PICKING UP

American Being A Writer Biography Economics History Indie Internet Culture La Boheme Litkicks Love New York City Personal Politics Publishing Sports The Memoir

(This is chapter 37 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

It was the autumn of 2000. From California's Silicon Valley to New York's Silicon Alley, the dot-com industry was dead.

I was amazed how easily the industry's defeat was accepted once the stock bubble burst. Where did all those high-powered hot shots who'd been talking us up on TV and in the papers run to? I struggled at first to understand what had happened. If investors thought a company was worth $100 a share two months ago, how could the same investors believe the same company was worth less than a dollar a share now? Weren't these valuations based on anything at all?

It took me a while to grasp the real mechanics of what had taken place. The so-called smart money that had poured into the dot-com economy was dumber than I'd ever guessed. None of these "experts" had been looking for long-term value, though they kept up an air of great seriousness. The investment community simply saw a fad and piled on.

What newborn industry could have possibly survived the barrage of positive and negative hype the Internet industry withstood in its first five years? Most people thought the stock crash reflected badly on companies like iVillage, and I found this attitude very frustrating. It should have reflected badly on the financial community, the bankers and journalists and power brokers who'd hyped us to the moon. They rushed in, they trashed the place, they left. And we'd been sitting there the whole time just doing our work, trying to build websites that people liked to visit. We thought they were helping us grow, but they didn't do us any favors by lifting us up and dropping us back down.

Companies continued to shed employees in mass layoffs, and many of the more recent arrivals in these companies left the industry to find other places to work. But those of us who really believed in the potential of this new medium stuck around. We didn't need IPOs and stock options -- we just needed our salaries.

As people resigned or got kicked out -- often it was hard to tell which -- my core group of friends at iVillage tightened: Dan Leeds, Evan Sable, Jim Berrettini, Fadi Farhat, Dave Stricker, Yaniv Eyny, Sue Dorward, Adam Ingberman, Mike Pope ... all of us sticking it out, trying to buck each other up and stay optimistic. We kept reading Silicon Alley Reporter and @NY and Red Herring, though it became increasingly depressing to read wry reports of bankruptcies and layoffs month after month. The business would come back, we told ourselves and each other. There had to be some point to all the work we'd been doing.

The companies that survived the Internet crash were the ones who were still lean, like Google, or else had already converted their stock into cash or other properties, like America Online, which had managed to complete its acquisition of Time Warner just before its stock plummeted. Now Time Warner was AOL Time Warner, much to the chagrin of CEO Jerry Levin, who'd flopped badly with Pathfinder and then flopped even worse by accepting the AOL deal. Apparently the Internet was just not Jerry Levin's thing.

IVillage was also able to survive, since we'd converted our stock into cash during the lucky IPO in 1999. But we had to go through a painful internal transition as our online ad revenue virtually halted (the dot-com advertising market, naturally, had crashed along with the stock market) and various investors and partners disappeared. I began to hear rumors of a big power struggle between the board and CEO/founder Candice Carpenter.

I'd never gotten to work closely with Candice, who had risen above the operational levels of management during our high-flying days. But she became more accessible after the crash. She began a series of voluntary "mentoring sessions" for any employees who wished to spend time with her. I attended along with about 15 other employees. The sessions were loose, confessional, therapeutic. Candice told stories of the struggles that had defined her career, and each of us talked about our ambitions and the problems we faced trying to achieve them. She urged us to never give up on our wildest dreams, no matter how much resistance we ever faced, and reminded us to always work hard so we wouldn't disappoint ourselves in life. At one mentoring session she abruptly announced that this would be the last time we'd meet, and three days later her departure from the company was announced. Candice Carpenter was a class act to the end.

I pondered her advice often after she left. Pursue my craziest dreams? What the hell were my dreams these days? I didn't even know anymore.

It seemed to me that I'd once believed I was on some sort of literary mission, and I vaguely remembered that I'd once cared a lot about a website called Literary Kicks -- a website I'd been completely ignoring since the trauma of the divorce. I hadn't been updating my Beat News page or any other part of the site, and I hadn't checked my traffic reports in months so I didn't even know if anybody was visiting it anymore.

Maybe, I thought, it was time to bring this ol' popsicle stand back to life.

