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That's So 1998!

By Annalee Newitz

I WAS SHOPPING at a junk shop the other day, and among the 1960s toasters and 1940s coffee cups, I came across two bizarre relics from another long-dead era in our history--1998. The relics were books, glossy hardcovers originally priced at about 25 bucks each and now marked down to a buck. Their titles were so 1998 that they almost seemed like parodies of themselves. There was "electronic commerce pioneer" Patricia Seybold's 'Customers.com: How to Create a Profitable Business Strategy for the Internet and Beyond' (Times Business) and a textbooky-looking thing by Don Tapscott called 'Blueprint to the Digital Economy: Creating Wealth in the Era of E-business' (McGraw Hill). I had to buy them. They were like antiques.

Supposedly we were all learning about "cybercommerce" in 1998. Back then the VC-funded dinners for startup staffs were flowing, the Aeron chair rush hadn't yet begun, and everybody still thought saying something was dotcom was actually meaningful. IPOs occasionally even made companies rich instead of publicly humiliating them.

Culture in the digital era moves almost as quickly as technological innovation does. And these days, leftover artifacts from 1998 seem as incongruous in our post-bubble universe as a horse and buggy would on the 880 freeway. My friends and I have taken to exclaiming "That's so 1998!" whenever we encounter anything that's buzzword-compliant without being anything else. Here's a quick guide to what's still so 1998 in the year 2001.

1. Guerrilla marketing. This was the "put an ad in an unexpected place" marketing style that flaks evolved to call jaded consumers' attention to things sold online. Remember when Bigwords.com used a helicopter to drop a zillion little balls with their logo on them on college campuses? Even if it happened in 1999, that is so 1998. How about ads on plastic containers of glitter? Or celebrating your launch by releasing a bunch of birds whose plumage matches your company colors (having company colors is very 1998)?

2. Free booze parties for employees and their friends. Imagine an Internet company handing out free drinks to anyone who wants them, on a weekly basis, just to promote networking. Welcome back to 1998.

3. Going live. Ah, the quaint phraseology of another time. Remember back in 1998 when your entire company existed in the E-universe and therefore "pushing your website live" meant literally opening your doors for, um, giving away free services? These days, pretty much everybody has a website already (even if it sucks) and so there's no more going live. Now there's just maintaining.

4. The Internet. Saying that you do things with the Internet is pure 1998. Although the Internet has existed in various forms since the 1960s, it emerged as a marketing and entertainment device only in the mid-1990s, and it's this recent incarnation of the Net that most Americans think of when they hear the I-word. Any biz plan or résumé that prominently features the phrase "working with the Internet" without any elaboration on what that means is straight outa 1998.

5. Coding HTML. My favorite self-description in 1998 was "I code HTML." OK, I suppose it's technically true that you can "code" anything. I guess that means I code English. But that's not quite the same as coding Java or C, both of which are complicated computer languages that require mastering more than a few basic tags like <A HREF="http://www.ass.com">ass</A> or concepts like frames. But technical expertise in 1998 seemed so hard to come by that anyone could get away with outlandish claims about their arcane knowledge of exotic acronyms like HTML. Coding HTML for a living? Très 1998.

6. Surfing the web. Everybody in 1998 was a surfer. Give me a break. These days we just go online.

7. The letters Z and X. What is it about high-tech capitalism that made CEOs want to create company names that sounded like words you would only use to win at Scrabble? If you are having the urge to name your company (or your product) something like Zupit or Zap or Energex or Xivix, please take a trip back to 1998.

8. Managing creativity. Any book, video, tape or website that promises to help you manage creativity is trapped in 1998. Back in those "the future is now" days, tech companies touted themselves as fun and peppy, ads emphasized a product's iMac-ish lollypop appeal and workers were given stupid toys to make them feel like coding a really, really neato chunk of HTML. It was all in the pursuit of creativity rather than productivity or even (gulp!) operability.

Just remember, kiddies--if it ain't insanely great, then it ain't 1998.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who feels supercreative right now!

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From the July 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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