The Spot was a webisodic soap opera that was as well-crafted as it was packed with drama. It boomed on the web for several years, and then faded away with virtually no trace. Until now.
Quick TL;DR: The Spot was this magnificent and iconic episodic soap opera that lived on the early web. It’s story and trajectory are below. But, in doing my research, I’ve also compiled all of the entries I could find from the Web Archive in chronological order so you can read through the whole thing yourself, if you’re so inclined.
At a time when the web hardly knew what it was or what it would become, The Spot offered a possible answer: a unique take on entertainment that blurred the lines of reality and fiction by inviting the world to take part in the story. Twenty-five years after it launched, it remains one of the most bizarre experiments of the early web.
The Spot was developed by Scott Zakarin, an aspiring filmmaker and narrative storyteller living in Hollywood. Though not technically proficient, a co-worker and friend had introduced him to the web, and closed networks like AOL, in the early ’90’s. Zakarin spent time in chat rooms and on message boards, first as himself, and then as rotating cast of fictional characters he made up on the fly for the purpose of sparking new and interesting conversations with strangers. Though disingenuous, it was the kind of thing that was happening all the time back then.
After months living in the minds of his fabricated chat room personalities, Zakarin woke from a dream one day with a fully-formed idea for an interactive storytelling experiment told through the medium of the web. He envisioned an episodic story about a group of young adults living together in a house, told through a website featuring daily diary entries these characters posted to the public. Each character would retell stories from the house using the diary entry format on the website, allowing visitors to experience the same story told from several different perspectives.
Zakarin pitched the idea as a Melrose Place meets Real World, two cultural touchstones that likely mean very little to the post-primetime, post-MTV generation. Instead think of it like this.
There’s a central website, thespot.com. It has some pictures of the house where everyone lives, a bit of a description of the show, and a big calendar of the current month. Each day on the calendar is marked by an entry or two (or three) written by one of the people at the house. The entries tell the story of what happened that day, and if you were able to keep up with the daily entries, you could start to piece together some plot threads and figure out all the different diverging storylines as you followed the lives of the people on the spot. The thing was, it was all fictional, written by a group of actors. The stories were meant to simulate ordinary life in some ways, but blended with the drama of a soap opera. Keeping things fresh was key, so that the audience came back to the site day after day to soak up the next chapter.
Zakarin put together a few co-workers and friends to help with the idea, and together with a shoestring from his marketing agency employer, created the very first version of the website The Spot.
The Spot referred to the house Zakarin and his writers created in Santa Monica for all of the characters to live. Known as Spotmates, the cast of the site were an eclectic group of aspiring actors, filmmakers, and models with big egos and short tempers. Stories were loosely organized into webisodes, though not clearly marked as such in any way which gave it hint a vérité, or at the very least, tricked an awful lot of people into thinking that the housemates of The Spot were real and that these were stories from their actual lives.
In fact, one of the great strengths of The Spot was the endless debate among its fans about whether or not its stars were real or fictional. To fuel conversation that was already happening in the chat rooms Zakarin himself had once loved, The Spot set up a message board of their own right on the site. Spotmates would make frequent in-character appearances in the chat room adding to the mystery of the truth or untruth behind it all. One group of fans were so certain it was real that they traveled to Santa Monica to try to find the house or its occupants. Of course, they had no luck. It was all made up. But that didn’t many fans from forging deep connections with the Spotmates.
The site was visited hundreds of thousands of times a day, all the way back in the mid-90’s. And the actors received hundreds of emails from fans wanting to know more about their lives and dreams. Fan-sites launched all over the web tracking various plots threads and storylines, espousing radical theories about the subtextual meaning of each entry posted to The Spot.
In 1996, the site won the first and only Cool Site of the Year award, sponsored by the review and aggregator site Cool Site of the Day. That same year, Zakarin clashed with new owners brought in to expand the site and make it more appealing to the mainstream. Unable to get on the same page, Zakarin left, bringing a sizable chunk of the creative staff with him. By the end of 1997, the whole thing fizzled out.
The Spot has never been replicated. It captures a time and a place and a new frontier about as well as any other experiment with a medium. And it’s still really good. How do I know? Because I read through dozens of entries from The Spot over several years to understand how it evolved, so you don’t have to. So we can dive deep into the characters and the stories that shaped one corner of the early web.
The Spot is defined by its cast of characters. Each day several new entries are posted to the site. Not every character writes a new post on every day, but there are usually a couple to read. Early on in the
show, all of them agreed to one simple rule: no one is allowed to read each others entries. That rules makes things a lot simpler, each character only needs to retell the days events filtered through their own experience, without the need to directly comment on anyone else’s story. This gives the whole a Rashomon effect, where the truth lies somewhere in between the lines, and can only truly be found by piecing together multiple perspectives at once.
