(This is chapter 22 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
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.
As slight as my brushes with “web celebrity” were during the middle and late years of the 90s, they always left me feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. It’s easy to see why big celebrities like Lindsay Lohan or Any Winehouse or Michael Jackson or Britney Spears go insane. I don’t know how they manage to deal with fame every day. It enervated me just to get my name in WIRED magazine twice.
By the time the clamor over my Notes From Underground CD-Rom movie died down I’d sold about 350 copies, nowhere near enough to break even, and despite the good reviews I felt very discouraged. The truth is, there’s nothing like a small taste of success to make a guy feel like a real failure. It’s when you reach for something far away, sometimes, that you discover your own limits, your own fatal flaws.
What, I tried to remember, had I been working so hard for the past four years? I knew I was aiming towards some grand literary vision, but I didn’t seem to have achieved my goal. I had spent the last four years running myself ragged, pouring my heart out into a Beat Generation website, then a tribute to the borough of Queens, then a hectic literary anthology, and then a goddam movie …! Nobody could accuse me of not putting in the hours. But what was it all for?
And what had I gained? An empty bank account, an alienated marriage, and a frustrating day job with the media flunkies of midtown Manhattan. I was slightly known in the literary world, but only as an oddity, a member of the fringe. Yeah, I was really rocking the house.
I could not decide, at this time, whether Literary Kicks was helping or hindering me. I often considered shutting it down and starting something else fresh. There wasn’t really much to Literary Kicks at this time — it was still the same flat HTML site it had been since 1994, all the files hand-coded using the ‘vi’ editor. I updated “Beat News” about once a month. There was no commenting, no community, no “Action Poetry”.
I didn’t know at the time that I would stick with Litkicks, that it would turn out to be an enduring presence in my life. I felt instead that I might be wasting my time with it, because I was surrounded by fast-moving Silicon Alley start-ups that seemed vasty more successful and dynamic than my own humble website. I was beginning to question my own anti-commerical ideals.
Was I missing a big opportunity? After all, I realized, literature had always been a business. City Lights was a commercial publishing company. So was Grove Press. So was Soft Skull. Why was I so determined to not succeed in business?
My best original idea had been to use Literary Kicks as a springboard for my fiction writing. But, ironically, I had pretty much stopped writing fiction after Queensboro Ballads. Even the short stories I was publishing in Enterzone were stories I’d written before 1994, before the Internet hit. Now I was too busy maintaining Litkicks and corresponding with my new web writer friends, and too drained from Pathfinder and the Silicon Alley swirl, to get into the right state of mind for writing new fiction.
This was probably why I’d settled on the Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web book proposal instead of simply publishing my own work of original fiction. I didn’t have my own work of original fiction — at least, I didn’t have anything that felt current or relevant. And now that Coffeehouse had been a washout, I didn’t want to pursue another book deal. So what was my next step?
I sometimes asked my stepfather Gene for business advice, and now I asked him to review with me the possibilities for turning Literary Kicks into a proper publishing company. We went over various possibilities, but none of them looked great. We agreed that I could probably find a way to turn the site into a business if I pursued an “indie writer’s marketplace” model, perhaps transforming the site into an online version of Writer’s Digest. I could sell ads and publishing services. The idea didn’t thrill me.
I began wondering if Literary Kicks was holding me back from the bright future that was my destiny, and if instead I should throw myself fully into the Silicon Alley morass and ride a corporate venture-funded wave to literary success. I began to imagine myself playing the Silicon Alley game to the hilt, hanging out with venture capitalists, going to the right parties, pretending I cared deeply about money, and eventually making a fortune like a few others around the Internet were doing.
I could fake it for a couple of years, I thought, and I could then use the money to pursue the creative and literary ideas that had been my original inspiration. This idea was appealing in theory. But it had plenty of problems in practice.
The online content business was struggling badly all over Silicon Alley in 1998. It’s funny that the late 1990’s are now remembered for the rollicking dot-com stock market, which people imagine was flying high every day of the week during these years.
In fact, even at the very height of dot-com mania, Internet stocks were considered highly suspect, and often sold at depressed prices. What’s now remembered as a fast-moving dot-com stock market actually only moved fast at unpredictable moments, in sudden fits, starts and spurts. Painful failures and disappointments were rampant at every level of the growing Internet industry, even during the years that are now remembered as “peak times”.
