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Slap Happy

On the Web, our secret hungers, passions, and fetishes are highly lucrative -- as the author discovered when he got to the bottom of a college classmate's business.

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The relish with which I read my Vassar alumni magazine is less for the memories -- it's filled with news of people I don't remember -- than because it presents such a soothing view of the world. It doesn't matter what a person does or has not gone on to do, everyone is treated evenly. There are no inflections. You can live in Scarsdale or in an ashram; you can be a court-of-appeals judge or a retro housewife, semiotician or banker, dermatologist or poet, lesbian or born-again, and you are still just one of us. Since graduation, Meryl Streep has been in many popular films and dramatic productions . . . Keep up the good work, Meryl! No matter your success, your failure, your caution, or your extremes, your life is but a diverting anticlimax to our college years.

And yet, not long ago, the alumni quarterly managed to surprise me.

Diane Fauer, whom I did not immediately remember, had become a novelist. While it seemed unlikely that I would not remember a classmate with literary ambitions, this isn't the surprise (she comes into view vaguely, maybe: a small girl with frizzy hair?). She'd written five novels under a name not her own (many people from college seemed to have found new names). And while I did not recall hearing of any of her books, the imprint, Shadow Lane, sounded like a literary house I should know.

Now, one of the remarkable things about expensive colleges (at least in my era) is not the homogeneity of the homogenous student body but the weird and unexpected places many people end up. There are wildly diverse worlds in middle-class America (only the most hidebound, I sometimes think, come to New York).

And, as it happened, Diane Fauer, who had left the Bronx for Vassar and Vassar for Los Angeles, writing under the name Eve Howard, had become, in the 25 years since graduation, the most famous writer in her world -- a beloved, best-selling, and critically praised novelist of her particular, narrowcast sensibility.

"What happens on the Web is what we've been doing in the fetish-media world for a long time. There are so many people out there who don't know how to connect. We find them and bring them in."

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Or I am avoiding the real subject.

Shadow Lane, as the Web instantly reveals, is a fetishist publisher. My former classmate is a fetishist writer. One of the great fetishist writers of the day. The Barbara Cartland, Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy of spanking.

What's more, this is, for her, not just art (or disturbance) but business. Substantial, meaningful, sustaining business. Shadow Lane, of which Diane Fauer/Eve Howard is star author and co-owner, not only sells books and runs a paid-for Website but publishes an off-line magazine (Stand Corrected), produces videos, and engages in catalogue and e-commerce sales. This is big-time small time, with all sorts of lessons for creative, entrepreneurial people. Indeed, I know many authors, musicians, and would-be personalities with Websites and mailing lists and other branding and income-producing efforts who could learn a thing or two about the personal-media business from this fetish model.

On the Web, of course, having a fetish is a big advantage. Who hasn't glanced -- secretly, compulsively, with wide-eyed amazement -- at the sprawling world of kinks out there (many too kinky to utter)? This is beyond pornography. This is an open window into the human psyche -- and a pretty good indication of unmet demand.

What's more, the economics of the Web favor fetishism, i.e., specialized subjects with limited but obsessive audiences.

"If spankers had a nation," wrote my friend Ben Greenman, pretty much summing up the Internet, "then alt.sex.spanking would be their Congress."

Fetishism is the obvious (even inevitable) direction of narrowcast media. Fetishism becomes, in fact, a useful metaphor for how to create new media.

Once, I went out to AT&T's weird and frightening headquarters in Basking Ridge, New Jersey -- a combination of the Pentagon and Hitler's Berchtesgaden -- to pitch a new-media business idea. The AT&T vice president for business development who listened to my pitch was not so impressed with my approach but offered a little guidance: "What we look for," he said, surrounded by a vast expanse of white board, "are applications and programming options that will habituate our users."

I knew immediately that I had been imparted a profound message, a secret of technological success even. It wasn't just usefulness or entertainment you had to be thinking about but need -- profound need, desperate need.

A fetish, in other words, is a business plus. (What's more, a business analysis is probably at least as helpful as a psychological one in overcoming the shame -- if the Web teaches us anything, it's that there are no single-user compulsions; if you have a compulsion, other people must have it, too.) Obsession is the name of the game. Auctions. Day-trading. Sports. Spanking.

Look for a monkey on someone's back -- then feed it.

I E-mailed my former classmate, explaining that I had become a media columnist and, since she was in an interesting and growing segment of the media business, perhaps we should get together. She was enthusiastic about some straight-world press, and we made a date for when I shortly planned to be in Los Angeles.

I wondered if she doubted my motives. How cleanly could she draw the distinction in her mind between a prurient and a business interest? Would she assume I was a fellow traveler rather than a disinterested columnist?

She came up to my room at the Century Plaza instead of calling from the lobby. I thought she was slightly odd-looking -- something just a little off -- subterranean, nebbishy (did I remember her or did I not? I couldn't remember if I remembered her). She certainly did not seem as commanding and flamboyant as I would have imagined a fetishist entrepreneur would be. (On the other hand, as she would explain, she was a submissive -- which you would not think of as a strong entrepreneurial attribute.) She was dressed too young for 46 (or was this just L.A.?). She was fidgety, and bad at making eye contact.


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