Exactly Ten Years Ago: February 1996
To be honest, my “generation” was running out of options. We’d already bitched and complained about the terrible job market, and a few of us had already gone on Oprah to be derided by a national audience. It was one thing to be 22 and facing another temp job or working scab labor at IBM (like my buddies were doing), quite another for me at the age of 28.
I’d missed my window for leaving Chapel Hill. If I’d moved to New York in ’93, riding the wave of small-but-easily-parlayed success of 13th-GEN and Next, I might have found a niche writing non-fiction books and doing freelance journalism, living in the then-drug-infested East Village and playing gigs with Block in dusky bars. But even in 1996, I was scared shitless of the big city – I mean, I was dating a hot sorority girl, drinking boxes of Franzia at the Pink House and Vince & Antawn had just shown up to practice.
I don’t know if it’s possible to recreate the feeling “the internet” gave us in early 1996. We’d already been on email for about three years, but hardly any of us had computers that would run a decent web browser, and we were all on dial-up anyway. When I heard my old fraternity brothers were starting an “online yellow pages with editorial viewpoints” called CitySearch, I failed to grasp the importance, but convinced them to create a job for me anyway.
My first day at the office, I had my virginal broadband experience. Pages loaded lightning quick, I could watch movies on the internet, and suddenly the future exploded into an effulgence too bright to contemplate. I was IN LURVE. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I told them I wanted to be their movie and theater reviewer. I also wanted to review the actual theaters themselves. Oh, and I didn’t want to come into the office until 1pm. They said fine.
Those early days at CitySearch have to be the happiest I’ve ever known in a work situation (besides “From the Hip”) because we were all young, drinking a lot, loved our boss Martha, and truly believed that we were starting a revolution. There were fierce debates over this chimera called an “advertorial” (which got squashed, temporarily), and we began our meetings with moments of meditation in Morrisville, and ended them in Carrboro at the Cradle listening to The Cardigans.
The Research Triangle Park, which had hitherto only been a triangle and never a park, began to do research. There were Web companies springing up all around, and by 1997, if you had a pulse and some discernable talent, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a job. It helped that CitySearch had a Dream Team full of editorial people who were about to be huge in their fields: David Surowiecki, Dana Terebleski Bowen, Alan Benson, even Lindsay, Chip and your fave Lars – not to mention incredible minds like Dani Moore, Ashley Farrell, Jerry Salley and everyone else.
early CS masthead pic, 1996 (by Lars Lucier)
I thought the internet was going to change everything, how we thought, how we shopped, how we made every decision, and I wanted to be on the front lines. Our site, when it debuted later in the year, was a non-functional disaster, but I didn’t care: I was happy to take the arrows as the first soldiers storming the castle. What we didn’t understand was that we were too early.
The internet – besides email and early games – simply did not make any sense at all until people had broadband in their homes, and in February 1996, that had to be about .1% of our clientele. We had people telling us they didn’t think the Web was really going to “pan out,” and the IBA’s (Internet Business Advisors, like Lee!) had to convince, say, Spanky’s that they would actually need a website.
This story ends like so many others: the exuberance shown in the beginning is in direct inverse proportion to the disgust shown to you in the end. Everyone was either sloughed off through attrition, fired, re-assigned to something they hated, or asked to move to a city they didn’t know as soon as CS went international. The company was bought, then bought again, and now it shows almost zero resemblance to the editorial juggernaut we designed it to be. I was one of the last originals, leaving in 1999.
By then, I was in Los Angeles and my life disintegrated, beginning a depression spiral that wound up in yesterday’s blog. But lo, that moment in early 1996, I saw that everything was truly going to be different. It may have taken until… well, now, really … for the Web to be what we envisioned, but I’ll never forget the instant I saw my generation’s Get Out of Jail Free card flickering on a 14-inch screen in the piedmont of North Carolina.