What's a good boom without a loud backlash? The hostile-takeover wave of the 1980s inspired enough angry books and movies to keep reviewers busy for years. So it's no surprise that the boom to end all booms — the explosion of Web startups and IPOs — has triggered a backlash. What is surprising is that the most entertaining complaints and caveats are coming from Internet insiders.
Consider stock prices. Are you mystified by how priceline.com, a tiny, money-losing outfit that sells airline tickets and hotel reservations, can have a bigger market value than Delta Air Lines, a real company that has 70,000 employees? Then visit HeyIdiot.com. The site, which calls itself a "cash portal," sells one product — shares in HeyIdiot.com: "You can buy as much stock as you want with the only rule being that each new purchase must be executed at a successively higher price." A funny idea — made even more amusing by the fact that two of the site's creators are prominent Silicon Valley CEOs: Oracle's Larry Ellison and Network Computer's Mitchell Kertzman.
Or click on iTulip.com, "the Internet stock mania company." Its value proposition: "Don't want to spend thousands of dollars on an Internet company stock that may become worthless later? iTulip.com? stock is worthless now and it only costs $9.95." The site is the work of Eric Janszen, 41, the executive director of Osborn Capital LLC. Osborn invests in — you guessed it — early-stage startups, most of them Internet-related. A paradox? Not really, writes Janszen: "What's so amazing about the Internet investment craze is that many investors don't even take the trouble to get the ticker symbol right when investing their money in Internet stocks. Most are investing very badly and they're going to lose a lot of money."
It's easy to offer a good-natured parody of IPO madness after you've pocketed your millions. That's why the most edgy — and sometimes the most poignant — voices of the Net backlash belong to people who have been left on the sidelines. Those people are the inspiration behind NetSlaves (www.netslaves.com), an online zine devoted to "Horror Stories of Working the Web." There's a serious critique behind that slogan: If the Web is powering a business revolution, and making lots of investors rich in the process, then why are so many of the people who work at Web companies so miserable? "We're all Net slaves," declares Bill Lessard, the site's co-creator. "In one way or another, we all think that we're going to get rich in this medium — and most of us won't."
On NetSlaves, you won't read about getting rich. Instead, you'll read about false promises and broken dreams. The site offers "Screams from our Readers" — in-the-trenches advice from rank-and-file Net slaves. It posts a "New Media Combat Manual," complete with a taxonomy of the desperate characters who populate the business. That manual also includes starry-eyed help-wanted ads for actual Web jobs — and provides translations that explain what those jobs are really like.
Lessard, 33, and his co-creator, Steve Baldwin, 42, produce the site not from the crowded highways of Silicon Valley or the bustling sidewalks of Silicon Alley, but from Baldwin's basement, in Yonkers, New York. Maybe that's why Lessard calls himself "the poster boy for 'NetSlavery.' " He has worked at some of the most high-profile failures in online history. At Prodigy, he served as a "cybercop" who spent long hours approving and deleting messages on a bulletin board called "Frank Discussion." At Time Warner, he ran chat sessions for that company's ill-fated Pathfinder service.
Lessard and Baldwin don't offer a rosy scenario for the Web. Says Baldwin: "We want to slap anyone who says that the Net is creating an open, classless society." But their dark vision is catching on. The pair started NetSlaves in December 1998, and since then, the site has been steadily adding features — and enrolling participants in the "NetSlaves Mailing List," a feature that lets disgruntled Web workers "rant and rave in real-time." Next year, McGraw-Hill will publish "NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web." "It's really incredible that something that Steve and I cooked up in his basement has come so far in such a short period of time," says Lessard.
Hey, wait a minute! Isn't that how the Web's true believers tend to talk? Could the Internet backlash be on the verge of unleashing a boom of its own?
You can reach Bill Lessard (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Steve Baldwin (email@example.com) by email.
Sidebar: Who's Who among Net Slaves
"Not all NetSlaves are created equal." The Internet business has a complex pecking order, which Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin, the co-creators of the NetSlaves Web site, explain in great detail. Here are some edited entries from the site's "New Media Caste System" feature.
Mole People: Hackers, sex freaks, revolutionaries, and other weirdos who have taken to the electrosphere to preach their causes.
Social Workers: Tireless servants who endure the endless stream of Net-based nonsense. Example: the "hosts" of online communities, who often work for free accounts.
Cybercops: They patrol chat rooms and bulletin boards, looking for lurid material and for offensive people: pedophiles, stalkers, "mole people."
Cab Drivers: Itinerant new-media freelancers — designers, HTML coders, copywriters, beta-testers — whose unscrupulous managers often skip out before paying their "fares."
Fry Cooks: Found sweating over work that's behind schedule, they bear the brunt of managerial tirades.
Gold Diggers and Gigolos: The schmoozers, cheerleaders, and opportunistic philanderers who hold well-paying jobs, even though no one is quite sure what they do.
Priest and Madmen: Influential journalists, analysts, and pundits who lend a touch of intellectual depth to a shallow industry.