Yesterday in Styles: 2001: When the Internet Was, Um, Over?
“Yesterday in Styles” is a regular column that looks back at Styles stories that got people talking. This is one of them.
Original Headline: “Dot-Com Is Dot-Gone, and the Dream With It,” from November 2001.
A Cloudy Crystal Ball: In terms of historical hot takes that missed the mark, there have been some doozies. n 1946, the film executive Darryl F. Zanuck predicted that television would never be able to hold a market because “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” In 1955, the year before Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog,” Variety asserted that rock ’n’ roll was a fad that would ‘be gone by June.’”
So let’s go easy on this 2001 Styles article that declared, well, not the end of the internet, precisely, but an end to the idea that the internet was culturally relevant and cool. The dot-com crash of 2000, and the Sept. 11 attacks the next year, marked “the next step after the bursting of the dot-com economic bubble,” wrote the article’s author, John Schwartz.
Those twin cataclysms led to “the bursting of the cultural bubble, the end of the nerd as a crossover hit, of the I.P.O. zillionaire as role model to college students.” It bears noting that Mark Zuckerberg would enroll at Harvard the following year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A Little Context: The idea that the internet may seem any less central to human existence than oxygen may seem bizarre to a generation weaned on emojis and social-media likes. But it made sense to those who witnessed the Gatsby-like boom and bust of the Internet 1.0 era.
A generation of young entrepreneurs who had ridden the “World Wide Web” to overnight fortunes and rock star status saw their paper millions vanish overnight as the Nasdaq index collapsed by 78 percent.
They lost a lot more than money, Mr. Schwartz argued. “Not much more than a year ago, boosters of the New Economy and their true believers in the press were claiming to have changed all the rules.” Mr. Schwartz quoted a New York Magazine article by Michael Wolff, “himself a failed dot-com executive,” who had written, “all it takes to make otherworldly riches is the will and desire.”
Indeed, it was not enough for the young web plutocrats to make money; “they had to make history,” Mr. Schwartz wrote. “Now they themselves are history.”
This was an iMac.CreditGetty Images
History Written by the Losers: After the crash, the author was not the only one engaging in schadenfreude. For many who missed out on the instant fortunes, it was easy to gloat: “Hey Icarus, how did those wax wings work out?”
Despite the thinly veiled glee over their comeuppance, several failed dot-com stars tried to rise from the ashes by writing books about their experiences. There was “Dot.bomb,” by J. David Kuo, a former executive at web start-up called Value America who went on to become a Bush administration official, and “A Very Public Offering” by Stephan Paternot, a founder of an early social networking site called Theglobe.com, who became a poster child for the boom after making an instant fortune of nearly $100 million while still in his mid 20s before going bust.
Henry Blodget, a former tech industry analyst “who became famous for predicting early that Amazon.com would reach $400 a share” — jeepers!— announced that he was “taking a buyout and leaving Merrill Lynch at the grand old age of 35,” and was also writing a book, Mr. Schwartz noted. Ellen DeGeneres even attempted a sitcom about a failed dot-com executive, which became another dot-bomb.
“For the most part,” Mr. Schwartz wrote, “the flood of dot-com failure stories is being met with a national yawn.”
Greed? Not Good: By 2001, it was hard to say whether people were bored by tales of the boom, or repulsed. The Sept. 11 attacks made the giddy exuberance of the dot-com era and its obsession with “otherworldly riches” seem irrelevant and vaguely obscene.
College students who had spent the ’90s with “visions of Testarossas dancing in their heads” as they hoped to emulate geek stars like Marc Andreessen of Netscape were now saying that they want “fulfilling jobs, not just ways of earning money,” according to a University of Maryland professor quoted in the article.
This made sense in an economy where many skeptics assumed the days of easy money were gone for good. As the writer Thomas Frank, a fierce critic of New Economy values, was quoted saying, “the Dow isn’t going to go to 36,000, and the dot-coms aren’t going to come back.”
This was a Pocket PC.CreditJeff Christensen/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images
It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over: So far, history has proved Mr. Frank half-correct. The Dow Jones index, which had peaked around 17,000 at the height of the ’90s boom, has merely passed 26,000, not 36,000. But the dot-coms, as you might have noticed, did not exactly vanish.
That old apple of Mr. Blodget’s eye, Amazon, which recently became the country’s second trillion dollar company, with a stock price more than four times Mr. Blodget’s once-risible $400 price target. Mr. Blodget himself went on to become a tech mogul, as a founder of the online news site Business Insider (Mr. Wolff, meanwhile, did not exactly disappear either: his explosive book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” became a best seller earlier this year).
But with the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that 2001 was not the end of internet culture, but rather, the end of the beginning of internet culture. Today’s young tech moguls — like Facebook’s $60 billion man, Mark Zuckerberg — are not only among the richest people in the world, they are also Beyoncé-level stars in the eyes of the starry-eyed postgraduates who flock to tech’s promised land, hoping, like the characters in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” to carve out their slice of the future.
Hindsight Is 20/20: In fairness to Mr. Schwartz, he hinted that tech might come roaring back, bigger than ever, in 2001. “The dot-commer,” he wrote, “seen today as a scam artist,” might be reborn, “smarter and tougher, because he represents optimism itself.”
When contacted last week about the story, he thanked me for the opportunity to stay humble, but added: “As the story predicted, a new generation of companies has arisen and changed the world since that story ran: It includes Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Theranos.” He continued, “if there’s a lesson in taking a new look at this old story, it has to be to never bet against greed, and never bet on a cultural shift that requires tech companies to grow a conscience.”