(This is chapter eight of my ongoing memoir of the internet industry.)
On October 28, 1994, Chip Bayers of Wired Magazine posted on Usenet about an ambitious new website called HotWired.com:
HotWired is new thinking for a new medium. We call it a cyberstation, a suite of vertical content streams about the Digital Revolution and the Second Renaissance with an integrated community space. While HotWired is currently bound by technological limitations that restrict bandwidth, it represents the genetic blueprint that will evolve into the overarching media environment of the next century.
Further down, Bayers’ post also said this:
HotWired is free to members. HotWired’s revenue model is similar to broadcast media – content supported by sponsors. HotWired’s sponsors are some of the bluest chip advertisers in America, including IBM, AT&T, Volvo, Sprint, MCI, Zima (Coors), Internet Shopping Network (Home Shopping Network), Club Med, etc.
I didn’t know what to think of all the hype, or of the “tribal” design aesthetic. But I appreciated that HotWired bothered to have a design aesthetic, since most websites still featured black Times New Roman text against a pale gray background. I registered to become a “member” (a new concept at the time), but didn’t find much to do with my membership. There were discussion groups, but they felt meager and artificial compared to Usenet.
The most unique thing about HotWired was not its look or its content but its business focus. Revenue model? Sponsors? Now this was something new. I didn’t feel much confidence that HotWired would be able to pull this off, but it was the most ambitious concept I’d seen on the web so far, and I couldn’t help wanting to quit my job and work for them immediately.
They were based in San Francisco, so that wasn’t going to happen, but I was also starting to hear about various New York City web-oriented startups, about some virtual location called “Silicon Alley”. Where, I wondered, was this Silicon Alley, and why couldn’t I work there?
My rec.music.dylan friend Dan Levy was the most media-connected person I knew at the time, and he told me of up-and-coming companies like Agency.com and Sonic.net that would love to get their hands on a C++ programmer with database architecture experience. But, he said, they were small outfits and wouldn’t be able to pay anywhere near my current $85K salary. I called a few headhunters who worked the financial/tech industry, but when they found out I was on the job market they only wanted to set me up on interviews with banks, and scoffed when I asked about working on the Internet. “I can get you $100K at Smith Barney,” they would say. “Goldman Sachs will hire you tomorrow. Fuck the Internet.”
Just to get one of these headhunters to stop hounding me, I went begrudgingly in January 1995 to interview at Smith Barney, a company I found every bit as obnoxious as JP Morgan. I guess my disinterest showed during the interview, because I recall an aggravated Vice President nearly yelling at me in his office when I wouldn’t say I’d accept a job on the spot: “You don’t want to sit in an office like this someday? You don’t want to bring home $250K and have two houses?” In fact, I really didn’t. I wanted to work on the web.
At the same time I was yearning to leave this mythical place called Wall Street for this mythical place called Silicon Alley, I was busy analyzing and mocking the whole idea of web-based business models with several of my fellow digital artists, writers and musicians on an invitation-only mailing list called antiweb. We had no respect for companies that tried to float advertising or subscription plans on the Internet, because we had a better idea. The Internet would revolutionize publishing, we felt, not by bringing in new profit opportunities but by cutting costs, removing barriers, allowing creative people to reach audiences with fewer intermediaries.
Christian Crumlish’s Enterzone was our model for a new web publication, and many of the artists and writers on antiweb contributed to this upstart online journal. Enterzone had no budget, no VC funding, no profit motive, and yet it provided a satisfying reading experience where HotWired’s pages felt hollow and artificial. I also liked their logo better than HotWired’s, though they hadn’t paid anyone to create it.
This, I felt, was what the web was about: a no-bullshit outsider-art scene, a fresh pool of talent, a publishing format that enabled spontaneity and serendipity. Who needs HotWired’s business model when you can publish online for free? The whole idea was to not need a business model.
But I was a hypocrite, because as I was running down capital-funded web ventures with my friends I was also talking to headhunters about getting me a job with one. In April 1995 a headhunter finally called with an opportunity to interview at Time Warner’s Pathfinder, a vast new website emanating from the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan. Time Warner didn’t have a position that fit my salary or resume, the headhunter said, but he could get me in the door. Was I interested? Hell yeah. It didn’t matter that I thought the Pathfinder magazine-oriented content strategy was bland or that I hated their artless design. I wanted to work on the web.
Looking back now at the choices I made then, I realize how sheltered, prejudiced and cynical I was. I was bursting with confidence because of the modest personal success I’d had since launching LitKicks eight months ago. I had become “somebody” on the web. Strangers were emailing me every day, and people were reading my fiction in Intertext and Enterzone. I also had a new gang of friends who made me feel creatively energized and accepted in a way my C++ buddies at work never could. So I thought I was brilliant, and I was sure my future plans were perfect, and I didn’t see any need to look around me to see if anybody else was doing anything smarter.
