(This is chapter 37 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
It was the autumn of 2000. From California’s Silicon Valley to New York’s Silicon Alley, the dot-com industry was dead.
I was amazed how easily the industry’s defeat was accepted once the stock bubble burst. Where did all those high-powered hot shots who’d been talking us up on TV and in the papers run to? I struggled at first to understand what had happened. If investors thought a company was worth $100 a share two months ago, how could the same investors believe the same company was worth less than a dollar a share now? Weren’t these valuations based on anything at all?
It took me a while to grasp the real mechanics of what had taken place. The so-called smart money that had poured into the dot-com economy was dumber than I’d ever guessed. None of these “experts” had been looking for long-term value, though they kept up an air of great seriousness. The investment community simply saw a fad and piled on.
What newborn industry could have possibly survived the barrage of positive and negative hype the Internet industry withstood in its first five years? Most people thought the stock crash reflected badly on companies like iVillage, and I found this attitude very frustrating. It should have reflected badly on the financial community, the bankers and journalists and power brokers who’d hyped us to the moon. They rushed in, they trashed the place, they left. And we’d been sitting there the whole time just doing our work, trying to build websites that people liked to visit. We thought they were helping us grow, but they didn’t do us any favors by lifting us up and dropping us back down.
Companies continued to shed employees in mass layoffs, and many of the more recent arrivals in these companies left the industry to find other places to work. But those of us who really believed in the potential of this new medium stuck around. We didn’t need IPOs and stock options — we just needed our salaries.
As people resigned or got kicked out — often it was hard to tell which — my core group of friends at iVillage tightened: Dan Leeds, Evan Sable, Jim Berrettini, Fadi Farhat, Dave Stricker, Yaniv Eyny, Sue Dorward, Adam Ingberman, Mike Pope … all of us sticking it out, trying to buck each other up and stay optimistic. We kept reading Silicon Alley Reporter and @NY and Red Herring, though it became increasingly depressing to read wry reports of bankruptcies and layoffs month after month. The business would come back, we told ourselves and each other. There had to be some point to all the work we’d been doing.
The companies that survived the Internet crash were the ones who were still lean, like Google, or else had already converted their stock into cash or other properties, like America Online, which had managed to complete its acquisition of Time Warner just before its stock plummeted. Now Time Warner was AOL Time Warner, much to the chagrin of CEO Jerry Levin, who’d flopped badly with Pathfinder and then flopped even worse by accepting the AOL deal. Apparently the Internet was just not Jerry Levin’s thing.
IVillage was also able to survive, since we’d converted our stock into cash during the lucky IPO in 1999. But we had to go through a painful internal transition as our online ad revenue virtually halted (the dot-com advertising market, naturally, had crashed along with the stock market) and various investors and partners disappeared. I began to hear rumors of a big power struggle between the board and CEO/founder Candice Carpenter.
I’d never gotten to work closely with Candice, who had risen above the operational levels of management during our high-flying days. But she became more accessible after the crash. She began a series of voluntary “mentoring sessions” for any employees who wished to spend time with her. I attended along with about 15 other employees. The sessions were loose, confessional, therapeutic. Candice told stories of the struggles that had defined her career, and each of us talked about our ambitions and the problems we faced trying to achieve them. She urged us to never give up on our wildest dreams, no matter how much resistance we ever faced, and reminded us to always work hard so we wouldn’t disappoint ourselves in life. At one mentoring session she abruptly announced that this would be the last time we’d meet, and three days later her departure from the company was announced. Candice Carpenter was a class act to the end.
I pondered her advice often after she left. Pursue my craziest dreams? What the hell were my dreams these days? I didn’t even know anymore.
It seemed to me that I’d once believed I was on some sort of literary mission, and I vaguely remembered that I’d once cared a lot about a website called Literary Kicks — a website I’d been completely ignoring since the trauma of the divorce. I hadn’t been updating my Beat News page or any other part of the site, and I hadn’t checked my traffic reports in months so I didn’t even know if anybody was visiting it anymore.
Maybe, I thought, it was time to bring this ol’ popsicle stand back to life.
I had two good ideas for how I could reinvent the place, how I could transform it into something that I cared about again. First, I didn’t want to write about the Beat Generation anymore. I wasn’t sure what kind of literature I did want LitKicks to be about, though as always my interests were more historical than contemporary. Tolstoy and Gogol and Chekhov and Dostoevsky? Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Thoreau? Beaudelaire, Henry Murger, Rimbaud? The philosophers, Plato and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard? I had lots of ideas, and all I knew for sure was that I’d had enough of the Beat Generation to last a while.
