Over at The Kernel, Jesse Hicks has put together a fascinating account of the Church of Scientology’s relationship with the Internet. So, how has a notoriously secretive and hierarchical organization dealt with the world’s most “open and radically nonhierarchical platform for communication”? Not well. Scientology’s antagonistic relationship to the Internet dates back to the web’s early days: when an early ’90s message board became a gathering place for Scientology critics, the Church launched a full-scale war on the site. Things have not improved in the intervening two decades. Why?
Mark Ebner, another journalist who’s often written about the church, offers an even blunter assessment. “We (journos, apostates and critics alike) saw the Internet undoing of Scientology coming around ’96,” he emails. The Internet amplified the reach of critics and brought them together; it helped potential defectors find critical information otherwise suppressed by the church. (Tory Christman remembers the software sent to members in 1998: described as a Web page builder, it also covertly blocked users from viewing anti-Scientology websites.) “The Internet pulled back the curtain to find Hubbard bare, and caught the Office of Special Affairs with their pants down,” Ebner writes. “Years later, Anonymous came to Cyber Town and strafed Scientology while they weren’t looking.”
And then it just sat there for a decade and a half—etched in time and completely untouched—before being rediscovered and going viral in 2010. It was an antique visitor from a distant land, a riveting and slightly horrifying reminder of what the web once was. In other words: it looked aesthetically very similar to the unauthorized Harry Potter fan site that I maintained on GeoCities for most of third and fourth grade (flashing gif icons for every section, bright red Times New Roman text on a black starry sky background, et al). Erik Malinowski’s entire account of the site’s history and legacy is fascinating, but perhaps most interesting is the fact that this oft-mocked website has outlasted nearly everything else surrounding the highest-grossing basketball movie ever made:
Today, the Space Jam site’s popularity has outlived almost everything to which it has been connected. The Fifth Avenue [flagship Warner Bros.] store shuttered in 2001. Both stars of the movie’s stars made forgettable exits in 2003 – Jordan with the Washington Wizards, Bugs with Looney Tunes: Back in Action. And every person directly associated with the site’s creation has now left the studio.
But the site lives on, aging for 19 years but free from influence, to our enduring delight.
Omuro started Redbook so that Bay Area mongers would have a home on the web. It succeeded, ultimately attracting so many users that the site became a full-fledged business, with massive profits. But when RedBook was shut down, the people who were hit the hardest weren’t the buyers, but the sellers—sex workers like Cathy for whom the site had made the world’s oldest profession significantly less risky.
One of the ways the site reduced danger for workers was by making it easier for them to weed out bad dates, from poor tippers to full-on abusive creeps. Providers could choose to meet only customers who were well known and well liked on RedBook’s forums, and some workers even required references from other escorts on the site before taking on a new client. “RedBook provided a space to safely negotiate and screen clients that reduced the likelihood of being victimized by predators or cops,” says Kristina Dolgin of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national advocacy group.
If sex workers simply want to buy an ad, they can still use Cityvibe, Lovings, Backpage, and Eros Guide. RedBook was different, in that its vast network of message boards made it possible for workers to not only advertise but ask questions of one another, find support, and even make friends. This is one of the things that Siouxsie Q, a sex worker in Oakland, misses most about RedBook. “We lost a critical resource for building community,” she says. “And building community is already tough enough when you’ve been marginalized and your work is criminalized.” Women used RedBook’s forums to share everything from jokes to medical and financial tips that were useful to people in the sex industry, she says.
—Eric Steuer writing in Wired about the rise and fall of the Bay Area website myRedBook.com (commonly referred to as RedBook). RedBook, which was shutdown last year by law enforcement, “served as a vast catalog of carnal services, a mashup of Craigslist, Yelp, and Usenet where sex workers and hundreds of thousands of their customers could connect, converse, and make arrangements for commercial sex.” Many sex workers have struggled since the site’s shutdown, with an activist from the Electronic Frontier Foundation quoted as saying that its closure has actually brought more sex workers out onto the street.