It is rare that the media manages to come up with an entirely new niche. But Time Inc, the world's largest magazine company, is attempting to do precisely that. Later this month, it will launch Office Pirates, a website aimed at young men who are mucking about online while they are supposed to be working. As niches go, it is not small.
The site, we are told will be a "daily blend of funny videos, strange news and downloads". It is being aimed at men between 21 and 34 and will be run by the former editor of Maxim in the United States, Mark Golin; Maxim being the monthly that introduced "birds and beer" to American men's magazines. Other detail is scant but a Time spokeswoman said a recent article describing the Office Pirates jokes as "salty" and tapping into "Wall Street's bawdy and frat-boy humour" was pretty accurate.
The appetite is clearly there. Call it the modern day version of surreptitiously slipping a piece of folded paper around the classroom: the short smutty video-clips, lewd jokes or, for the brainy, political satire, that make their way into workers' email inboxes around the world like wildfire.
There was the "lost episode" of the Smurfs in which the little blue characters engaged in pornographic acts to a hip-hop soundtrack. There were the crude Simpsons animations, in which Marge did unspeakable things to Ned Flanders, that got 10 workers at Sun Alliance sacked. Then there was that Howard Dean scream song, that helped the Democrat lose the presidential nomination in 2004.
Sometimes an unfortunate ordinary Joe gains unwitting celebrity, such as the podgy 19-year-old from New Jersey, Gary Brolsma, who made the grave mistake of putting a clip of himself on the web, jiggling about and mouthing the words to a cheesy Romanian pop song. Some 2m downloads later, he was on the front page of the New York Times and according to his family, severely depressed. Just like the classroom, the Internet can be a cruel place.
Then there is the breathtaking pace with which sexually graphic emails have been circulated, through boastfulness, malice or hamfistedness on the keyboard. Little wonder that a magazine company should attempt to harness that electricity and package it for advertisers.
Golin had postings on an improv comedy website last year looking for "smart, funny, highly original video or animation" of between 30 seconds and two minutes and promising to pay $500 apiece. The website currently shows just a skull and crossbones, wearing a stripey tie, and the knowing line, "prepare to be boarded".
But the launch of the site raises at least two questions. First, has the Internet become so diverting for bored office workers that the website will become prime real estate for advertisers? Second, will it encourage already testosterone-fuelled workplaces to become even more hostile places for women?
There are surveys aplenty that appear to answer the first one with a resounding yes. According to a recent study by the research company Tickbox, British workers are adding up to 14 days' unofficial holiday a year, emailing and browsing online. Other studies suggest this is a conservative estimate. The technology firm SurfControl said workers spent an hour a day on personal email alone while the employment law firm Peninsula said employees spent up to three hours a day on personal Internet surfing.
DaimlerChrysler has already signed up to advertise its Dodge Caliber on Office Pirates. A spokeswoman said the site promised to deliver exactly the right demographics, the young men that are notoriously difficult to reach through traditional media.
As for the second question, bawdy "humour" is still clearly alive and well, especially in the City and on Wall Street. Morgan Stanley last year paid $54m to settle discrimination charges, and in January fired four male employees for taking clients to strip clubs. Six female workers filed a $1.4bn lawsuit against the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. They claimed male colleagues would boast of strip club visits, bring prostitutes to the office and repeatedly subject female workers to coarse remarks.
Whether Office Pirates contributes to that corrosive atmosphere will depend on how close to the knuckle its jokes are. Golin, contacted via email, wasn't talking.
Martha Burk,who wrote Cult of Power, Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It, suggests the off-colour humour spread by email is far from innocent fun.
"When the laws against sexual discrimination were being put in place, the kind of things that people were doing was putting Playboy posters up or leaving magazines open in full view," she said. "Now it is electronic, so it is a little less obvious but it is no less offensive or difficult for women."
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