Second, I wanted to take a cue from iVillage and run message boards on the site. I was thinking of going even farther and following the model of Slashdot.org, a popular Linux/techie community (“News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters”), in which the site becomes nothing but message boards. This seemed like a great creative model to me: the community is the content. No “editorial” presence at all — even the people who ran the site simply interacted as community members. This model worked great for Slashdot, and I thought it would work fine on LitKicks too. And, thanks to my work with the sharp iVillage community team, I knew what was required to build and maintain a healthy and thriving community website (hint: it’s nowhere near as easy as it looks).
If I pulled this off, I knew, I’d be creating the only good literary community site on the web. In 2000, three years before the sudden emergence of the lively litblog scene, online literature was dead. It had gotten even worse than in the early days, when Alt-X, LitKicks, Enterzone, Urban Desires, Word, Suck, Web Del Sol, Salon and Slate all vied hungrily for attention. The crass spirit of venture capital drowned the first online literary scene in glamour and money, and then after the stocks crashed many of the sites closed down or went into cold storage.
That was one reason I liked the idea of bringing LitKicks back — I didn’t want to go down with the pack. I wanted to be a survivor.
Autumn 2000 was a discouraging season. My beloved New York Mets somehow squeaked into the World Series to face the New York Yankees, the first Mets World Series in 14 years. This was New York’s long-awaited never-before subway series, and I was really excited that my kids would get to experience a Mets postseason (as I had myself as a little kid in 1969, and then again when I was a bit older in 1986).
But, even though I kept up a gung-ho face with my kids, deep inside I didn’t like this Mets team. I couldn’t get excited about Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura and Benny Agbayani the way I’d once gotten excited about Lenny Dykstra and Ray Knight and Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez, or Ron Swoboda and Ed Kranepool and Cleon Jones and Tom Seaver. Was it just that I was older? I wondered if it was, and I guess the conclusion seemed logical. On the other hand, it was also a fact that Mike Piazza was no Lenny Dykstra.
I was still looking forward to getting together with the kids and watching some tough battles against our Bronx neighbors, but the World Series quickly turned into a disaster. The Mets deflated. This was the year that everything I was invested in deflated: first the Internet stock market, then the Mets. The pathetic five-game 2000 World Series is now mostly remembered for the moment when Roger Clemens threw half a baseball bat at Mike Piazza after Piazza broke the bat on a limp grounder. Watching at the time, I half-wished Clemens hadn’t missed.
Something else also deflated in the fall of 2000. I spent the evening of Election Day at Rich C.’s apartment with a small group of other loyal Democrats from iVillage. We had gathered with plans to celebrate, since we took it for granted that Al Gore would beat George W. Bush. The polls looked fine.
By 8 o’clock we opened a bottle of wine to celebrate Gore’s victory, which we hoped would be announced soon so we could get home at a decent hour. Things seemed to be going fine until later in the evening after Florida was announced for Al Gore’s column when the newscasters suddenly turned ashen and mumbled something about Florida being back in play. What the hell? Our good party turned sour as Election Eve 2000 disintegrated into a journalistic mess, and we all went home contemplating the surreal thought that George W. Bush might have just been elected President. Having followed the campaign closely, I found it very hard to picture him in the job.
Was there some strange karma hanging over our heads, that made everybody go a little off the edge by the end of the year 2000? And didn’t the people who ran the television news networks even know how to do their jobs? It’s funny that a lot of people thought our computers would freak out when the new millennium began. Our computers came through like a charm, but maybe it was our brains that began short-circuiting this year. And the year that followed.
But along with all the swirling craziness of the season, fate held a few good secrets for me that I knew nothing about, that I wouldn’t even begin to know about for another year or two. Every Thursday afternoon I attended a telephone meeting with Susan Hahn and her key staffers in the Community department, most of whom worked offsite from homes all over North America.
One day not long after the election, Susan introduced a new member of the team, who was phoning in from somewhere in the Midwest. I wasn’t paying too much attention but I caught her name — Caryn. She’d just finished recovering from the experience of managing iVillage’s turbulent Election 2000 boards, and was now being promoted to the core staff where she’d be managing our chat services.
We all said hi on the phone, and Susan mentioned that we were overdue for an upgrade of our iChat software and that I should talk to Caryn offline about this. Sure, I said, that sounds fine.