T h i r t y - F o u r t h

Politics Goes 'PC'

The director of the Web's hottest new site looks at the future of interactive entertainment.

  • By Jon Kaufthal

    "Democracy is interactive,"

    is one of his ubiquitous campaign mantras -- just the latest in a never-ending barrage of sound bites hurled at the public by the spin doctors of independent presidential candidate Jack Parrish.

    Jack who?

    You know, Jack Parrish, the 38-year-old computer whiz who was recently drafted as a presidential candidate by college student Spike Mason. Still doesn't sound familiar? Ask supporter Robert Tercek about Parrish, and he'll explain that Parrish has done radio interviews, gotten his share of press coverage, and, most importantly for the campaign of the nineties, has a terrific Web site at

    Okay, so maybe Parrish is a fictional candidate, but that just makes Candidate 96 all the more enchanting.

    Tercek, the site's creative director, comes from a television background, having worked on several TV miniseries, as well as helping to launch MTV Asia. Brainstorming with the site's co-creator Sally DeSipio, he thought, "It'd be really cool to do a show about a guy that just steps into Washington -- 'Joe Average' gets sucked into the political process' ... and on further discussion it became, 'You know, it'd be cool to do this interactively on the Internet; make it nationwide; make it the guy running for national office.'" Thus, Candidate 96 was born.

    Candidate 96 is the latest and greatest of a new and ever-growing breed of episodic, soap-opera-esque Web sites such as The Spot (, more recently, Ferndale(, reviewed 4/11/96), The East Village (, reviewed 3/28/96), and others (Yahoo! last counted over 30). Chronicling the presidential campaign of Jack Parrish as he attempts to win over voters in a bid for the nation's highest office, the site employs a "fly-on-a-wall" perspective which allows users to read the confidential letters and journals of the candidate and his staff.

    One of the things that sets Candidate 96 apart from the rest is the high quality of its material. The site is the forerunner of a new form of entertainment -- the World-Wide Web as a viable, full-scale, mainstream entertainment medium.

    The Web: A Glance Back -- And A Look Ahead

    Elaborate content like that of Candidate 96 would have been unthinkable only a short while ago. In its infancy several years ago, the Web was an all-text proposition, only used experimentally by a small group of scientists and the occasional college student. With the advent of NCSA Mosaic and later, Netscape Navigator, it suddenly became possible to add graphics, and eventually video and audio, and even virtual-reality worlds. With Netscape's licensing of Sun's Java language, it is now possible to have real interactive content on the Web -- slowly shifting the paradigm from one of one-way publishing to a two-way, interactive experience. With millions of people worldwide already on-line and millions more logging on each month, the Web seems to have finally caught on.

    Candidate 96 is among the first of a new generation of Web sites, and one that truly tests the Web's potential as a distinct medium, rather than one to simply hold rehashed TV and text content. In the months and years ahead, as real-time, high quality video and audio become standard, the Web will be in a position to provide some real competition for television and other media -- both in terms of viewer's attention and in terms of attracting corporate dollars -- as Candidate 96 hopes to. This development promises to be the one that will finally take the Web from cute techie-toy into the mainstream arena of entertainment.

    A New Entertainment Experience

    Candidate 96 is one of the most ambitious purely entertainment-centered WWW projects to date. The site boasts a staff of over twenty, with backgrounds ranging from politics to television, and from journalism to soft-core porn. As far as the site's two producers are concerned, television is the best medium on which to base the Web site. Tercek explains, "We always try to design stuff to feel like a show, regardless of the medium it'll be playing on ... and then we get as close to that as we can." As far as plot goes, though, Tercek looks elsewhere for inspiration, likening certain aspects of the site to "an airport thriller," "cheap thrills," and the like. In reality, the site is something in between -- a unique form of entertainment that promises to evolve as fast as the Web itself.

    Tercek explaines that working on the Web provided a pleasantly different experience. Describing the site's creative evolution, he says, "You design these things on paper first and then when you get feedback from people, the great thing about the Internet is that we can tweak it a little bit ... as you go." Another benefit, he states, is the instant gratification of seeing your work on the Web. "It's cool because you can't really do that... In television you make the show and months later it shows up on TV -- but you're on another project by that point."

    By its very nature, the Web affords some creative opportunities that television can not. Tercek explains, "The neat thing about the Internet is you can show kind of interior monologue with diaries and journals... You can also show a little dialogue with e-mail, so you have this exchange of debate within the campaign: people are jockeying for power, jockeying for position, or arguing with each other trying to persuade the candidate. That's one of the really exciting parts of the show -- the drama within the campaign headquarters."

    A Tour Of Campaign 96

    Structurally, Candidate 96 is divided into three major areas, all linked to the first page that comes up when visiting the site. The main section is Parrish 96 headquarters, graphically represented by a blueprint diagram of the area and its computer network, with each staffer's office identified. Thanks to a nameless and faceless mole, the computer system has been hacked, making eavesdropping a cinch (when clicking on the Campaign HQ link, a password flashes on the screen and is then promptly overridden). Headquarters is where most of the action takes place, and where most of the storyline is to be discovered. Each Parrish groupie (as well as the man himself, of course) has a separate computer, each with a desktop scheme customized to fit his or her personality (after all, Parrish was the CEO of X-Lith Software, a multi-million dollar software company that struck it rich by making customizable desktop software, remember?). By clicking on a character's computer, you are able to snoop in on his hard drive, and, by extension, his e-mail, faxes, letters, personal journal, Web browser, and voicemail. Parrish's own journal is a masterpiece, providing great insight into the mind of the candidate. There are even provisions for a "desk cam," though that feature has yet to be implemented.

