It Changes Everything

“Earlier in the course, you wrote about losing something. Today, write about finding something. For your twist, view day four’s post and today’s post as installments in a series.

I was working at the Digital Entertainment Network in West LA in 2000. I was the producer of a punk music website. I’d just come from an advertising agency and was very aware of fact that out of all the creative and business people there I was one of the few with a marketing background. I constantly asked for the traffic reports – the number of daily visitors to the site, which pages they’d viewed, where they’d come from and so on so we could better gauge what kind of content to develop for the site.

I was constantly given the run around, was told there were problems with parsing them, they weren’t available. It got to be very frustrating. The site was made up of around 8 online shows and none of the other show producers seemed to know how many people were visiting their sites either. I should mention that DEN was one of the big media ventures that were founded on the run up to the Internet bubble bursting backed by $40M of Blockbuster, GM, Coca-Cola, Valvoline of all things and other big consumer brand’s money. Oddly even though there was so much money on the line, we  had almost total creative control, which of course none of us had experienced since maybe being in high school bands

There were signs around us the bubble was beginning to leak at the seams and I think most of us knew at the least that this couldn’t last forever, that there was some kind of “adjustment” coming as they say in the stock market.

There was a meeting  to rally the troops, over 200 of us in one of the digital sweatshops where we very happily created low budget TV shows way before Youtube. The senior executive who had hired me was dropping F-bombs and telling everyone how much we were going to kick ass and take no prisoners in the coming year. This was a few weeks after a big launch party where we’d taken over a local bowling alley, brought in go go dancers, ice sculptures, the works. There was an air of frenzy to the partying, a feeling we were celebrating an imaginary thing, nothing.

One day towards the end of the year I heard rumors there would be massive layoffs. In this Last Days of Saigon atmosphere, I was walking by one of the junior executive’s offices when he asked me to come in and shut the door. He had a printout on his desk with a sheet of paper covering it with a hole he’d cut in it with some of the print showing through, the hole presumably so I couldn’t see what the other shows were getting. He said, “Since you’ve been asking about traffic, I want to show you what you’ve been getting at your site.”  I was expecting 10 to 20,000, maybe 50,000 visitors a day. He kind of resignedly turned the paper so I could see it.

It said “200”.
“Two hundred what?” I asked.
“Visitors. A day. On average. And yours is one of the more popular sites.” He said.

In that moment I discovered two great things. One, that very smart people at the top of their game, in world class enterprises, people who would become the “1%” a decade later, were as naïve and wide-eyed as children. They’d been sold a pipe dream by a very persuasive Internet pioneer (who would go on to be indicted and found guilty of transporting underage boys across state lines to have sex with them, which was the tip of the iceberg so to speak, but that’s another story), swallowed it hook, line and sinker because they, like most people in the country, for a while at least, wanted to believe such a marvelous thing could happen, that the Internet could change everything, even basic rules of nature, that up and down weren’t absolute, that with technology anything was possible. It was like seeing the Wizard of Oz was a little man behind a curtain.

I also realized in an embarrassing flash that I’d been incredibly naïve, innocent of how the world works. I’d been infatuated with my own importance, how clever I’d been to insist on traffic numbers and that my keen insights gleaned from the data would bring order to the chaos. But there had been another layer of manipulation, of power at work, of panic operating way above and beyond me that I’d been completely unaware of and excluded from. I’d been as clueless as an uncontrollably excited puppy or a moth battering it’s wings at a window.

Within a few days I and three quarters of the staff were given notice and walked off the property escorted by a weird bunch of what looked like out of work Armenians someone had hired in a hurry to be the muscle.

We believed then that the Internet would change everything. Fifteen years on, it has, just not the way we expected it to.

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