For a year and a half I’d been looking forward to the initial public offering of NetGravity, the advertising software company I’d been closely involved with at Time Warner. The IPO was finally scheduled for June 1998, and I was granted a valuable “friends and family” offer to buy 1000 shares at the opening price. The price was wavering between $9 and $10, and the early buzz was that it might shoot up to $15 or even $20 if we were lucky. It was on opening-day deals like this that early investors in companies like Netscape and Amazon scored big in the dot-com stock market.
But as NetGravity’s IPO day approached my friends in the company sadly told me “the stock’s not hot”. Wall Street wasn’t going for it. NetGravity was in the advertising sector, but investors wanted e-commerce plays. I bought 500 shares of the stock, which opened with a fizzle at a tiny jump above the opening price. I flipped them immediately on Gene’s good advice, and netted about $200 for all my trouble. Some bonanza.
Online content was just not hot in 1998, and this was especially true at Time Inc. New Media/Pathfinder. We kept plugging away. My team (C++ programmer Diane King and data analyst Ken Gerstein) and I designed and launched an exciting new service to help the ad sales team, the User Profile Server, a primitive attempt to support ad targeting through real-time cookie-based user profiling. It was an exciting piece of software and a true feat of engineering that took nine months of hard work. I was very proud of the work my team had done.
I was also proud of the fact that I had managed to initiate and complete a project on behalf of Pathfinder ad sales during a period that Pathfinder itself was searching for a new direction. I got a lot of positive feedback from folks at Time Inc. about the initiative and determination I had shown, and this felt great. Still, though, I resented the fact that all my work at Pathfinder was oriented towards ad sales rather than content publishing, since content publishing was closer to my personal area of interest.
Also, despite the fact that I had a great time working with the Time Inc. New Media ad sales department on the User Profile Server concept, it’s the sad truth that Pathfinder never closed a single deal based on the User Profile Server’s ability to target ads. A few years later, companies like Google and Facebook would find the right formula for cookie-based ad targeting and turn it into a billion-dollar business. We did the tech work to make cookie-based targeting possible, but the sales team never found a way to sell it to their advertisers, though I know they tried.
In early 1998 we heard we were getting a new technology chief named Igor Shindel. The buzz about Igor was that he was a “turnaround guy”, expert at managing troubled software departments, which basically meant he was going to whip our scatter-brained asses back into marching formation. This was fine with me. I was bored surfing the web in my office. I wanted to work on something cool. I’d done everything I could do with the ad technology team with the User Profile Server project, and I felt I deserved a chance to move into a different part of the tech group. I was scheduled to meet with Igor Shindel on his first day, and I planned to introduce myself and ask for a new responsibility.
My best idea was to rebuild our web server architecture so that our magazine properties could have URLs like “Time.com” and “People.com” (instead of our embarrassing “pathfinder.com/time ” or “pathfinder.com/people” URLs). I also wanted to get rid of the long strings of random characters that made our URLs look silly. These long random character strings were a painful remnant of the unused e-commerce/personalization software originally installed by Open Market, which was still active on the site because we were afraid of what might break if we shut it off.
We were simply carrying around too much baggage in our web server operations, and I put together a Powerpoint proposal for a project to rebuild the entire platform from scratch. We would throw Open Market out and rebuild with Netscape or Apache software. Because my proposed architecture would allow magazines to have distinct URLs, I had the support of influential people within the organization, like Hala Makowska, a brash and charming People magazine editor who ran the popular “People Online” section of the website and saw Pathfinder as a pointless bureaucracy that did nothing for her but limit her creative options. All the magazine editors were angry about our shoddy server capabilities and performance, and I really thought my proposal had a chance.
I showed Igor Shindel an early draft of this proposal on his first day, and circulated a finished version about a week later. He and I had several meetings about my proposal, and then one day he called me into his office, closed the door with the clinical grimness of a surgeon and told me it wasn’t going to be accepted. Jorgen Wahlsten, the guy who’d been managing our web server operations since Pathfinder was born, was against my plan, and Igor couldn’t take the risk of Jorgen walking out in anger.
I liked Jorgen Wahlsten a lot, and so did everybody else. He was a very nice and smart guy with a professorial demeanor and a Swedish accent, and he was an awesomely talented techie. But it was obvious, to me and to many others, that after four years of wrestling with our web servers he’d been soundly beaten to the ground. He’d run out of ideas and given up hope, and our physical racks were a hopeless mess and he just kept patching bugs. It was clearly time to throw the guy a life preserver, give him a Rubik’s cube or something to relax with, and bring in some new blood on the server farm.
