hace diez años

2/27/06

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.

0 thoughts on “hace diez años

  1. CL

    It is so amazing how quickly technology has changed in our lifetime. I remember the first computer wave in the early 1980s, when Atari was hiring teenagers and kids were subscribing to ENTER Magazine and some 13-year-old designed Frogger. Even though I was a kid myself, programming on an Apple IIe at school and trying to explain to my parents what the fuss was about, I and you and so many people our age saw the dawn of a world-changing revolution. And then after college, there was the internet revolution. I wonder what’s next on the horizon…and will our kids have to explain it to us?
    Anyway, that was a really interesting, well-written, and fascinating entry. Thanks!
    By the way, for someone who claims to have had little luck with the ladies, you sure dated your share of sorority babes, got randomly kissed on stage because of your writing, and have posted plenty of photos from formals and proms on this blog…I wish *I* was that unpopular with the opposite sex! I’d have about 13 kids by now. [Note: I’m half-teasing…half. I know it took a while to get there.]

    Reply
  2. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    OK, Ian. I am confused by your timeline. . . I met you in 1986, when I was a freshman and you were a sophomore. I graduated in 1990. When did you graduate? 1989? 1990? Why were you still in Chapel Hill in 1996? How old was that hot sorority girl you were dating when you were 28? I am sure you have some James Frey-ish explanation for this timeline. . .

    Reply
  3. Oprah

    Yeah, LFMD is right, what is with the timeline? What in this entry happened in FEB of 96? Also, Back to the Future 2 came out in Nov. of 89 and 3 was not out in Feb. of 90. And, Lilly didn’t really hang herself.

    Reply
  4. Kevin from Philadelphia

    This is a little know verse of the N’Orlean version of the Bible.
    “And lo, the Lord looked down upon thee on this bless’d FAT TUESDAY, and He spoke verily unto you:
    ‘You that have ears to hear Me, keep drunken on this holy day, for those that are born unto woman, and have throats that are parched, shall from sunrise to sunset, pour fermented spirits down. This is My will'”
    -AMEN!!!
    Actually I just made that up. . . anyone think that it will catch on?

    Reply
  5. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    I can vividly remember the first time I saw someone send an email (my last year of law school, 1993), and the first time I had daily access to the Internet (my First Insurance Company Job, 1997). For someone who used to read volumes of the World Book as a kid for fun, it was a dream come true!
    You are right on about the impact and importance of the Internet. I feel the same way. I have had many amusing conversations with my first grader, who simply cannot understand the revolutionary aspect of the Internet because she has been using the Internet since she was barely big enough to sit in front of the monitor and pound on the keyboard. At the opposite extreme are my elderly relatives, who do not understand the big fuss about the Internet and do not own computers.
    I am still in awe of the Internet. As Helen likes to say, “Mama, every time you get on the computer, it is like the computer takes over your brain.”

    Reply
  6. Lee

    I am so with you, Ian! City Search was so crazy, but totally changed my life, too. In 1996 I was still working in a cafe. Granted, I was running it, but there was just nothing for us to do! So when I went to work at City Search as an IBA, it was the first chance I had to prove myself in a “grown up world”. Luckily, I was really good at it- I even signed up the Friendly Barber in Chapel Hill! (I think because I so whole-heartedly believed in the future of the internet). But my experience was that it was the worst time I’ve ever had a job in my life. You came in at 1p, but I had to come in around 7a. You came in wearing whatever you’d worn the night before and I had to wear a suit that cost more than I was making. You guys all went to Chapel Hill to get drunk, but I didn’t usually get home until 10p or 11p and my salary was on loan to me until I could pay it back in sales. It was a draw kind of thing. And it was so crazy walking around talking to people about advertising on the internet who would then say, “Lady, I don’t even have a computer. How can I advertise on the internets?” I was making tons of enemies all over town when I would sign them up on this site that turned out to never work. We were under a crazy amount of pressure to sell those sites. But luckily, someone from The Independent was at Top of the Hill and watched me give my pitch and then called me up and offered me an awesome job with them. Then I got to throw the suits out, make lots more money, and work for an awesome paper. So I absolutely ThankGod for CitySearch and for the dotcom revolution that brought an entire generation out of the restaurant business!