I had two good ideas for how I could reinvent the place, how I could transform it into something that I cared about again. First, I didn't want to write about the Beat Generation anymore. I wasn't sure what kind of literature I did want LitKicks to be about, though as always my interests were more historical than contemporary. Tolstoy and Gogol and Chekhov and Dostoevsky? Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Thoreau? Beaudelaire, Henry Murger, Rimbaud? The philosophers, Plato and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard? I had lots of ideas, and all I knew for sure was that I'd had enough of the Beat Generation to last a while.

Second, I wanted to take a cue from iVillage and run message boards on the site. I was thinking of going even farther and following the model of Slashdot.org, a popular Linux/techie community ("News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters"), in which the site becomes nothing but message boards. This seemed like a great creative model to me: the community is the content. No "editorial" presence at all -- even the people who ran the site simply interacted as community members. This model worked great for Slashdot, and I thought it would work fine on LitKicks too. And, thanks to my work with the sharp iVillage community team, I knew what was required to build and maintain a healthy and thriving community website (hint: it's nowhere near as easy as it looks).

If I pulled this off, I knew, I'd be creating the only good literary community site on the web. In 2000, three years before the sudden emergence of the lively litblog scene, online literature was dead. It had gotten even worse than in the early days, when Alt-X, LitKicks, Enterzone, Urban Desires, Word, Suck, Web Del Sol, Salon and Slate all vied hungrily for attention. The crass spirit of venture capital drowned the first online literary scene in glamour and money, and then after the stocks crashed many of the sites closed down or went into cold storage.

That was one reason I liked the idea of bringing LitKicks back -- I didn't want to go down with the pack. I wanted to be a survivor.

Autumn 2000 was a discouraging season. My beloved New York Mets somehow squeaked into the World Series to face the New York Yankees, the first Mets World Series in 14 years. This was New York's long-awaited never-before subway series, and I was really excited that my kids would get to experience a Mets postseason (as I had myself as a little kid in 1969, and then again when I was a bit older in 1986).

But, even though I kept up a gung-ho face with my kids, deep inside I didn't like this Mets team. I couldn't get excited about Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura and Benny Agbayani the way I'd once gotten excited about Lenny Dykstra and Ray Knight and Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez, or Ron Swoboda and Ed Kranepool and Cleon Jones and Tom Seaver. Was it just that I was older? I wondered if it was, and I guess the conclusion seemed logical. On the other hand, it was also a fact that Mike Piazza was no Lenny Dykstra.

I was still looking forward to getting together with the kids and watching some tough battles against our Bronx neighbors, but the World Series quickly turned into a disaster. The Mets deflated. This was the year that everything I was invested in deflated: first the Internet stock market, then the Mets. The pathetic five-game 2000 World Series is now mostly remembered for the moment when Roger Clemens threw half a baseball bat at Mike Piazza after Piazza broke the bat on a limp grounder. Watching at the time, I half-wished Clemens hadn't missed.

Something else also deflated in the fall of 2000. I spent the evening of Election Day at Rich C.'s apartment with a small group of other loyal Democrats from iVillage. We had gathered with plans to celebrate, since we took it for granted that Al Gore would beat George W. Bush. The polls looked fine.

By 8 o'clock we opened a bottle of wine to celebrate Gore's victory, which we hoped would be announced soon so we could get home at a decent hour. Things seemed to be going fine until later in the evening after Florida was announced for Al Gore's column when the newscasters suddenly turned ashen and mumbled something about Florida being back in play. What the hell? Our good party turned sour as Election Eve 2000 disintegrated into a journalistic mess, and we all went home contemplating the surreal thought that George W. Bush might have just been elected President. Having followed the campaign closely, I found it very hard to picture him in the job.

Was there some strange karma hanging over our heads, that made everybody go a little off the edge by the end of the year 2000? And didn't the people who ran the television news networks even know how to do their jobs? It's funny that a lot of people thought our computers would freak out when the new millennium began. Our computers came through like a charm, but maybe it was our brains that began short-circuiting this year. And the year that followed.

But along with all the swirling craziness of the season, fate held a few good secrets for me that I knew nothing about, that I wouldn't even begin to know about for another year or two. Every Thursday afternoon I attended a telephone meeting with Susan Hahn and her key staffers in the Community department, most of whom worked offsite from homes all over North America.

One day not long after the election, Susan introduced a new member of the team, who was phoning in from somewhere in the Midwest. I wasn't paying too much attention but I caught her name -- Caryn. She'd just finished recovering from the experience of managing iVillage's turbulent Election 2000 boards, and was now being promoted to the core staff where she'd be managing our chat services.

