Ten Years in Silicon Alley

Marc Eliot Stein in New York City

I was an unpublished novelist working a stressful day job as a software developer on Wall Street in 1993 when I first heard of a strange, exciting new phenomenon taking place on our bank’s computer network: email, Usenet newsgroups and the World Wide Web. A new technology was about to change the world, and this gave me a badly-needed chance to change my own life.

I left the banking industry to join Time Warner’s new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous failed web venture known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan’s website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it “rich”, cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind.

This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way. I wrote these chapters here on Litkicks between January and December 2009, keeping up a strict pace of one chapter per week. Writing this memoir helped me understand my own life better, though I still sometimes look back and don’t understand the choices I made. I think this is a universal feeling – and I hope this is a universal story. I also hope I captured the sensation of living through the 1990s and the millennial era, with all its scandals, stock market booms and crashes, horrifying acts of war and – thankfully, to save us – good music. Oh yeah, and all those primeval Internet memes, before we knew to call them memes.

I originally wrote this using the pen name Levi Asher, but I’m now using the name I was born with. Welcome to the story of an unbelievable ten year period in my life and our world: “Ten Years in Silicon Alley”.

The Whole Internet by Ed Krol

Chapter 2: Finding The Internet

The Internet was born in November 1969, just after an exciting summer that included the Woodstock festival, the Charlie Manson murders and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The first successful demonstration of the Internet went much more quietly. A computer at the University of California at Los Angeles exchanged a series of messages with a computer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, 360 miles away, and at this moment — well, one can only imagine that champagne bottles were popped, colleagues in various corporations and universities and government offices were giddily notified, and several West Coast nerds went home very happy. It didn’t make the evening news …

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Becoming Levi Asher

Chapter 3: Becoming Levi Asher

By the time I stumbled onto the Internet in 1993, there were a small number of literary sites available. Ed Krol’s 1992 guidebook The Whole Internet listed exactly two literary magazines on the Internet …

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NCSA Mosaic screenshot circa 1994

Chapter 4: Lost In The Supermarket

By the beginning of 1994 the excellent Unix operating system had reached critical mass in the corporate offices, public organizations and schools of the world. It was still unavailable in most homes, though a new user-friendly version called Linux was beginning to show up in homes with geeks. Any computer that ran Unix or Linux was automatically wired for the Internet, so this new communication platform was poised to explode …

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Marc Eliot Stein (Levi Asher) in Velvet Underground t-shirt, 1994

Chapter 5: The Launch

Most early websites were hosted by universities or research organizations, and .edu addresses (like http://akebono.stanford.edu, a comprehensive web directory called Yahoo) were far more common than .coms. There was very little commercial activity on the early Internet, and many users assumed the network would remain non-commercial forever. They were in for a rude awakening. A big controversy erupted on April 12, 1994 when a pair of married immigration lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel mass-mailed a sales message to 6000 Usenet groups. Thus was invented “spam”, and a hell of an uproar that still rages today …

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NY City financial district aerial

Chapter 6: Enter Mozilla

By the autumn of 1994 I was feeling pretty good about my crazy little website, which was bringing in more new visitors each day. I began to contemplate where this whole new web paradigm might be heading, and how it might eventually converge with the work I was doing as a database programmer on Wall Street …

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Chapter 7: Close Encounters of the Web Kind

The World Wide Web was a social network from its earliest days, but it wasn’t much like the social networks of today. It was a small world, for one thing, and everybody in it had some degree of technical skill. Maybe that’s one reason the earliest creatures to populate this society tended to be such strange specimens, and also why our friendships often had an obsessive edge …

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Marc, Dan, Abby and Liz in Queens, late 90s

Chapter 9: The Beat

I spent a few weekends during the late winter and early spring of 1995 running around the borough of Queens, New York taking pictures, most often with my three kids in tow. Daniel and Elizabeth loved to go on random car adventures, little Abigail got strapped into the car seat and had no choice, and we usually ended up some place cool like the Lemon Ice King of Corona or the famous “Coming To America” Wendy’s on Queens Boulevard by the end of the night. I didn’t know exactly what I was taking pictures for, but I had some vague idea about exploring the concept of the Internet as a virtual city by writing online about my real city, figuring this would somehow make sense to readers. Or else I just enjoyed driving aimlessly around Queens with my kids and getting lemon ices. I’m not sure exactly which it was …

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Marc and Liz at a Dead show, late 90s

Chapter 10: The Summer of the Web

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 …

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Time & Life Building in NY City, late 90s

Chapter 11: In The Pathfinder Basement

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 HBO had come to dominate cable TV …

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Web Writers Reading at Biblios in NYC, February 1995

Chapter 12: Lit Scene

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 …

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Publishing Agreement for Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web

Chapter 14: Disconnect

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 …

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Marc Eliot Stein's cubicle at Time Inc New Media, 1995

Chapter 15: Pathfinder Gets Personal

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 …

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Paterson, New Jersey waterfall

Chapter 16: Moving Target

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 …

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child's drawing of a family trip to Disneyworld

Chapter 18: Disneyworld

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) …

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Phil Zampino as the Underground Man

Chapter 19: Dinner With Dostoevsky

I love Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground because it may be the most honest novel ever written. It begins as a madman’s rant — “two plus two equals five!” — but the madman soon reveals himself as a mere poseur, an ineffectual urban nobody, not a real madman at all but just a frustrated and lonely adult, confused about his past and starved for attention …

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Chapter 20: Webby Valley

I went to San Francisco in March 1998 to attend the Webby Awards. Literary Kicks was a nominee in the Print/Zines category. I was up against Salon (a well-financed new content venture), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (exciting stuff!), a compendium of electronic literature known as Labyrinth, and, finally, alt.culture (my friend Nathaniel Wice’s site, hosted by Pathfinder) …

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Marc Eliot Stein (Levi Asher) in late 90s

Chapter 22: Fringe

My satisfaction with the response to Notes From Underground didn’t last very long. It’s a strange thing to suddenly get public attention, especially if you are a shy or quasi-Asperger’s person as I generally am. Being noticed is both addictive and repellent ..

