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[whitespace] Heeeere, Kitty

Hacking the sock puppet

By Annalee Newitz

I AM SO PRESCIENT. I ordered a bunch of crap for the cats from Pets.com the day before their PR flaks announced that the company was dead. And so my order of two food dishes, a litterbox, some flea killer and anti-hairball medicine was caught up in the bizarre weather pattern of an Internet shutdown's final weeks.

At first, I thought nothing was wrong. I heard from somewhere that Pets.com was shutting down--probably from Hank or somebody else who writes for their site--but I discounted the information as sheer rumor. Why? Because I'd just gotten an automated email from Pets.com that day telling me that my order was all safe and sound and ready to be shipped. That's nice, I thought to myself, I really need that anti-hairball stuff. I'm so sick of cleaning up cat barf every morning.

My happy dreams of liberation from cat barf came at the tail end of an embarrassingly elaborate and long internal debate I'd been having about where to order pet stuff online. I'd gotten really good service from Petopia.com before, but I figured (without actually checking my facts) that Petopia was probably long gone, a casualty of the dotcom pet shop wars. After all, the name Petopia was stupid and nobody would remember it. And more importantly, I hadn't seen any cute little Petopia billboards around my neighborhood lately. All I had seen for the past few months was that sock puppet from Pets.com. Thus, my decision to buy something from them was entirely inspired by advertising, and secondarily by my obviously deluded idea that a company with lots of ads wasn't about to die.

I should have known better. The truth began to dawn on me when my package arrived from Pets.com. There was no anti-hairball stuff, and a weirdly ambiguous note accompanied the rest of my order. It said something about "filling the rest of the order or crediting your account as soon as possible." A few days later, I got the proverbial "final email" from Pets.com. It said the company was no longer in business and that my Visa would be credited for two containers of anti-hairball treatment. So the barf was piling up and I had no idea where to get my next E-pet fix. It turned out that Petopia was alive and well, despite its ridiculous URL and lack of advertising. But I haven't gone there to buy anything yet. I'm still obsessing over the sock puppet.

Apparently Pets.com is going under, but the company will still be marketing its sock puppet this holiday season. For just a few bucks, you too can buy a cute little icon that represents the death of yet another chunk of the Internet economy. I can't possibly be the only person who thinks this is an utterly demented situation. Then again, why not take the sock puppet scenario to its logical extreme? I want some other dead things from Pets.com, like the barely used ergonomic office furniture and computers and desks and carpets and posters and sofas and plants. I heard that one of the ways that Pets.com bled cash was by creating an entirely "feng shui" office, complete with rounded corners everywhere and specially positioned windows. I want to get myself some of that feng shui shwag too. Whatever-- just give me somebody's used cubicle setup with that damned sock puppet.

In fact, we should turn Pets.com's sock puppet into a new Internet culture concept. A company can start "sock puppeting" when it's going down but still has brand-name saturation. When a company is in its "sock puppet period," that's the moment for other companies to come swooping in and seize all the cultural capital of the dying company's brand. I mean, will anyone really remember that the sock puppet used to belong to Pets.com after Petopia has been using it for a couple of weeks? Nope--it's just like when my ISP jps.net was bought by OneMain.com and suddenly the jps.net URL started pointing at OneMain and my bills started coming from OneMain and finally I forgot that jps.net had ever been anything but a "legacy brand" of OneMain. Luckily, OneMain ditched jps.net's logo, which was a Nagel-looking chick's face with a bull's-eye superimposed over it. I don't even want to know what that marketing image was supposed to mean or who the target customer base for it was.

Perhaps the most important question to ask as we pick through the mutilated remains of Pets.com is: Whither the URL? Who will step in during this crucial sock puppet period and suck up one of the most recognized URLs on the planet? A press release on Pets.com's homepage actually lists three people and their phone numbers if you'd like to contact them about buying up assets. Now there's a sign of a truly sock-puppeted company: when they actually list names and phone numbers on their homepage. A listed phone number (without an email address!) is always the mark of E-commerce humiliation and defeat.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is still cleaning up the cat barf. Reach her at [email protected].

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From the November 29-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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