(This is chapter 18 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
We welcomed the new year 1998 at Walt Disney World, a rare moment in which I stopped working long enough to take a real vacation. It was wonderful to spend many uninterrupted days with my family, and it made me angry that I could not do this more often (though I knew it wasn't just capitalism and the Man to blame; I was clearly a workaholic).
Whenever I felt sorry for myself during these years, I would realize how lucky I was to be the father of my three kids, each so vital and unique. Elizabeth, bright and sophisticated, was into Titanic, Offspring, Green Day and Alanis Morisette in 1998. Daniel, creative and intense, was into Pokemon, causing me to spend lots of money on rare Charizard, Graveler or Gengar cards. Abigail, peaceful and contemplative, was into Teletubbies. Meg and I, meanwhile, had developed increasingly incompatible musical tastes: I was alternating between jam bands and hip-hop, while she had become obsessed with German industrial bands like Einsturzende Neubauten. The only band we liked equally was 4 Non Blondes, who broke up after one great record.
I often felt like I was going crazy during these months. Not literally crazy like I might start flapping my arms and telling people the telephone was on fire, but crazy like pent-up, pissed off, desperate and voiceless. I didn't know any more where I was going with Literary Kicks and the whole web writing scene. Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web was the best idea I'd had, and that ended up a washout. I had enlisted my friend Phil Zampino to act out scenes from Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, but I had only the vaguest plans for how I would use the bewitching video we were capturing, and I knew that my descent into Dostoevsky's deeply alienating work was an expression of my own troubled feelings at that time.
(This is chapter 17 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
A box of Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web arrived in Forest Hills, and, yeah, I felt that famous thrill of holding my book in my hand.
I liked the way it looked. I liked the layout and the cover, I liked most of the content, and I was glad it was a paperback original. But Christian and I were both angry about the outrageous price, $24.95 (an indication, we both felt, that our publisher Marjan Bace didn't believe in the book's potential and aimed instead to recoup his costs).
But Marjan did buy us an excellent publicist, Barbara Archer. I've since had the opportunity to meet many delightful book publicists and marketing directors, and I now have a good understanding of what they do. At this earlier point in my life, I didn't know that there was such a creature as a book publicist, and I was baffled by Barbara's cheerful demeanor and cool confidence. She did a great job, getting our book reviewed in many newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. We didn't make the New York Times Book Review. Many of the reviews were short and polite, respectful but not quite enthusiastic.
(This is chapter 16 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Pathfinder Personal Edition, launched in November 1996, turned out to be the biggest and most expensive debacle in early web history. The dimensions of the failure were immediately obvious to Time Warner management, who cut off all plans to promote or continue the service in early 1997. Now all that was left was to fire everyone responsible for the mess.
It was fascinating for me to watch the machinations and weak attempts at defense that now took place. I observed a desperate rear-guard action by a few Pathfinder executives to blame the whole fiasco on Marie Blue, director of publicity and marketing. It's true that her Personal Edition ads were insipid (they featured a dog who would "fetch your news") and Marie Blue was quickly fired. But Time Warner top management knew Pathfinder's problems went deeper than bad marketing. Other heads would have to roll.
As a middle-manager in the tech team, I was too low on the totem pole to be blamed for anything. The big brass weren't going to fire me; they didn't even know my name. We in the soldiering ranks of the tech team basement knew our jobs were safe, because the Internet was still burning-up hot and Time Warner was clearly committed to succeeding on the web. It was unclear, though, whether or not Time Inc. New Media or Pathfinder.com would continue to exist in their current form. And it was totally clear that most of our bosses were going to get fired.
(This is chapter 15 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
We had a bruising 1995 in the Pathfinder.com basement, and rumors began to spread that Time Warner would shutter the whole operation if we didn't come up with a big victory in 1996. Pathfinder Personal Edition was the project our top management came up with to save us.
The concept was ahead of its time: you would pay $4.95 a month (or $29.95 a year), enter your interests and personal information into a web form, and begin to receive a customized personal web experience. News you are interested in. Scores from your favorite teams. Entertainment options in your town or city.
There was one big problem: the information wasn't there. Pathfinder was originally built to leverage the strengths of Time Inc.'s magazines, but these were general-audience weeklies and monthlies. Maybe a national consortium of local daily newspapers could have provided the steady flow of precision-guided individualized information Personal Edition needed to be successful, but the combined editorial offerings of Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly, InStyle and Vibe did not add up to any kind of robust information flow.
(This is chapter 14 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
We had our book deal. Now all Christian Crumlish and I had to do was assemble a kick-ass anthology of great fiction and poetry from the web. Then we'd be all set. We just needed to find forty amazing pieces of fiction and poetry on the Internet.
In other words, we were in big trouble. We'd done such a convincing job of hyping up the creative potential of the online literary scene to our publisher Marjan Bace, to our friends and fellow writers, to each other -- but we'd been talking about potential, and now we were supposed to come up with a groundbreaking literary anthology representing a cornucopia of online talent, a new scene bursting with originality and genius. Genius? The literary web was two years old.
Who exactly were the hot online writers of 1996? I emailed Carl Steadman of Suck.com, and Joseph Squier, whose 1994 "Life With Father" had been the first well-known web poem. I was very glad when both of them agreed to be in the book. Jason Snell and Greg Knauss from Intertext signed on for the ride. I asked Mia Lipner from Word for permission to use her story about blind (literally) dating, and asked Clay Shirky if he would represent Urban Desires with his clever "Notes on Sinking".