    Reply
  7. Ian

    I graduated in 1990, but lived in Chapel Hill until 1997; not exactly sure what part of that timeline is confusing. Also, I never said “Back to the Future 3” came out in Feb. ’90, just that it had been five years since the original. And yes, I was a dirty old man, I guess, but we all had a lot of fun.
    Lee sure was cute in her suit!

    Reply
  8. LFMD

    Sounds like Lee got the short end of the stick with CitySearch.
    Thanks for the timeline clarification. Just confused about why you stayed in Chapel Hill so long! I loved Chapel Hill and all, but 11+ years is a LONG time. Especially since you love NYC so much.

    Reply
  9. Sean

    My life has been as ridiculous or more at any given moment than Ian’s, but in ’97, when we were talking about sharing a house in LA, and Ian said, “it’s just pathetic for me to still be living in Chapel Hill when I turn 30…” that may have been a bit of an understatement.
    The really shocking thing is to think that ’97 was 9 years ago, and our lives have turned around so completely it’s almost scary. Just imagine what the next 9 years have in store. Lucy will be in 4th grade!

    Reply
  10. Piglet

    This is the era I know you from. The endless telnet sessions I spent posting to alt.society.generation-x. Looking back, I can’t decide whether I miss those days deeply or want to scrub myself.
    I have a picture taken at the Mexican border during a New Year’s Eve gathering. I’m the only male in the pic who would look out of place in a punk band.

    Reply
  11. LFMD

    Nah . . . I don’t think it is pathetic to still have been in Chapel Hill in 1997. But since Ian is practically bi-coastal, I thought he would have been bored with Chapel Hill by then.
    My husband grew up in Millersville, MD. Went to U of MD in College Park, to law school at Washington & Lee in VA, I followed him, then we got married. . . where do we live? Millersville, MD. Now, that is pathetic.

    Reply
  12. Lee

    Well, I think part of the freak-out of living in Chapel Hill in the 90’s was because of Slacker. Remember when that movie came out and we were all like, OMG, this is MY life?? It was weird how that film was validating and then formulating in the same breath.

    Reply
  13. LFMD

    Hey, Sean. I see that you like babies. When you are thinking about babies. And your friends have spectacular babies. Um, babies?
    ?
    Just wondering. You and your wife are so adorable. And your new house is lovely. We could all use some good news to blast away the February doldrums.
    I’m just saying.

    Reply
  14. LFMD

    Lee! I loved Slacker. In fact, I recently ordered it on Netflix so that I could watch it yet another time.
    Come to think of it, my life has become Slacker, Part 2 — the Suburban, Pushing 40 Version.

    Reply
  15. Sean

    LFMD – Ah, babies. Why, nobody has yet to think of suggesting we should have babies!
    Just kidding, of course. We’re bathing the glow of our friends preternaturally perfect offspring, and we’re babysitting when we’re allowed. We’re also disorganized theater people who make enough money for 1 (one) daily burrito, so anklebiters may not be in the immediate future. If we write the next “Oh Calcutta”, we’ll get to bidness!

    Reply
  16. LFMD

    Sean, don’t you hate people who pester about babies? I did! And, now I am one!
    When Tim and I announced that we were pregnant, everyone was shocked. They all said, “But we did not think that you wanted a baby.” Just because we did not share our baby plans with the world. “Hey, everybody! We are trying! Trying to have a baby! Having lots of sex!” It was a surprise to all.
    Then, all we heard was “when are you going to have another one?” Actually, we don’t hear that very much anymore, because I have my “look of death” response down to a science.
    Sorry to be a PITA. I usually have more tact. I still think you and Jordana are adorable! Have you thought about a kitty cat or a puppy?

    Reply
  17. Chris M

    I am enjoying your retrospective. I am always looking back and retracing my life. It is a corrective measure of a cautiously bold sort of person. If I were to write a memoir it would be called ‘A Remedial Life’. My life has gone pretty well, if I do say so, because more than once I have been willing to take apart everything I have constructed, throw things out, and then put it back together in a different and better way.
    But what I really want to ask Ian (and anyone else out there) is, what are the best restaurants in Venice? We’re going to be there this weekend. I made a reservation at Joe’s for Sunday. Thanks!

    Reply

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