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[whitespace] Job Gone

A Silicon Valley fairy tale

By Annalee Newitz

ONCE UPON A TIME, in a very special land called Silicon Valley, there was a brave little website company. Let's call it HotStuff.com. The throbbing, neon pages of HotStuff dripped with lurid content, bizarre news and brilliantly written tidbits. When HotStuff launched, it had no users at all. But through the notoriously unstable phenomenon known as "viral marketing," as well as some smartly placed Javascript redirects, HotStuff began to pack in those eyeballs everyday.

To the small staff at HotStuff, it was like a dream come true. They had "mindshare," and famous geeks were writing them email. And because they specialized in news of the bizarre, the subversive and the very underground, they had possibly the most happily strange work environment imaginable.

"Have we done that piss story yet?" one HotStuff editor might ask another on a typical day.

"Nope, but I have a pitch from a writer who wants to write about why it's better to sniff and swallow rather than blow your nose!" someone else would reply gleefully.

And company meetings always ended with a movie review. "Everybody on staff needs to see Ravenous," the director might proclaim. "It had really cool cannibalism!" That was the kind of place HotStuff was. How could the nerd readers online resist it?

But five months after its launch, a dark shadow fell across the electronic land of HotStuff. And the shadow's name was NetDeity, the distant parent company of HotStuff, whose CEO--let's call him Hugh--had suddenly, inexplicably taken an interest in the website.

Although NetDeity had set up HotStuff as a "hobby project," intended to be more cultural capitalizer than revenue generator, Hugh was proud of the site and had recently green-lighted the hire of two new staff members. He had also poured a hefty amount of cash into it, making sure there was always enough money for some of the big-name contributors, editors and graphic artists who made HotStuff more than just another piece of B-grade web trash.

But none of that mattered on the day when the HotStuff office received a shocking, fateful email from [email protected]. It went something like this:

    To: hotstuff staff
    From: [email protected]
    Subject: the future of HotStuff

    I regret to inform you that I made a mistake and will no longer be funding HotStuff. Operations must shut down in one week. You are welcome to stay on and take jobs with NetDeity's other e-commerce sites. Sorry.

"Is this a joke?" asked one of the staff.

"Give me a break. He can't be serious. He's giving us a week?"

"Yeah, it's true," said the shell-shocked director. "We're fucked. Everybody better write to their contractors and let them know the plug's been pulled."

When the news had finally sunk in, the staff stumbled en masse to a local bar. Somebody who had been on a diet bought a huge bag of Doritos. A macho copy editor began to cry. A producer who had a sore throat went in search of cigarettes. Somehow, it seemed appropriate for everybody to be hurting themselves, since there was no way to physically quantify the loss they'd experienced upon reading that brief, ephemeral email--just one packet of data among zillions.

Nobody knew why HotStuff had to die. Nobody understood the whims of NetDeity. Reduced to some kind of weird animal state, all the HotStuff employees knew was that one day they had had everything, and one day it was utterly gone. Where there had been an office stocked with snacks, free magazines and workstations, there would now be nothing.

As they cleared out their stacks of CDs and files, one of them found a Polaroid that had been snapped a year ago when they first moved into their office space. It showed a vast expanse of blue carpet, with one lone desk off in a corner.

The image seemed to mean something that no one could put into words.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media geek who wonders where good startups go when they die.

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From the January 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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