I'm now thirteen chapters into my memoir, and I really wonder where the hell this thing is going.
When I began this project, I thought writing a memoir would be easy. Toss a few memories out -- no problem. I now realize that writing a memoir is an extremely depressing activity. It forces you to see things as they actually happened.
We've covered three years so far -- the summer of 1993 to the summer of 1996 -- and a lot of exciting things happened to me during those years. I had a baby, changed my career, launched a popular website, got called the "Walt Whitman of the Internet" by an otherwise respectable journalist. I got a book deal. Maybe it looks like I knew what I was doing, but when I relive these years I only feel foolish. Did I know what I was doing? Was I ever actually self-aware? I thought I was, but when I piece the evidence together I see I spent these years grasping. Improvising, making shit up. Faking it.
(This is chapter 13 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
By early 1996, Pathfinder's day-to-day advertising operations had become a gigantic impossible mess. This was because we were, unfortunately, very good at ad sales.
It was the only thing we were good at. The Pathfinder.com site was a public laughing stock for its stale content and unhip design. Our top management was weak ever since our leader Walter Isaacson ran for the hills (leaving Paul Sagan to keep the train chugging along), and our clunky site was also famous for slow delivery and sudden crashes. People even made fun of our URLs, which contained an early attempt at cookie-like persistence via session IDs, making them look like this:
The ad team, however, was part of Time Inc.'s larger and world-renowned advertising juggernaut, and they put together a young but powerful sales team for Pathfinder, led by Linda McCutcheon and Charlie Thomas, who immediately began executing on the plan to lure Time Inc.'s blue-chip clients like AT&T, Ford and Merrill Lynch to the web.
Advertising was really the only area where Pathfinder was living up to its name and truly blazing new trails in the Internet economy. Along with our California peer HotWired, we were ahead of the pack in pushing six-figure deals. These deals were no easy sell for either HotWired or us. HotWired based their sales pitches on hype and community, because that's what they were good at.
(This is chapter 12 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Early in 1996 I got an idea to arrange a reading of web writers. There were more and more literary zines and journals popping up on the web, many of them emerging from within New York City and "Silicon Alley", so the time and place seemed right, even though I'd never arranged a literary reading or even participated in a reading before.
My partner in this venture was Meg, who was now nearly as absorbed in various crazy web scenes as I was. She'd fallen into a few lively online communities revolving around Star Trek: The Next Generation, feminism and Pre-Raphaelite poetry, and had created two very good websites of her own, Acorn Mush (a literary experiment) and The Omega Female (her freewheeling personal site). The fact that she thought the reading idea was a good one gave me the confidence to try it. I wanted to host the event at Biblio's, the cozy Tribeca cafe/bookstore in the shadow of the Twin Towers where I'd had such a good time at the Unbearables anti-Beat protest during the NYU Beat Conference last year. I dropped by to ask, and the mellow owners happily agreed.
I sent a press release and got us listed in "Poetry Calendar", the downtown sheet distributed at various bookstores and poetry venues like St. Marks Church and the KGB Bar. This meant it was real, and my nervousness began to build towards a crashing crescendo on the designated day. I took that day off from work to prepare and "center my mind", though I wondered if it was an omen when Daniel's 7-year-old friend Cassandra came over after school and threw up all over our living room.
(This is chapter eleven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The big idea behind Pathfinder.com was to turn Time Warner's top magazine brands -- Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly, the always incongruous Vibe -- into the best and most professional website in the world. If all went according to plan, Pathfinder would dominate the Internet the same way Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin's earlier venture Home Box Office had come to dominate cable TV.
The Pathfinder plan was an aggressive one, with a lot of money and corporate muscle behind it, and many people expected it to succeed. That didn't mean many people wanted it to succeed -- in fact, several of my web developer friends hated the idea of Pathfinder so much they reacted with horror when I joined the team in June 1995. I took a lot of heat on my tech/art mailing listantiweb and on rec.music.dylan after I proudly announced the new job change.
(This is chapter ten of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
On June 7 1995 I reported for my first day at Time Inc. New Media, in the basement of the Exxon Building at 1251 Avenue of the Americas. This was the tech basement, a spillover from the Time-Life Building across the street. Things felt hectic as soon as I stepped into this basement, and I noticed that several new employees had joined in the weeks between my interview and my first day. Pathfinder was growing fast.
Pathfinder was the most aggressive new media venture taking place in New York City in the summer of 1995, and it was all happening under the direction of Jerry Levin, the celebrated mastermind behind Home Box Office and now the CEO of Time Warner. Time Warner had been founded only four years earlier as the merger of a New York magazine company and a Hollywood film studio, but Time Warner's real buried treasure was HBO, which had been Jerry Levin's baby, and that's why he was now CEO of the whole operation. And Pathfinder was Jerry Levin's new baby, so there were high expectations for this project at the time I joined.
Maybe that's why I found the atmosphere in the basement at 1251 Avenue of the Americas a little thick soon after my arrival there. People were working long hours, and they had red rings around their eyes and looked grumpy. On my first day, Oliver Knowlton asked me if I could work Saturday. I hated working Saturday, hated missing a day with the family and a day to read and rest, but of course I had to join "the team" as they attempted to add a new web server to the straining server farm. This staff was driven.
It had been a long time since I'd worked any overtime on Wall Street. It was going to be a lot less cushy over here.