    The second major section of Campaign 96 is the "Draft Parrish" Web site. This is where Spike Mason, a college student and self-appointed cheerleader for Parrish, gets to air his political views. The "Speak" section hosts his daily rant on politics, while "Spoke" holds a collection of press clippings, both real and invented. Two more minor sections complete the "Draft Parrish" site: "Spank" is a form of an e-mail prank designed to harass unsuspecting politicians, while "Spike" is simply a collection of Mason's favorite WWW links.

    Finally, the "Intelligence" section provides the mole's-eye-view of the campaign trail. Here is where you'll find the mole's daily status report, a quick overview of the latest developments. Also on this page are dossiers on all of the major characters on the site, and a link to a site synopsis, essentially an explanation of the site and how it works. Finally, access is provided to newsgroups, where users can discuss politics and Parrish's campaign (although to date, message traffic has been nearly nonexistent).

    'Fractured Perspective': The Birth Of A New Genre?

    Because of the Web's paradigm linking one thing to the next in a nonlinear fashion, it lends itself to new modes of storytelling. Tercek states, "I call it 'fractured perspective' because it's like multiple points of view ... and that's really different. Obviously there's some literature that kind of does that -- Faulkner ... but this is the first medium where you can really do that... You get the whole melee."

    Tercek illustrates why this new angle is so noteworthy:

    "You get different points of view -- you see how [the members of the campaign staff] deal with [Parrish], which is generally polite, and then behind his back they're stabbing him. And it's getting even more so now because you have different characters checking each other out -- a girl shows up, and all the guys are hitting on her, and then amongst themselves they're going 'Hey, she's pretty hot -- I wonder if she's doing Jack?' So we get even another layer of webs between people and different characters in the story.

    "Then there's an entirely different view that you get out of the press. What press and the public perceive is a different thing entirely, so to convey that we created the 'Draft Parrish' Web site, which shows you how someone entirely removed from this ... has a different perspective.

    "And then finally we thought, 'Well, wait a minute -- we have this audience, they're coming into the show kind of like a voyeur ... they get to snoop around and look at the personal stuff... We thought, Gee, let's fill that side up as well' -- so that's where the spying angle came in. So it's almost like a story within a story with this wraparound story of the spy ... and that made us really excited. I don't thing anything like that's really been done before."

    In two versions of an e-mail message from Dick Keating, Parrish's campaign manager, an example of what Tercek would call 'fractured perspective' (and what others would simply call routine political spin doctoring) is employed to advance the storyline. In Keating's "3/11 Weekend Wrapup," he tells Parrish, "Good job stumping this weekend. You're making good contact and you're convincing. But, watch out -- you keep swerving off-message... Remember -- you're talking to different people every day. They need to hear what you've got to say on those hot button issues [pollster Spencer] Tully specified. You've got to convince people one voter at a time. When you stick to your core issues, voters respond. So do it -- and we will make an impact. Otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels." His tone with Curtis Hatch, Parrish's financial backer, is far coarser: "You've got to control Parrish. He's way off-message, singing a different tune in every speech, making contradictory statements, and refusing to stick to the hot button issues. Straying off message is SUICIDE. If he continues to do this, I can guarantee a loss. I don't care how much money you're paying me, I may as well quit now. He has got to stick to the script."

    These little interactions are what truly make the characters come to life -- that and the fact that each has a face and voice. Photos of the characters abound in press clippings, journal entries, and faxes, while their voices can be heard on voice-mail messages, as well as on samples from Parrish's speeches -- complete with applause. These little details are where the professional background of the site's staff really shows, making the characters of Campaign 96 as engrossing as they are.

    Candidate 96: The Big Picture

    Currently, Candidate 96 is both free and free of advertisements, funded solely by AND Interactive, the production company that teamed with Tercek and DeSipio. Eventually, Tercek says the goal is to attract corporate sponsors for the site, which he says will run through presidential elections this November, and then probably undergo some sort of metamorphosis.

    The real goal, though, Tercek claims, is political awareness. He explains, "Very passionately, Sally [DeSipio] and I want to see people get more engaged in the political process. The biggest turn off is to talk to young people about politics and they find it boring. They find it irrelevant, and you say 'Gosh, this is your future and your country, your job ... so many things are affected by it, how could you find it irrelevant?' -- 'Well, because our votes don't count...' What we need to do is dramatize the political process and make it interesting and accessible. Now, a story like this, with all of its sizzle -- and you know, frankly, some of it is really cheap thrills ... hopefully, that's the bait that gets them to bite the hook." For a unique mix of technology, politics, and high-caliber drama, just take a bite of Candidate 96 -- and you will be hooked.

    Jon Kaufthal is too heavy. Too light. Too black. Too white. Dammit, lately he's just become cumbersome.

    Please E-mail with any questions or comments.

    © Copyright 1996 The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. All rights reserved.

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