Given the task of reviewing the new Private Eye website I logged on to the Microsoft Network to have a look. I knew that’s where I’d find it because there’s a big ad on the inside back cover of the print version of Private Eye. It depicts the Yobs from the eponymous cartoon strip standing outside a computer shop. The poster in the window bears the legend: “Come and ‘ave a go on the Internet if you think you’re hard enough.” The Yobs look grumpy and pretty pissed off. I’d find out why in a few hours.
Easy stuff this review lark, I think: sit at home on Saturday morning and bang out 600 words. Start up the Mac (make a cup of tea while I wait), fire up Netscape 4 (first mistake), tap in the URL and wait. A quick scan of the overcrowded MSN homepage reveals a box that says “enter registration details” and I mistakenly think I have to register to enter the site. As it turns out I didn’t have to register at all but, on the upside, I now have an e-mail account with hotmail. I’m email@example.com (firstname.lastname@example.org was already taken and I didn’t want to be email@example.com which was their suggestion. If anyone asks about the z in pjzmurphy I’ll just say it is silent.).
New e-mail address in hand, a couple of clicks and I’m in. Or rather I’m not in. I’m looking at an on-screen cartoon of a bouncer by a night-club door with a sign above it that says “Private Eye”. The caption reads: “If you want to come in, y’need the right gear. You’ll need to get Flash 2 or Netshow. If you try cummin’ in wivout ’em, all you’ll get is a poncy error which’ll make me MAD! It’s all in the rools of the ‘ouse. Follow’em or ‘oppit!”
Oh, I think, it’s one of those websites with a no jeans, no trainers rule. So, half an hour later with the required software downloads I’m back pleading with the bouncer. Personally, browser-wise I’m feeling slightly overdressed, like a guy in an Armani suit outside a backstreet night-club in Croydon. He still won’t let me in. No explanation but an unmovable, unclickable page. Maybe, despite all the Bill Gates-Steve Jobbs love-ins, the Microsoft Network has a thing against Macintoshes. Hmmmm.
An hour later, on the other side of London, I find myself sitting at my Windows 95 PC at work. I fire up the ugly and totally overspecified Dell HotDog or PowerEdge or whatever it’s called. This time I am straight in. No problem. Maybe like any swish West End club it’s not what you know that counts, but who you know.
An animated greeting leads to the front cover, this fortnight it’s Monica Lewinsky with an “I’m going to go down in history!” speech bubble. It’s just like a print magazine cover except that it moves about a bit and, if you think that you can write a better caption, you can enter a competition and win… a tenner!
Having made it impossible to enter without the kind of techno fest that wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond movie, the Private Eye site then makes the most of it with nine sections, each using a mixture of animation and sound. Colemanballs becomes a Shockwave Flash multiple-choice quiz; Blairzone is an animated cartoon with a midi soundtrack not dissimilar to Aqua’s Barbie Girl and just as irritating. But – despite having all the plug-ins, the authorised browser and the prescribed platform – the sound on Funny Old World, the Bores and the Yobs won’t play. And, as there are no text-only alternatives, I miss out on the jokes.
I would have preferred a low-tech approach to the whole enterprise aimed at maximising accessibility rather than the strict software “dress code”. At the same time you have to question the decision not to license the news content like HP Sauce and Footnotes from the magazine which would have attracted a regular audience.
You can attempt to visit the MSN Private Eye website at http://msn.co.uk