"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Taking the "R" Out of "Free"

There will come a day, far in the future, when the heady euphoria of the Web Bubble will have faded into legend and legacy code.In this future, only the very young and the very old will believe what's said in the ancient "case studies" — that once upon a time, everything was free. The decline and fall of the New Economy will be some distant, archeological event, and the gleaming towers of ecommerce it birthed will become myth, like Atlantis or France.

But, here and now, we're living through it, and the memory burns all too hot. While some claim that the death of the New Economy is a simple swing of the pendulum — which just happens to knock down everything in its path — things are more complicated than that. The bursting of the Bubble affects us all, and everybody who ever tapped a credit card number into an insecure form or received a thirty-cent check for clicking on banner ads or bought into that can't-miss, sure-fire start-up is hurting. The scythe may not have cut all fortunes to ribbons, but it has robbed us of the most profound pleasure the Web had to offer: getting' free stuff.

That dirty little Protestant jonez for a life sentence of an honest day's pay for an honest day's work? The pinko addiction that sends shivers of schadenfreude down the spine with each additional dot-com's demise? These zero-sum "ethics" now threaten the few meager vestiges of a bourgeois lifestyle that the webbrowsin' masses might ever know. Welcome to our age of unabashed unAmericanism, of celebrating the unemployment of those who had the audacity and gall to try to make a better future; of slapping the Alternative Minimum Tax on anyone who dared grab for the brass ring.

And so, like survivors picking through the debris of a disaster, we dolefully record what we have lost.

"Free Delivery" Loses an Adjective

A year ago, hundreds of businesses were happy to subsidize your devotion to ass-fattening by offering every sort of delivery service imaginable, all without charging you a penny. Kozmo would deposit a thirty-five cent candy bar on your doorstep, for thirty-five cents. (The smack costs extra.) Pets.com would lug a forty-pound bag of dog food up three flights of stairs for the price of a smile. And eToys didn't care to trouble you with something their shareholders could pay for — heck, would you like a $10-off coupon with that? But post-crash, the World Wide Web's under new management. Once you were an exalted customer; now you're just another zone on the UPS rate chart.

Napster Sleeps With the Fishes

Whatever happens to Napster from this point on, the days of the all-you-can-eat Snoop Toto Dogg remix are over. During the boom times, a boy armed with nothing but a dream, a compiler and no discernible understanding of copyright law could cobble together a system to rattle the music biz. But after going gavel-to-gavel with Lars Ulrich, he's left with a billion dollar tab and millions of users who will forever wish they'd grabbed "I Have the Password to Your Shell Account" while they had the chance.

The Superbowl Gets Boring Again

Flush with cash and hubris, the Very Good Years were a wonderful time to be an overly-creative, ill-focused ad exec. You could pawn off anything on those 20-something cyberCEOs, including expensive habits that make launching gerbils out of canons seem painfully obvious. But amid the wreckage of the dot-com crash, a dark age has descended, leaving advertisements to repeat the product name, repeat the product name, repeat the product name, and repeat the name of the product. The days of thirty-second surrealist epics are woefully over.

We're Gonna Party Like It's 1999

In the heyday of HTTP, you — invite or no — could walk into any number of rented spaces in any number of cities and be treated to free booze, free fruit and free aerated meat, stuffed into delicate little pastries and served by people with sparkling teeth and clean hair. And since everyone in rock is a sellout, and since tech had all the money in the world, the number of Beatles reunions alone was staggering... Beck got a little funky with two tables and a microphone for nerds in San Francisco; Kiss rocked a house full of geeks in Vegas; Peter Frampton came alive somewhere, but everyone was too stoned to notice. Sadly, the days of throwing a rave to celebrate the product launch you didn't make are long gone — there's just no such thing as a free buffet anymore. The bargain-minded gate crasher is once again relegated to weddings.

Conversation Becomes Work

Before Al Gore invented the Internet and Bill Gates owned it, the place was more or less a dumping ground for bad poetry, pictures of cats and the occasional student paper on cold fusion. Collectively, it may have been worthless, but none of it cost anything, either. This was important, because instead of all the fact-checked content on AOL that the suckers were made to pay for, the web democratized media.

Soon magazines, newspapers, books, encyclopedias, professional journals, Jack Chick tracts — they were all online, and they were all free. And it still wasn't enough, because you can never have enough "free." So degreed professionals were forced at gunpoint to take obscenely large sums of money to do the hard work of telling you what to think and of forming your personal opinions.

Unfortunately, these professionals are an inbred bunch, and a sort of journalistic Tourette's would cause them to spew out the word "recession" every third sentence or so, thereby making themselves redundant.

Today the web is a deja vu all over again of bad poetry, pictures of pussies and the occasional wisecrack about cold fusion. The Internet poetry of today is most often written as a sort of reverse haiku, usually conforming to the twin conventions of being named for today's date and of being rambling, mostly incoherent streams-of-consciousness. This modern freeverse is often referred to as a "blog" or "Dude, hit the Back button." The pussies on the Internet are of the Schroedinger variety — they're the results for every search, and yet always just one more click away when attempting close study. And then there's everything else... a gaping maw of blank-sheet entry fields waiting for your participation, since now it's your job to produce the subject matter for the sites you visit, too! Sure, it's called "community," but you're the unpaid stringer, all the same. Don't forget to click on the ad banner, so you can go on creating someone else's content!

Worth What You Paid For

The New Economy took a classic formula for profit — give away the razors and sell the razor blades — and turned it into something that could only make sense in happy times: Give away the razors and the razor blades and some shaving cream and maybe those nice embroidered hand towels, too, as long as you become the market leader in the process. But being the market leader doesn't matter much if all the greater fools are running competing startups. With everything from software to entire computers being offered free of charge in exchange for your idle attention, the crash brought the realization that the eyeball isn't where most people keep their wallets.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

Time was, any enterprising fifteen-year-old could get himself a handful of Yahoo accounts and show those clowns down at the SEC a thing or two. With investors behaving with all the grace and intelligence of herd animals, a well timed "Boo!" could reap enough rewards to keep you in comics and Playstation II titles well into adolescence. But pump-and-dump requires a chump for the bump, and with markets offering almost nothing but downside, there's little chance that agreeing with yourself in a chat room is going to gain you anything but another session on the couch. Gone is the possibility that any random dot-com might suddenly explode, and with it the average Joe's opportunity for high-end market manipulation.

The era of freebies dies with it. Was it insane to offer eight-seat dinette sets complete with a 12-inch extension leaf over the Web? Of course it was. But that didn't mean that it wasn't thrilling to watch somebody try.

Post-crash, everything has changed. The bulldozers may not have cleared away every virtual storefront — the Internet remains a multi-billion dollar industry — but the Web Bubble is little more than sticky residue on the tip of economic reality's pin. And minus the waist-high piles of cash that irrational exuberance put on the street, the Internet has retreated to older notions of what "free" is really worth: the cats are still free, but the pussy isn't.

It was a wild ride, and now it's over. The spectacle of an industry in full retreat might be good for a few chortles, but it's the kind of laughter you try to choke back at a funeral. We remember the whole story; we know it was a golden age; and we know better than to join in the exultation of dot-com backlashers, old economy scolds, or now-jobless economic na•fs still excited over the prospect that San Francisco housing rates might fall. Because no matter how low prices go, they'll never reach the strike price of $0.00 we all enjoyed for a brief moment in history. Mourn the Web Gold Rush now. We shall not see its like again.

courtesy of The Sucksters

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