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January 1, 1997|
"Overstuffed armchairs and antique rugs, hardcover books and newspapers on wooden spindles. . . ." A description of a fusty, oak-paneled study well-stocked with brandy by aging British intellectuals? Perhaps the cozy library of a small liberal-arts college with students drifting in and out of sleep? Not quite. The quote above welcomes you to the "Reading Lounge" of Café Herpé, a Web site where you can find "everything you've ever wanted to know about genital herpes but were afraid to ask."
Café Herpé is maintained by the London-based SmithKline Beecham, one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies and the manufacturer of FAMVIR, a prescription drug that treats recurrent genital herpes. Lavishly illustrated throughout, the site is divided into five thematic sections. In the "Reading Lounge" visitors can access information on how one contracts herpes, what happens when the virus invades the body, and how to relax once one has it. In "The Buffet," an area that serves up "a mixture of viral facts," visitors can pick from one of three items on "Le Menu": virology, a herpes virus briefing, and an awareness quiz. The barista at the site's "Espresso Bar" acknowledges -- in Jack Handyesque vernacular -- that, "Hey, sometimes life is tough, like when genital herpes comes back at you with another episode"; a wealth of product information as well as numerous avenues for help are provided in this section. This emphasis on the needs of visitors is also evident in "The Terrace," which lists online support groups and other herpes-related Web , and in "Your Waiter," a section for those who can't quite find what they're looking for.
Tacky? Macabre? Helpful? Slickly commercial? This is a site that is definitely weird. Genital herpes can't possibly be fun, and the combination of such a visually appealing and engaging site and its subject matter is a cognitively dissonant one. But an atmosphere that allows people to confront a difficult subject -- especially those who have previously been reluctant to seek out information about their condition owing to embarrassment or a sense of shame -- is laudable. The fact that people can access this sort of sensitive information anonymously is a definite breakthrough. But the most interesting fact about Café Herpé is that a major pharmaceutical company maintains and provides the information for it. Is this site really designed simply to increase awareness of SmithKline Beecham's products? Does it matter, if the information provided is useful? On the Internet, information is advertisement.
[Editors' Note: Café Herpé is no longer available online. Information on genital herpes is available at www.genitalherpes.com, which is produced by Novartis Pharmaceuticals.]
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.