We all said hi on the phone, and Susan mentioned that we were overdue for an upgrade of our iChat software and that I should talk to Caryn offline about this. Sure, I said, that sounds fine.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is Third-Quarter Interlude: Bringing It Home. The previous post in the series is THE BIG SLIDE.
14 Responses to "PICKING UP"

by Dan on

"... I should talk to Caryn offline about this. Sure, I said, that sounds fine." -- Aww!

I've occasionally wondered how techies court (seriously) and happily I'm going to find out. Also thanks for an interesting view of the dot-com crash from the inside. The recent banking crash proves that nobody ever learns anything.

by stevadore on

Oooh! You and Caryn... nice teaser. Can't wait for the rest.

by Bill Ectric on

"...when the new millennium began...our computers came through like a charm, but maybe it was our brains that began short-circuiting this year."

Great line!

On behalf of my mosquito-infested, hellishly humid, sun-cracked-stucco-fronted-strip-mall-sinking in a polluted swamp State of Florida, sorry about the election debacle. We were scammed, plain and simple.

Can't wait to read more about you, FC, and the Golden Dawn.

Great opening, great closing...you write these like a serial, very Dickensian.

As I read the part of the dot-com crash and your thoughts on the financial guys' part in the fiasco, it was impossible not to think about more recent stuff. And impossible not to think about the stories today about Twitter and Facebook and how rich they will make people.

You captured the atmosphere of 2000 really well. It was after Y2K that people became uneasy. This is a nice picture of the period, as are all your entries in this memoir.

I tried to write about a prior, smaller Silicon Valley crash - they are periodic, like everything else market-related - and didn't get it quite right in "The Silicon Valley Diet" (story is at http://www.blithe.com/bhq4.1/4.1.02.html if anyone's interested; the complete collection came out as a book in 2000) because I was not in the world as you were, just around it in 1997-98.

Do you know of anyone who's captured the dot-com crash or similar stuff in fiction?

by Kevin on

As an Astros fan, the '86 Mets are still hard to take. There was one guy who played for the Mets in '69 and then against them in '86: the great Nolan Ryan.

And I was going to make a smart-ass comment about good ol' Firecracker but I'm afraid she might come after me or send Jamelah to destroy me. It's happened before...

by Bill Ectric on

Wellll, perhaps Miss Firecrackah will regale us with tales of Faulknah's Mississippi like she did back in the day.

by jamelah on

Kevin, I believe if I'd ever truly been sent to destroy you, then you wouldn't be around to post comments on LitKicks. Just saying.

by jota on

MMMMmmmmmm. This is getting juicier by the minute.

One world crashes and a new one begins.

--26 dancing jotas sitting under a tree smiling as they read this saga quietly under the trees by a duck pond.

by Kevin on

Jamelah, I am still around because I have been able to outwit you at every turn, e.g. the poisoned hummus in Cairo, the falling chandelier in Monaco, the ninja attack in Niles, et al.

I see you, Jota!

still fractal dancing under iteration trees again

by Daniel Ward on

Who exactly is this aimed at?

I've tried 101 ways to write what I'm about to write, in a positive, and polite way, but somethings can not be said in such a way, as there is absolutely no way, that I have discovered yet, to say something is the most boring piece of writing I have ever read, without it sounding harsh.

I've read several parts of this memoir, I keep trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, I keep saying to myself, this has to be the weak chapter, the next one, or the previous one, has to be better.

But it never is.

You have had a life that has been full of opportunity, you have been blessed to be in so many places, at so many exciting times, and by reading this memoir, if it's to be believed, you've let every single one of those episodes pass you by, without taking full advantage of them, and you've even failed to be a decent spectator of them.

You're working for a company, in a previous chapter, and the then worlds richest man walks into the building, a man that divides one of the largest communities of all time (the internet community), and you tell us you walked up some stairs, and you like to think maybe he saw your tshirt?

The dot com bubble bursts, and you were having a coffee?

The underlying theme of this ramble seems to be you spent most of your life sitting around wanting to be arty, but not having the balls to grab any of the myriad of opportunities that passed you by, so instead you spent your life sitting in offices, watching the world, and doing nothing much of interest.