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Nasdaq stock market chart during dot-com boom of late 1990s

Chapter 23: Job-Hunting: Broadcast and iVillage

In July 1998 a three-year-old Internet streaming audio startup called Broadcast.com began selling shares on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The shares opened at $18 and shot up to $74 on the first day – a stunning success, and one of the biggest first-day stock jumps in modern financial history …

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Times Square NYC at night

Chapter 24: Like It’s 1999

I had vague dreams of getting rich in early 1999 when I left Time Warner to join iVillage.com, a high-flying start-up about to go public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. It’s a fact, though, that I had no desire for wealth or luxury. I was pursuing money, but material things and lush comforts meant nothing to me. I was pursuing money because I was trying to buy my freedom back …

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iVillage headquarters at 170 Fifth Avenue, Chelsea, NYC

Chapter 25: Design Patterns For Agony

Monday morning, February 15, 1999, first day at my new job. I stand outside a slender homey townhouse on the corner of 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the tony section of lower midtown Manhattan that likes to call itself Chelsea even though Chelsea is two blocks west …

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Chapter 26: Working For Candice Carpenter

The day I began working at iVillage was the first day I ever found myself truly excited to meet the president of a company I worked for. But there has never been, and probably never will be again, a CEO like Candice Carpenter …

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Kerouac's Back at the Living Room flyer

Chapter 27: A Literary Living Room

It never occurred to me, during my early years running Literary Kicks, that I could use the site to discuss contemporary literature or current writers. There were no lit bloggers around (yet) to compare notes about new books with. Literary Kicks had always been about dead writers, about the literature of the past. The contemporary fiction scene barely interested me at all …

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NASDAQ Stock market chart circa 1999

Chapter 28: Before The IPO

The iVillage.com initial public offering was scheduled for Friday morning, March 19, 1999. And somehow, for once in my sorry career, I’d played my cards right …

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For Silicon Alley Companies, a Time To Rise and Shine! New York TImes article about iVillage IPO 1999

Chapter 29: Celebration Day

So then it was Friday morning, March 19, 1999. IPO day. We’d spent the last couple of days reading news blurbs about how nobody knew what to expect from iVillage’s stock debut, about how weird Candice Carpenter was, about lawsuits that could ruin the company, about the fact that iVillage had never made a profit. Other Silicon Alley dot-coms also got bad publicity before their IPOs, but there seemed to be a special pitch to the negative press we were getting …

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child's drawing of a butterfly

Chapter 30: The Metamorphosis

I wanted my life to change in a major way after the big exciting IPO of March 19, 1999, which put $100K into my bank account and made me look smart to all my Silicon Alley friends. I guess I was happier about looking smart than about the money …

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Levi Asher and John Cassady at the Bitter End, July 1999

Chapter 31: Bacchanal

I’m not sure what I thought I was doing, as my big July 23, 1999 Literary Kicks fifth birthday show at the Bitter End drew near. Suddenly I’m a concert promoter? We had a big lineup now, and the whole thing began to take on an unreal tone for me, especially because I was so busy at work that I barely had time to focus on the plans for the show …

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Empty room in a Manhattan apartment

Chapter 33: Sinking

The exit scene had gone all wrong. After a desolate night at the Hotel Pennsylvania I crashed with my sister Sharon, her husband Jeff and their two young kids for a few days …

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iVillage member profile page screenshot

Chapter 35: Running the Numbers

By the start of the year 2000, I had won a new chance to prove myself at iVillage. My letter-writing battle against my former boss was never resolved, but it quickly became old news. We were both too busy, luckily for me, to fight it out to the end …

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Pets.com sock puppet on TV screen

Chapter 36: The Big Slide

I was just hitting my stride in my new role as Director of Community Services at iVillage when the dot-com stock market began to fall. It happened quietly, imperceptibly. Some trace the start of the crash to a March 2000 article in Barron’s magazine naming several Internet companies that were spending money too quickly and likely to go out of business soon …

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Utterances, a Litkicks message board screenshot

Chapter 38: Version 2.0

Every once in a while you get a new boss you just know you’re not going to get along with. This happened to me in late 2000 after a series of layoffs and restructurings at iVillage.com …

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Rubble at World Trade Center on September 11, 2001

Chapter 40: Tuesday

Bob Dylan’s new album “Love and Theft” was hitting the streets on September 11, 2001. I was building his website, and by the last week of August I knew I was in trouble …

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Marc and Caryn in 2002

Chapter 43: Lucky Guy

On one of the first warm springtime days of 2002 in New York City, I suddenly found myself accepting an unexpectedly cool and excellent new job …

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Poets and musicians at Litkicks Shindig in Battle Creek 2003

Chapter 45: Single Point of Failure

One evening in early January 2003 I showed up at Hendriks Institute’s main campus in Westbury, Long Island to begin teaching a course called Relational Database Programming With Oracle and SQL …

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Marc Eliot Stein playing guitar in Washington Square Park

Chapter 46: The Raft

Do we search out the bottom, those of us who eventually find ourselves hitting it? I think we must. But I’d had enough of trouble and poverty by the summer of 2003. And I didn’t know anymore how to get back to where I once had been …

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What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!