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Tormenting AskJeeves.com

.dots entertainment

WE WERE PRETTY drunk that Friday night. A bunch of my friends--former colleagues at an Internet shutdown--were at a bar in San Francisco, comparing notes on what had happened to our lives since the Internet job frenzy.

As the alcohol flowed and the pipe was passed, we waxed philosophical.

"Everything out there online is ASS!" Jeff proclaimed, raising his gin and tonic. "Do you understand the meaning of ass?" he asked adamantly of no one in particular.

"Actually, I don't," said Jason.

"Well ASS is everywhere! It's a transcendental state of being. And I've got a brilliant idea for ass.com!"

We all laughed, joining in the general mayhem with shouts of approval for ass.com.

"Man, I need a cigarette," I announced, looking hopefully at the nicotine-endowed Cara, who was trying to make her cell phone work. It kept claiming to be "roaming." She ignored me, pushing buttons.

"I need Cigarette.com! Where is MyCigarette.com?" I lamented loudly.

"You need cigarette.ass!" Jeff screamed.

"Yeah! Everything dotass, man!" somebody else yelled. And suddenly we found ourselves cheering again, this time for a new Internic category we were sure was absolutely necessary, especially at that moment: We had invented dotass.

But our drunken reverie was not to last. For, inexplicably, three gorgeous young women materialized next to our table, looking perplexed and smiling.

"Hey, were you talking about AskJeeves?" one of them asked, referring to the notoriously foul-minded portal at the address ask.com. "Cause we work there!" she added, gesturing at a table in the corner, packed with downy-faced early-twentysomethings, probably spending the first big money of their careers in this divey hipster bar.

"You work at AskJeeves?" Jeff asked incredulously. None of us could believe the weird innocence of her question, the utter insularity of her point of view, in which she was so wrapped up in her nifty dotcom job that she had actually mistaken our drunken cries of "ass.com" for "ask.com." What could she possibly have been thinking? In what universe do drunks scream about search engines at bars on Valencia Street?

Our universe.

We couldn't think of any way to answer her question, so we broke into cheers again. "Yay! AskJeeves!" we cried. Then, in a spontaneous round of appreciation for something so absurd we could not truly articulate it in linear form, we began to chant, "AskJeeves! AskJeeves! AskJeeves!"

This clearly made the AskJeeves crew uncomfortable. I think they sensed our hostility, however cheerfully expressed. Ultimately, I'm not sure what we intended to convey to them. It was just so galling to encounter the irrational corporate patriotism of this obliviously dotcom crowd, hearing their company name everywhere.

I think our boisterous dotass group felt genuinely old and cynical at that moment. We had some experience with realistic economics: We had watched good startups die; many of us had worked in thankless, low-paying jobs; and all of us knew that the line between dotcom and dotass was very thin indeed.

I kept thinking about this woman, Laura, an acquaintance of mine who had worked at AskJeeves for a month. She told me she was fired when her boss asked her to give an honest assessment of what her work was like. Laura said it was "mind-numbing."

Just to be sure, I visited the AskJeeves website and asked, "Is AskJeeves mind-numbing?" Sure enough, the search engine came back with a list of information. At the top of the list was "How do I use AskJeeves?"

That's what frightens me. That's why we jeered at the innocent little AskJeevelettes who had imagined their company's influence was so great that its name flew off the tongues of random drunks as often as it might blare down from a billboard or wink on and off in a banner ad.

The dotcom world is awash in its own importance. But to most people, whose lives aren't punctuated by the stock-option vesting cycle, it's all just a bunch of dotass.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who subscribes to Jeff's notorious "asstalk" email list.

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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