If one ventures through the daily entries of our cast, they will find that the personalities are indeed larger than life. Despite their frequent insistence that they are, in fact, very much real people living very much real lives, none of the housemates at the Spot seem to fit the mold of an early web adopter glued to their computer screen. They lack a certain nerd credibility and their personalities ready more like the roll call straight out of a soap opera.
There’s Tara, the alleged creator of the website and experiment, an aspiring filmmaker with a sharp wit and a short temper, sparring frequently and indiscriminately with her housemates but always returning to a central, maternal role. The Spot is often visited by her half-brother, Tyler.
Michelle flows through life like water, anxious for the next adventure, tied to a desk job but desperate for a more glamorous life. She’s pursued rather endlessly by two regular guys in the cast, Jeff and Lon.
Jeff fancies himself a man of mystery (his early entries read as cryptic poems rather than actual prose), but he’s really just as insecure as the rest of us.
Lon catches vibes and exudes a confidence that often borders on arrogance. His attitude only serves to mask a more sensitive side and his longing ambition to make it as a star.
The cast is rounded out by Carrie. Poor, always-trusting Carrie who seems to find herself in a bit of trouble no matter where she turns even as she tries to keep the balance.
And then of course, there’s their dog Spotnik, who also happens to write his own diary entries on the site, which apparently shot up no red flags for the devout audience clinging the idea that this was all somehow real.
This core roster is orbited by an ever-expanding number of peripheral personalities that come in and out of stories and sometimes even get guest entries of their own. The misadventures of the Spotmates and their friends are near constant. The monotony that usually goes along with daily life does not appear to extend to the bubble inside and around the Spot house. There are fights almost every day. Personalities and egos clash in epic battles and lines in the sand are drawn and redrawn regularly.
The source of anger and the controversy in many of these conflicts is typically something small, only serving to make the overreactions more compelling. An offhand slight might cause one Spotmate to pout and retreat from posting altogether for days, leaving us, the audience, to rely on the accounts of others to piece together what happened. Relationships are always tenuous, often brief, and occasionally end in fireworks. It’s not at all unusual for a long lost friend to show up out of nowhere. Life at the Spot is not like life outside of it, but its pace and intrigue keeps everything right on the verge of believability.
In short, there is always something going on.
Every once in a while, the lives of our characters are upended by a new mystery or powerful external force. When Lon rifles through the attic one day he finds a cryptic diary left by the house’s previous owners. For days, Lon carefully conceals the secrets hidden within, sharing only with his those that have gained his trust inside of the house, and the thousands of fans checking in on him from outside of it. On another occasion, a college reporter visits the house and publishes an article to her campus newspaper (both of which are made up). Her pointed and negative characterizations of the Spotmates cause the whole house to lash out on one another. Days later, the reporter gets a guest spot on the site of her own and explains everything from her point of view.
A few times, the story descends into all out chaos, the most radical example of which is the full-on disappearance of Tara and the possibility of, and yes this is really a story they wrote, murder. Tara vanishes from the house under the auspices of a possible kidnapping. In the days that follow, the Spotmates try to reckon with what happen in outpourings of grief and regret. Tara never returns and we never find out what happened to her, though she is presumed dead. This sharp left turn into absolute insanity is somewhat explained by the events happening behind the scenes. A rift had recently formed between The Spot’s original creators and their new overlords, parent company American Cybecast. Unable to resolve their differences Zakarin and a few writers left the project. In an act of defiance, they decided to take Tara with them. But reading it on the page, it is one of the most startling and abrupt shifts in tone in any episodic format I have ever seen.
But that’s the kind of thing you got on The Spot and there has never been anything like it again. It is a joy to read and a wonderful representation of imagined potential of the early web.
The Spot was never properly archived. But if you’re like me, and you’re fascinated by these kinds of stories and experiments, I’ve done by best to scour through the archive and give them all some sort of structure. So here is a link to stories from every month of The Spot, as best as I could pull together:
A collection of entries from the Spot, ordered chronologically
- July, 1995
- August, 1995
- September, 1995
- October, 1995
- November, 1995
- December, 1995
- January, 1996
- February, 1996
- March, 1996
- April, 1996
- May, 1996
- June, 1996
- July, 1996
- August, 1996
- September, 1996
- October, 1996
Due to weird design practices, you need to highlight the words on the following pages to see them properly:
Things get a bit trickier from here, so here’s a list of indexed URLs from the Web Archive
And I think that’s it. If you’re feeling adventurous, enjoy!