I was reminiscing about the good old days of ‘Silicon Alley’ with a bunch of old friends last week, at a gathering in a small downtown Manhattan bar.
This was a reunion of about thirty of us who’d been part of the New York City internet/new media industry in the early days, back before the stock craze of 1999, back before the stock crash of 2001. As I sat there treading through memories with my former co-workers, I kept thinking about how idealistic I’d once been about the literary possibilities of this new form of communication known as the internet, or the world wide web.
Literary? Hell, yeah. Back in 1995, I was positively starry-eyed about the creative and artistic potential of the internet. I looked at TCP-IP diagrams and CGI manuals, and all I could think about was how all of this was going to change fiction and poetry. It was looking to be a new age, a good age. Douglas Coupland, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson were on the bookshelves, and fresh voices in fiction and poetry were sprouting like dandelions all over the web. It had to be a revolution, and I was thrilled to be in the center of it all, helping to make it happen.
It would be an over-simplification to say New York City was in charge of the literary side of the internet, but we really did seem to be at the time. ‘Word’ was a high-profile online journal that attracted authors like Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen. They were on 54th Street and Broadway, one floor up from the storied offices of Mad Magazine. ‘Urban Desires’ was another well-financed online literary journal, a surprisingly innovative side-project of a wildly successful online advertising firm, Agency.com. Further downtown, a crazy guy named Galinsky was running a poetry show for ‘Pseudo Online Radio’ out of a noisy Soho loft.
I was working at the time for Time Warner’s terrible ‘Pathfinder’ website, which was less cool than all these other ventures but had a better benefits package. And my job was literary in its own way — I worked in the classic Time-Life Building on 50th and 6th, and I got a chance to interact with excellent writers and journalists like Walter Isaacson, Dan Okrent and Josh Quittner.
New York City seemed to be the only place in the world where you could meet with the top technologists and the top media executives in the world … in the same meeting. This was our claim to fame — and this was what made Silicon Alley better than our namesake across the continent, Silicon Valley (yeah, there were a lot of East Coast/West Coast beefs).
Whatever happened to the literary web? What happened to the ideals of Silicon Alley, a place where Wall Street programmers, beatnik poets, Soho artists, Tribeca filmmakers and Chelsea advertising execs would exchange business cards and invent new dreams and schemes for the entire world?
And what happened to cyber-fiction, and hypertext? Douglas Coupland was supposed to be only the first of a new generation of brilliant writers who’d blow our minds with revolutionary new literary styles and methods. That sure as hell never happened. In the end, I guess “Microserfs” by Douglas Coupland was as good as it got. “That was the orgasm,” as they say. (And, yeah, I know Douglas Coupland has a new novel out, but I’m not going to read it and neither are you. Okay, now you probably will just to spite me. Go right ahead.)
Of course, I can always take pride in the fact that LitKicks was founded before either Word or Urban Desires or Pathfinder or Pseudo Online Radio, and that LitKicks has now happily outlived them all (damn, it feels good to say that).
I don’t think anybody has ever believed more than I have in the literary importance of internet community. But when I look back at the last ten years, I can’t help feeling disappointed in general at the progress of internet-based and internet-oriented literature.
There have been wonderful moments, but we are still waiting for our Homer or our Shakespeare to show up. I’d like to know what you think: what is the potential of fiction and poetry on the web? And how far, or how close, are we now — as a medium, as a society, as a world — to realizing this potential?