’ll find all sorts of articles I’ve published about startups, entrepreneurship, and business. You can also find me on Twitter, I’m @aarondinin, that’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. This podcast is on Twitter too. Send us any thoughts or feedback you have on the episode, we are @webmasterspod.

Shout out to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for all his help pulling together this episode, and a thanks to our sponsor Latona’s, for their support. As always, if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, don’t forget to check out latonas.com. Also, Don’t forget to subscribe to Web Masters on your favorite podcasting app. Seriously, go do it right now so you get the next episode as soon as it’s released. And that I promise, is coming soon. But for now, well, it’s time for me to sign off.

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