The best party on the web

At long last, net-users and Lucy Aitken are invited to join the glitterati at 'Vanity Fair' online
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The Independent Online

There's a party going on in cyberspace. It's a classy affair, with A-list celebrities, wise, old coves, rapier wits and blindingly bright members of the intelligentsia. It should be a damned good party, because it's been a long time coming. Several years after most magazines dipped their toe in the water by launching online editions, one of Condé Nast's flagship titles has just entered the fray with vanityfair.com.

The prestigious Vanity Fair, which has a UK circulation of 93,125 and sells 1,181,296 in the US, is offering a mix of features reproduced from the magazine, as well as web-only content, such as blogs, a forum and polls. It also makes intelligent use of links to other sites. This kind of content mirrors its global glitterati party culture - the magazine's Oscars bash is its most famous brand extension - by appealing to an aspirational, socialite audience. David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair, says: "We're all social animals and people love seeing pictures of themselves and their friends at parties. They also love knowing who was lying when they said they couldn't go to this party and who was then pictured at a party across town."

There's also the Daily Dose ("our editors' hot buttons"), which links to other sites covering areas such as news, politics, Hollywood, arts, culture and blogs, which play a starring role on vanityfair.com. "The blog is the voice of internet culture," says Friend. "We got our feet wet in September by launching Jim Wolcott's blog."

A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Wolcott, who has the tagline "Zorro of the zeitgeist", says: "A lot of people judge Vanity Fair from the cover and think it's all Hollywood glitz without realising that there are long, investigative pieces inside. Because more dialogue is now moving to the internet, blogs make things much more conversational." Wolcott describes blogs as "the best thing to hit journalism since the rise of the political pamphlet" and has been particularly keen on bashing Bush in his high-profile blog. In fact, he echoes the sentiments of Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief. Carter recently wrote a book, What We've Lost: How the Bush Administration has Curtailed our Freedoms, Mortgaged our Economy, Ravaged our Environment and Damaged our Standing in the World.

Because US opinion is so divided about four more years of Bush, the launch of vanityfair.com is timely. Aside from the cocktails and celebrity element, there's an earnest desire to stimulate intelligent conversation, just like at a high-society party. The "roundtable" feature epitomises this concept. Consciously reminiscent of the Algonquin Table (named after The Algonquin Hotel, where former Vanity Fair contributors drank and debated), caricatures of contributors penned by the illustrator Tim Sheaffer sit around a table. Links follow a collection of articles taken from the magazine: The Observer journalist David Rose writes an investigative piece on Gulf War syndrome, while "The Gossip Behind the Gossip" is Frank DiGiacomo's history of the New York Post's "Page Six", or "America's most feared gossip column". There are musings on "If Paris Hilton was president" and a blog from another contributing editor, Edwin John Coaster. The opinions are eclectic; the prose provocative. The Rose and DiGiacomo articles are long, running into thousands of words; bucking the internet's "less-is-more" culture. But Friend says: "The magazine is a meal and the website is an hors d'oeuvre. I sense a web audience may be more youthful, with a shorter attention span."

Friend harbours the hope that, through vanityfair.com, more people will be exposed to the magazine and will want to subscribe. Two-thirds of the magazine's circulation comprises subscriptions, with the remaining third sold on the newsstand. This is no mean feat in the US, where newsstand sales tend to be the exception.

So why has Vanity Fair waited so long before launching online? Friend says: "People lost a lot of money on websites and we thought it was best to wait until we had a really good idea. We don't dissipate the Vanity Fair logo: the brand is too valuable."

In an era where no one bats an eyelid at Maxim-branded bedclothes or Cosmo cleavage tape, such fierce protection of a consumer magazine brand is rare. But, unlike many magazine websites, vanityfair.com appears to be blessedly free of financial targets. Ask Friend what the business goals are for the site and he immediately answers: "None. If you create something great or interesting, then the business will follow." To date, only one non-Condé Nast advertiser has an obvious presence on the site: Audi.

The site's mission is to encourage more frequent engagement with Vanity Fair. Wolcott states: "The Vanity Fair site is aiming to entertain: it's the equivalent of a lively party, rather than the enforcement of a party line."

Friend adds: "I meet people for whom Vanity Fair is their in-depth read of the month [but] it's hard to get addicted to a monthly drug."

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