VIDEO: Alan Cumming and Company Launch Web's First "Obsession Network"
“Sickness” is a loaded word for the enterprise. There’s a history of stigma attached to obsessive behavior, including fandom (think of Trekkies). Harris wants to play on this idea but also evoke the more contemporary meaning of the term. “ ‘That’s sick’ is what kids in California and surfers and skiers say when something is intense or incredible,” he says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of—it’s cool.”
In fact, itsasickness is designed to encourage participants to show they are the sickest. “You get status, like a crown, for being a leader on a topic,” Gooltz explains. “We want to identify and engage the most hardcore people,” Harris adds. In one video on the site already, member Joe Plummer discusses the mystery of Shakespeare’s true identity; in another video, musicians Adam Schatz and Jeff Curtin sing songs they wrote about episodes of Lost.
The chance to prove the depth of one’s passion may well draw people to itsasickness.com. So might the site’s hip, professional design, high-quality videos, and celebrity-generated content. (Zoe Kravitz’s obsession? Costumes! Jason Bateman’s? Classical music.) But attracting eyeballs and keeping them there is the great challenge for every Internet start-up, and itsasickness faces stiff competition for our attention. Sports junkies, for example, already have ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com, CNN.com, and the countless sites covering their favorite teams.
Harris, who describes himself as an evangelist for the project, says his faith stems from his view that the phrase “It’s a sickness” is the perfect expression for the moment. “It’s going to be the next ‘Just do it,’ ” he says, “but for everything, not just sneakers.” Another plus is the fact that the site’s content is generated by genuine enthusiasts. “We’re not some big media company with an ulterior motive for creating community. The experience we offer is authentic. Even the ads, when we get them, are going to be authentic, and we’re going to offer specific products geared toward people’s obsessions.”
Of course they also have to find a way to sell companies on partnering with them, but Gooltz believes their business plan can succeed. Unlike social-networking sites, which are notoriously difficult to monetize, a successful object-networking site—but only a successful one—would be an obvious draw to advertisers. If Kindle users flock to itsasickness, might Amazon want to follow them? Whether the more specialized and obscure “sicknesses” like asparagus, No. 6 clog boots, and the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, which make up the majority of the site, will have a similar appeal is just one of the project’s many unknowns.
As they approached the final launch date set for this fall, Harris and Cumming were already scheming their next step. “I really shouldn’t tell you this,” Harris says, “but we’re working on an itsasickness TV show, with Alan as the MC and, most likely, the sickest people from the website providing content.” Some of us, at least, can never get enough.
Itsasickness obsessions include argyle, bubble wrap, Estonia, hurdy-gurdies, molé, Peter Lorre, Rooibos tea, and Savile Row tailors.
In Alan Cumming’s itsasickness video about his obsession with his dogs, he confesses that they have their own publicity photos.
Alan Cumming: True oil, gay rights, Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, seventies Scottish child-star singer Lena Zavaroni, luxury travel, Flip video, his dogs
Fred Gooltz: Seventies movies, Conan O’Brien, Led Zeppelin, Motown, Shakespeare, World Cup soccer, Porsche 911
Barnaby Harris: Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda’s character on M.A.S.H.), seventies TV and movies, Apple products, overuse of paper towels