The first check I cashed from the Internet came in 1997.
I’d just moved to New York City. One of my friends from high school was at Columbia, and every summer she’d come back to Seattle and upbraid me for staying, so I stopped staying.
She was working at what was then called an “Internet magazine,” word.com. Now you’d probably just call it a website, but in 1997 nobody knew what to call anything. I did some research assistance for a project they were working on and pitched them a piece, Love and Afferications: The George Kotolaris Story. You can read it here, but be warned: it was designed for what a Web browser could do in 1997, which wasn’t a lot.
This was the old Internet. You couldn’t Google anything because there was no Google (most of the time, Wired’s HotBot was the search engine of choice, but sometimes AltaVista worked better). You could log on to Yahoo and browse the list of sites that had been manually added to their directory that day. No streaming video, no social networks unless you counted Usenet groups and BBS systems.
I think I got paid $200, which I’d be happy with now and was very happy with back then.
The thing is, nobody knew what a good rate was back then because nobody knew anything. How much should a website pay you? How much traffic should a website get? Nobody knew how much a banner ad should cost or what the people who paid you for it could expect to get from it.
Word was pretty great. They published Mary Gaitskill and David Foster Wallace and Thurston Moore. They were the first site to use RealAudio to stream music on demand. A little window next to the logo called WORD TV played a constantly-refreshing feed of animated GIFs (you can see a bunch of them here). They made stuff like Sissyfight 2000, one of the first social browser games, and the bizarre virtual office drone Fred the Webmate.
When Netscape filed its IPO in 1995 and the New York Times reported on it, the website they used to illustrate the article was Word.com.
But the people behind Word (behind editor-in-chief Marisa Bowe and creative director Yoshi Sodeoka and the other incredibly talented people in the office with me) didn’t give that much of a shit about any of it.
Word was started by Icon CMT, an Internet services company based out of New Jersey that focused on providing data access to corporate clients. Word and Charged were basically billboards for what Icon could do for you: media-forward and flashy (by late 90s standards) demonstrations of this hip new business space.
In 1998, Icon CMT was acquired by Qwest and unceremoniously shut Word (and sister site, the ostensibly extreme sports-focused Charged.com) down in March.
“While our online publications played an important role in establishing Icon CMT as a leading producer and distributor of online information and applications, the publishing business is no longer part of our core strategy.”
Word (and Charged) were saved in April, bought up in a bizarre move by a Texas fish oil processing company called Zapata with big dreams about pivoting to an Internet portal called “zap.com.” They also took out full-page ads in the New York Times boasting that they were looking for other Web properties to acquire. All told, Zap tried to buy 31 other sites, with CEO Avi Glazer curiously remarking that he wanted his company to be “the roach motel of the Internet.”
The biggest move Zapata made was trying to acquire directory Excite.com for $1.7 billion, only to be laughed out of the boardroom.
This was the start of the first “dot-com bubble,” where people with no tech experience were frantically positioning themselves in this new, exciting economy, only to realize that they had no way of actually making money.
Zapata also didn’t really give much of a shit about what we were publishing on Word.com. So we kept on doing good work, the same good work we were doing for Icon CMT, the same good work we were doing for ourselves.
Word and Charged soldiered on for a few more years before shutting down in 2000. I was long gone by that point, moved on to writing and editing for UGO.com. Zapata had also invested in a company that made air bags and safety cushions, sold that off, and eventually merged with another holding company. They’d become best known for floating Radio Shack $250 billion in 2013, in case you were wondering if their judgement improved.
UGO was founded in 1997 as Unified Gamers Online by a guy named Chris Sherman. He wanted to collect a network of sites that would cater to the already extremely online video gaming audience, and quickly sold it off to a company called Interworld.
Interworld also wasn’t interested in publishing good content, but at least they were a little closer to the point: the NYC company was behind an early e-commerce solution called Commerce Exchange 2.0, running a huge in-house data center to support it. They quickly spun UGO off into its own company, Actionworld, that would use Interworld as a vendor.
Actionworld had a base of people running the sites, creating content that resonated with their audience and building relationships throughout the network. But they wanted more. So the owners brought in a bunch of former MTV Russia executives and changed the name of the company to “UnderGround Online,” expanding its remit to pro wrestling, music, movies, et al.
They somehow managed to get headlines by running a “web-a-thon” to raise money for former child star Gary Coleman in 1999, and that attention taught them, like it would teach a dog, the wrongest possible lesson.
Before I got there, the company had an all-hands meeting that climaxed with one of the higher-ups throwing wads of one-dollar bills out from the podium. Gary scampered from his seat, frantically picking them up off the floor.
One of the things we did was called the Underground Open, a massive 100-entry tournament to determine the most iconic figure in geek culture. Each of the site’s affiliates would get to sponsor one entry, promote voting on their platforms and the winning sponsor would get a prize, plus lots of swag for random entrants.
In the second round, Transformers leader Optimus Prime faced off against Howard Stern wack packer Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, and the robot quickly ran up a commanding lead, as you would expect.
But the executives didn’t want that. They didn’t care that Optimus Prime (in these heady pre-Michael Bay days) was an iconic figure that represented all that was good and true in the world for our audience. Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf would work with us, would talk about UGO on Howard Stern. That was more important.
So they rigged the poll. The dwarf won.
Hank didn’t get us mentioned on Stern. The Underground Open ended with a whimper, not a bang. But the higher-ups didn’t really care about Hank. They didn’t really care about Optimus Prime. And they absolutely didn’t care about our intended target audience, the former “unified gamers.” That wasn’t their audience. Their audience was the VC firms pumping money into the system to pay for their in-office shoeshines and expensive lunches.
And then the dot-com crash started to pick up steam in the beginning of 2001.
I watched as my fellow editors were let go one by one. Budgets continued to shrink. I had been hired to oversee comics and animation. Then it was comics, animation and wrestling. Then comics, animation, wrestling, console gaming and music.
I was one of the last two holdouts in editorial, and eventually I was let go in March. But even with the department that actually produced the content that made the site worth visiting gone, every single executive still remained ensconced in their offices.
UGO would eventually sell to Hearst in 2007 for $100 million in cash and stock. The C-suiters got nice payouts. The creators left behind got nothing. A few years later, Ziff Davis would buy the site and shutter it.
You’re seeing a trend here, I hope. I could certainly keep going.
When you or I, normal human beings, talk about starting a company, it probably goes something like this: we’ll make a product or service and charge a fair price for it, and make enough money to support our families and the families of our employees.
But the people who start companies, the people who buy companies, aren’t normal. The product or service don’t matter. The fair price doesn’t matter. All that matters is the “valuation,” a number that a bunch of other people lay over the top of the whole enterprise like a bridal veil. And that number is absolutely meaningless.
Jim Spanfiller doesn’t care about the words that are on Deadspin, just like Bryan Goldberg won’t care about the words that might end up on his new Gawker. And they don’t really care that much about the profitability of those sites terribly much, as long as they’re not bleeding too bad. What they care about is how those things affect the valuation.
The valuation isn’t just about what the unknowable machine of capitalism thinks about their company, about the work that is done there. For these guys, the valuation is about them. It’s the only way that they can be judged, the scale of Osiris weighing their heart against their sins. They know that they’re not responsible for the impact that these writers they hate and resent have on their audience. They know that people didn’t love Deadspin because of who bought it. And it eats away at them.
Labor is the only true value in the marketplace. The labor made Word, it made UGO, it made Deadspin and Gawker and all the other sites we’ve lost. The Spanfillers of the world know this. They know it at their core. They are empty, and they need us to fill them, and the kindest thing we can now do is refuse.