I said all this to Igor, sputtering in frustration as I sat in his office about how sure I was that I could do a better job managing our web servers. Igor shook his head and smiled and offered me a consolation prize.
There was a big project in the air, a content syndication deal code-named “Bell Canada”. Content syndication was one of the hot trends on Silicon Alley, and we were leading the wave with an ambitious deal that was just about to close with Bell Canada to produce a custom subscriber-only web entertainment system for their new DSL home service.
The reason this was a big deal was the whopper price tag. For some reason (none of us could figure it out), Bell Canada was willing to pay us two million dollars to launch this beast, and another million a year to maintain it. The whole thing didn’t quite make sense, but I was appointed the software manager for the Bell Canada project, with two young developers on my team.
The Bell Canada project interested me for a few reasons. I wanted to learn about this hot new thing called XML that I was reading about on websites and in InfoWorld magazine. This was a new protocol for storing and exchanging data, amounting to the first really major change in the technology of data management since the invention of SQL in 1970. Content syndication would be a good opportunity to get my hands dirty with some real XML. I was also looking forward to doing some work with Macromedia Flash, which would be the basis of our user experience.
I also liked the project chief, a somewhat crusty but vigorous old salt Time magazine veteran named Dick Duncan. He was a big talker and a rainmaker, and he’d been responsible for roping the Bell Canada guys into the deal at the beginning. He had a proud sea captain’s bark and a gung-ho attitude that was refreshing to see around the office. I thought we might get along very well together.
And then … surreally, magically, as if in a slowly unrolling dream … the Bell Canada project began to softly and steadily disintegrate into yet another cosmic clusterfuck, just as bad as Personal Edition had been, as if we’d never learned any lesson at all. Another complete, total mess. As soon as the project began I discovered that Dick Duncan hated my guts, because I was one of those smarmy tech guys with the short pants and the skateboards (even though it wasn’t me with the skateboard, that was Aaron Costa, who he hated just as much). He chewed me out and yelled at me a lot, and then the whole project fell apart into a big crazy mass when suddenly Bell Canada announced that they weren’t going to buy the package after all. It had all, apparently, been a misunderstanding.
I guess I got the last laugh at Dick “Captain Ahab” Duncan on the crazy day that Bell Canada fell apart. It didn’t feel great at the time. I wish I’d gotten a chance to get the last yell.
I knew it was time for me to move on from Time Inc. I needed a new frontier. But something kept calling me back every day. I think it was the ghost of Henry Luce.
I started thinking a lot about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Time Inc., after I read his biography in the spring of 1998. He’d been a bright young Yale graduate when he founded the newsweekly with a friend in 1923. Time magazine became quickly known for its brash voice, rapid-fire prose style, skepticism, sarcasm and curiosity for unusual topics.
Henry Luce was an earnest Christian and a strong believer in a virulent American military presence around the world. I don’t agree with most of his politics, but I admire him for his dedication to journalistic innovation, and for the gusto with which he worked. When he and Briton Hadden founded the magazine, they explained that they would try to report without prejudice, but then listed six “prejudices” they would allow themselves to be influenced by:
- A belief that the world is round and an admiration of the statesman’s “view of the world”.
- A general distrust of the present tendency toward increasing interference by government.
- A prejudice against the rising cost of government.
- Faith in the things which money cannot buy.
- Respect for the old, particularly in manners.
- An interest in the new, particularly in ideas.
Henry Luce died in 1967, but I felt his spirit in the elevators (where, it was said, he liked to pray), in the grand hallways of the nicer floors, in the magazines themselves (Fortune, it was said, was Luce’s favorite). I guess I admired Henry Luce because I couldn’t think of anything I’d enjoy more than creating a publishing empire. I decided to start praying harder when I was in the elevators alone.
Did I mention that the dot-com stock market moved in fits and starts and spurts? Something big was about to happen. For no discernible reason that anyone could detect, online content was about to briefly become the hottest property on Wall Street, and I was about to step onto the wildest roller coaster ride of my career. Pathfinder, it turns out, was just an apprenticeship for the next stop on my journey.
But first I had to find my way out of this morass and to my next destination.