In the little blurb you wrote, you said you liked to think this was in the same style as such quality works as the office, but the only connection I can see between this memoir, and the comedy genius of Ricky Gervais (creator of the office), is that he accurately observed the waste of lives, that he witnessed in such work environment, tortured souls, with delusions of being some sort of artistic spirit, while you lived the blueprint for such characters, by being someone, sitting in an office, dreaming you were something other than a rather ordinary, and boring individual, incapable of grasping opportunities, and therefore doomed to spend eternity, doing the mundane tasks, that you feel are beneath you.

If Michael Scott (the character, not Gervais, the creator of the character), were to write a memoir, you'd expect it to be a slightly more interesting variation on this sort of theme, and for writers to us it as an item of ridicule, within the plot lines of the show.

I would say that 90% of the Myspace blogs, and the Facebook blogs, that I read, are more interesting than this drivel, and 90% of those are written by people who haven't had the opportunities that you have had, and haven't been in the positions that you have been in, but at least they have managed to shoehorn some sense of drama, or humor, or tragedy into their stories, rather than just giving off the impression of being a rather disinterested, and uninteresting passenger to life.

So many wasted opportunities, written in such a dull format, I've given it every opportunity, I've read so many chapters, convinced each time that the next one has to be better, because no way could such drivel be on a literature site, unless it was going to improve, at some stage, but I've found myself proven wrong.

If this is just for the same small handful of sycophants, who comment every post, and would clearly praise a turd, if that's what you posted, as they appear to be friends, unwilling to offend your sensibilities, then so be it, but if this is on a literary site, and intended for a wider audience, then my honest advice would be to can it, and start again, as I can't believe that, contrary to the impression given, your as dull, and boring as you are coming across.

I want to say I mean no offense, but I doubt that the truth of how bad this is can be expressed without offending the author, but someone has to have the courage to say it.

Reading this, and reading the comments, reminds me of the story of the Emperors new clothes, and it seems to be left to me to be the little boy who has the heart to shout out that you're naked, or in this case, you've written an awful blog, a blog that the average 14 year old Myspacer, who hasn't even lead a life, would be ashamed of.

Please, for your own sake, scrap it and start again, this time leaving out all the boring minute details, that are about as interesting as watching paint dry, and this time stick your heart in to it (if you have one), show us your feelings, throw in a little humor, tell us the things you did, not boring tales of how you're six times removed from Kevin Bacon, or how you walked up some stairs, when Bill Gates was in the building once, and if you can't do that, find an author who can.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the feedback, Daniel, and you definitely don't need to worry so much about how to deliver the bad news that you don't like my memoir. I can take it. In fact, I'm glad you showed up. I have been getting a lot of positive feedback, and if somebody didn't start hating this thing, I'd start to worry.

I read your comment carefully twice, because I know this kind of feedback is important. I am confused, though, whether it's my memoir or my life that you are so disgusted by. "So many missed opportunities", you say, a few times. So are you critiquing the decisions I've made in my life, the paths I've chosen? Fair enough, there's plenty to criticize there, but not liking my life is not the same thing as not liking my memoir.

I do sense one big misunderstanding here, when you refer to be moaning about being stuck working on "mundane tasks" that I consider beneath me. You can't possibly have discerned that from reading what I wrote, because I am writing about events that excited and frustrated me to no end. The first ten years of the Internet industry, mundane? No. Beneath me? Never.

Missed opportunities? Well, I have three healthy and amazing kids. I've made great friends. I worked on projects that challenged my intellect, patience and forbearance to the limit. I'm not moaning about anything I've missed -- I'm relishing what I had, and what I have. I guess nobody but me can know this at this point, since I haven't brought this memoir to an end -- but this is supposed to be a happy story, not a sad one.

But, Daniel, I do truly appreciate your response and I'm happy to hear from anyone else who can't stand the work I'm doing. I really do have a thick skin -- in fact, some of the chapters I've posted recently spell out exactly how I got this thick skin. And I want all kinds of feedback here, both good and bad. That's the whole idea of posting it online, after all: to get responses in real time.

Daniel, I'm curious to know if you read the Sept. 10, 2009 entry of the memoir, titled "Bacchanal." That, to me, is probably the highlight of the whole thing so far. Of course, interests vary, but I was just wondering what you thought of that chapter.

by Sara on

I just had to comment... Daniel, for someone that truly hates either the person or this writing you spend an awful lot of time analyzing it and are very familiar with all the details. It's curious! If I hated something or found it boring or badly written, I would browse away and go onto something else. So either you must find something endearing about all this as you keep reading and keep commenting....as I said... Curious...

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