Smells Like Teen Dispirit

Synge.com pushes style over substance

Bland. That's the only word that leaps to mind after looking at Synge.com (www.synge.com), a new Web magazine aimed at teens. Oh, sure, they've gussied it up with some faux lounge-style leopard-skin prints and some perky animation, but the content is as safe and inoffensive as boiled pabulum.

Synge.com is a Costa Mesa-based Web publication that's been nagging me to review it for a few weeks-and now I bet they wish they hadn't. It bills itself as "the ultimate pop-culture magazine for young adults on the Internet," and I have to say culture doesn't get much poppier than this. The site features fashion tips such as finding the perfect mascara, film and music reviews of such cutting-edge bands as the Rolling Stones, nutrition and exercise advice, scary facts to know about drugs and alcohol, cautionary tales about STDs, video-game reviews, and other such cultural detritus. The site is, for the most part, well-written and beautifully organized, but we're talking a clear case of style over substance.

All of this is inoffensive enough-and that's the problem. Synge.com is a free site, so it's dependent on advertising revenue for its income, and, conscious of that, it's apparently trying to tick off as few people as possible. Since it's aimed at a teen audience, its writers are clearly trying to do the socially responsible thing and avoid corrupting any minors. The following is a list, taken from Synge. com's marketing materials, of content it has deemed "inappropriate" for its underage audience: sexually explicit images or text, material that glamorizes the use of alcohol or gives instructions for growing illegal drugs, gambling information, descriptions of physical violence, bomb-making instructions, degradation of virtually anyone-race, nationality, gender, religion, age, etc.-and, most frightening, "content that contains a political or social agenda." In other words, anything remotely edgy, important or recreational is verboten.

What kind of message is that to send today's teens? Do we really want a generation of kids growing up thinking that political and social activism is less important than makeup, dieting and the Rolling Stones?

Political coverage is virtually nonexistent on Synge.com-a recent article on the impeachment crisis currently ripping apart Congress focused on how Chelsea Clinton is holding up under the strain. A brief article on Newt Gingrich's resignation was sandwiched between a report on high school jobs and the death of Batman creator Bob Kane. And social activism is limited to a section on volunteering featuring such nice, happy organizations as the American Cancer Society, Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers and the Peace Corps.

The main focus of Synge.com is an advertiser-friendly emphasis on consumption: what clothes to wear; what arbitrary fashion dictates to follow; and what makeup, music, video games and cars to purchase. This may make its readers good consumers-but lousy citizens.

Synge, of course, is not billing itself as a political journal-it's a pop-culture mag. But it's possible, and usually salutory, to effectively combine the two to stunning effect, as the grande dame of Internet letters, Salon Magazine (www.salonmagazine.com), proves every day with its mix of sex, culture and cutting-edge political reporting.

It's a shame that Synge.com has voluntarily hobbled itself like this. The Internet holds a wealth of potential for indie publishers by removing many of the barriers that hold back zines in the real world-there's no need to establish distribution channels or pay exorbitant printing costs. Anyone with a computer and a little software can instantly become an editor in chief.

As a consequence, the small world of zine publishing has exploded online in the past few years-sometimes to the painful detriment of readers. Some e-zines go way overboard with funky graphics, irritating animation and virtually unreadable prose, but others produce some of the edgiest, most thoughtful and weirdest commentary I've seen in years. E-zines such as Disgruntled Housewife (www.disgruntledhousewife.com) and ALR Advocate 2.0 (www.concentric.net/~chocker) show what you can do with the medium if you're both talented and critically deranged-essential qualities for zine production.

Of course, zines can get as wild and crazy as they want because they're beholden to no one-they sell no ads, and they make no money. In a sense, corporate responsibility tends to make one fearful. The wild creativity of the Net has been under assault ever since companies realized they could make money on it. The Communications Decency Act, the latest Child Online Protection Act (for which a judge just issued a temporary restraining order after plaintiffs testified it would crush their businesses-plaintiffs like the editor of Salon Magazine) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are all designed by people who fear unregulated living. And it's partly fueled, I'm convinced, by a desire on the part of corporations to make the Net as profitable as possible by making it friendly, safe, clean-in a word, nice. But life isn't nice-it's mucky, messy, dirty and chaotic. And that's what makes it fabulous-Main Street USA is fine for an occasional getaway, but would you really want to live there always?

By trying to please everybody, Synge will ultimately wind up pleasing nobody, except its advertisers. But advertisers should merely be the means to an end, a way to pay the bills so you can keep sounding your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. Take a chance, people! Risk saying something that might offend someone! Try writing something that can make a difference in your readers' lives instead of catering to a capitalist world that wants its citizens to shut up and buy.

Bland, bland, bland.

Offend Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.

 
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