I should have spent the first few months of 1995 finding Silicon Alley all by myself, without headhunters leading the way. I should have begun attending industry gatherings, making myself available for consulting gigs, handing out business cards. Instead, I clung to my cushy cubicle environment and waited for headhunters — who only knew how to work with big corporations, not small agencies — to find me my next cubicle. It was a time to hustle, but I only wanted a large secure company to give me a good salary with benefits to work on some vast project that would probably fail, all so I could go on being an independent web artist who disdained the corporate world. My entire plan was a contradiction, based on bad faith, though I didn’t consider this at the time.
I showed up at the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas intent on being the best candidate Time Warner had ever seen. I sat nervously in a waiting room under glowing electric signs bearing the names of Time Inc’s impressive magazines: Time, Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly. A rep from Human Resources gave me the standard introduction, then walked me through an underground concourse to the Time Inc. New Media “basement” where I met a tall blond man named Oliver Knowlton, director of the technology team. We spoke in his office, but the interview went badly. He was looking to fill two slots, he told me as he cautiously fingered my resume, a senior manager and a junior programmer. But I was too junior for his senior manager and too senior for his junior programmer, and he didn’t see how my financial experience would translate to publishing. I felt confused and upset, because I wanted badly to work here but didn’t know how to convince him he needed me.
After this brief and discouraging chat, he brought me to a glass-walled conference room where I met his entire tech team: Jorgen Wahlsten, Shad Todd, John Deragon and Reuven Lerner. These were hands-on techies like myself, and the conversation flowed much more smoothly. They told me about the problems they were having using Perl and flat-file data storage to manage their daily operations. They had recently installed their first Sybase database but nobody on the team knew what to do with it, so even though Oliver didn’t see how I could help, this team clearly did. I began to hope that they would talk their boss into bringing me aboard.
When I got home that night the headhunter called. “They’re going to pass for now,” he said. “But Oliver says he’ll keep you in mind as soon as an opening that fits your level turns up.”
“I could be useful to them right now,” I complained. “The programmers know it. They practically told me they wanted to bring me in.” I urged the headhunter not to give up on Oliver, and in the meantime he set me up with another interview at the main headquarters of Fox/News Corporation, just three blocks down from the Time-Life Building in the same midtown skyscraper strip. Rupert Murdoch’s aggressive media conglomerate had just acquired a Massachusetts-based Internet provider called Delphi Internet, and had ambitious plans to turn it into a new web venture. I checked out Delphi.com but couldn’t figure out what Fox’s plan for it might be.
Fox/News Corporation did not impress me the way Time Warner did. I met only one person, a software engineer named Gary Shuster with a Russian accent and a worried, world-weary tone. He explained Fox’s model for the new Delphi: they would make money by charging subscription fees like America Online or Compuserve or Prodigy. But America Online and Compuserve and Prodigy were non-Internet-based direct dial-up services, whereas Delphi was simply a web site, currently available for free. I couldn’t understand why Fox thought anyone would pay $20 a month to use a website that they were now getting for free, and said so to Gary Shuster.
He shrugged. “That’s not our job to worry about. Our job is to create a distributed Sybase architecture that will handle hundreds of thousands of membership operations a day.”
“But if nobody wants to sign up,” I said, “then we won’t need to handle hundreds of thousands of membership operations a day.”
He had already described the technical problems he envisioned in yoking this web-based membership system to a relational database back end, so now he smiled helplessly. “And if we don’t bring somebody who knows Sybase in, I don’t know if we’ll be able to build it anyway.”
I went home with my head spinning, and that evening the headhunter called. “Fox wants you. They’re offering you $95,000”.
I was happy, but everything felt unreal about the Delphi job. I had serious doubts about both Pathfinder and Delphi’s prospects for success, but at least Time Warner had generated a lot of press for Pathfinder — not very good press, so far, but at least people knew what Pathfinder was. Time Inc. New Media was an actual division of the company, with a heavyweight management team led by Walter Isaacson, author of a recent biography of Henry Kissinger. Fox’s acquisition of Delphi, on the other hand, had gotten no press, and it was impossible to tell where the project fit into Fox/News Corporation’s larger corporate picture. I tried to picture myself sitting in a cubicle next to desultory Gary Shuster building a registration database nobody would ever use. “Can’t you call Time Warner and tell them they’re about to lose their chance to hire me?” I begged the headhunter. I had to give it one last chance.
“What the hell. I’ll give it a try.” We told Fox I needed a day to decide, and by the end of the night the call I wanted finally came. Time Warner was willing to hire me, but they could only match my current salary, which was $10,000 less than Fox had offered.
“I’ll take it,” I said. And now the adventure really begins.