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Dotcom Sentimentality

By Annalee Newitz

IT WAS ONE of those moments when you realize you've been doing some bizarre, uncharacteristic thing totally unconsciously. I discovered that I have a small shrine devoted to dotcom memorabilia. There are squeezy fruits labeled "organic.com," some packs of glitter goo from ChickClick.com and (one of my favorites) a mouse pad from a VeriSign company that actually called itself "dotcom.com." I think it was supposed to be some kind of news portal for dotcommers; today, it's one of those undead sites covered in ads for VeriSign's registrar service.

But I own other, more significant items: things that, dear reader, actually have a kind of sentimental value for me. There are the old issues of Industry Standard from 1999 and 2000, covers blasting psychotically cheerful economic predictions. Filed in among their smudged pages, I also have the bankruptcy statement the Standard sent me when they died still owing me money for something I'd written them. I also have my ticket from the 2000 Webby Awards, where I watched the back of Bill Gates' head and then ducked out of the opulent party afterward to get some cheap Chinese food with the charming free-software genius Richard Stallman.

Then there's the even weirder ephemera from an era gone by: a glow-in-the-dark pen from Zupit.com (saved because I couldn't believe any company would want its name to rhyme with "stupid"); an old ad for Evite.com that reads, "Lick guests, not stamps." Genius, sheer genius. Hard to imagine it working outside the borders of New York City and San Francisco, but whatever.

Let the dotcom nostalgia begin. The odd celebratory-yet-dark documentary Startup.com was stage one. In the same vein, a couple of "I was there" corporate memoirs about the wacky, bizarre life at dotcoms have hit the stores: one about Amazon.com and the other about flash-in-the-pan teen site Kibo.com. These cultural blips have made me think that the next cool retro trend is definitely going to be dotcom kitsch. People will throw dotcom theme parties and pink-slip parties--and wax nostalgic about the raves they attended in South Park, once the heart of Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco.

We become sentimental about something when we have forgotten all the bad things about it. Now that the tech stock market has settled into a comfortable necrosis, and the pace of gentrification in former dotcom haunts has slowed, we're starting to pine a little bit for the good parts of dotcom life. Those Aeron chairs rocked. And the dotcoms themselves were often just plain fun, with their purple walls and slides and Ping-Pong tables and video games. The work was generally creative, or at least it was supposed to be. Plus, so many jobs were open that you could almost always get your friends hired, too.

Misty-eyed recollections of dotcoms are practically a tradition in the computer industry. In 1992, Jerry Kaplan began the dotcom retro trend with his book Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure, the tawdry tale of his stint as CEO of GO Corporation, the company that tried--and failed--to create the first "pen computer," that is, a hand-held computer with a screen you could "write" on. (Later, Palm brought out its line of PDAs, and the rest is history.) OK, so Kaplan's hyperfunded company wasn't a dotcom, but its (lack of) revenue model was the same--as were the excitement and techno-buzz surrounding it. Funded by venture capital and driven by a creative lunatic, GO was the blueprint for dozens of failed dotcoms. To be fair, GO actually had a great idea; one can hardly say the same for Pets.com and Dotcom.com.

What's sad is that I see so few survivors among the good ideas that brought us the dotcom revolution in the first place. For every Collab.net and Mondo Media, there are a dozen companies like Yahoo!. The latest from Yahoo!: without warning, they shut down the queer community website Guerrilla Queer Bar without warning, allegedly for "pornographic content." Aside from a few pictures of drunken queens, there was nothing even remotely pornographic about the site, which is the home base for a group of queer barhoppers in San Francisco. (After a great deal of protest, Yahoo! reinstated the site, but its owners are going to relocate it to a less homophobic digital environment.)

Meanwhile, E-business (never a good thing) has devolved into direct-mail spam. A couple of weeks ago, after forwarding several pieces of spam to [email protected], I got put on a government spam list for the FTC! No matter what I do, I can't seem to unsubscribe. No wonder I'm nostalgic for the good old dotcom days. What is nostalgia anyway, but a fantasy about a time that never was?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who misses her dead dotcom.

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From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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