All the World's a Net Book
April 26, 2000
Step right up and visit "Wired World," a strange, confusing place where 24-year-olds are millionaires, where workers slave to attain the coveted "geek" status, where aging corporate executives pay money for the advice of pubescent hackers and where your net worth is based on the daily hits to your homepage. Their religion is themselves and their gods live among them. The natives subsist on coffee, Jolt cola and cigarettes and can be seen at the trendiest cafes. Few are over 35 and almost no one admits to being over 40. They are chic, they are savvy, they are the Digerati. Ignore them at your own peril. You too, however, can be one of them. Read their books and magazines, emulate their hip urban lifestyles and speak only of baud-rates and killer apps. Join the Digital Revolution!Huddled around lattes and smokes at Caffe Centro in San Francisco's South Park, you can hardly avoid hearing it: "So, I'm working on this book." Next door, over burritos, slick execs fawn over ratty-haired punks pitching Web guides to cybersex. No one, it seems, is getting much done in the cybergulch these days. They're all out promoting their books or looking for a publisher. Which is fine, except for the fact that most of these books suck. The pioneers of the Internet, once the anti-establishment bastion of punks, geeks and generally non-corporate types, are cashing in and selling out. Big time. The Net craze, which seems to be infiltrating even the most backwards, one-horse towns, has created an almost insatiable demand for quick, slickly produced books explaining in painfully egotistical detail just how cool it is to be young and "cyber." Enter the Happy Mutant Handbook: Mischievous Fun For Higher Primates (Riverhead Books, 1995, 205 pp, $15) and Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World (Henry Holt, 1995, 244 pp, $19.95). Now, the first thing you have to understand is that Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair, Gareth Branwyn and Will Kreth (who created these books) have attained something of mythical status in cyberculture. Mark and Carla are the husband and wife team that created neurozine bOING! bOING!, with Mark now comfortably situated at Wired magazine. Branwyn is a well known cyberauthor and the name of Kreth, the first Wired employee who has since gone on to greener pastures, is still whispered somewhat reverentially around the office. So when I heard early last fall that Carla "Net Chick" Sinclair was writing a book for Web Grrrls, I nearly collapsed with excitement. As her recently published book points out (and rather accurately) there is a dearth of information for or about "wired" women. So finally we were to have a book of our own. Imagine my disappointment at shelling out $19.95 of my hard-earned money to be screeched at with "Cool!," "Gotta Love It!" "Boogie Down!" "It's a cinch!" and other Sassy-esque catch phrases for nearly 250 pages. Beating that tired drum of "not all cyberchicks are nerdy librarian types" again and again had me holding my head in agony. Let me just say that inserting exclamation points at the end of phrases, dear Carla, does not make tired URL's (Uniform Resource Locators, aka Web Addresses) more interesting. Using buzzwords like "Grrrl," "girl" and "Chick" doesn't make you a post-feminist heroine. And personally, I thought Tank Girl (a seeming icon for Carla's Net Chicks) was embarrassingly stupid. And taking product placement to a new low, the book also comes with its very own Web Page (http://www.cyborganic.com/People/carla)! Sinclair's got a paper doll of herself (complete with bare tummy and sultry look) and the Magic 8-bra (which insults you)! Isn't this supposed to be about empowerment? Don't get me wrong, I wanted to like this book. And, despite its ego-heavy text (which includes about a million references to bOING! bOING!, her "influential friends" and several references to her own Web sites rife with glam photos!) there are a few things to appreciate about Net Chick. The book features a number of smart interviews with women like Lisa Palac of Future Sex, Aliza Sherman who created Cybergrrrl/Webgrrrl, and bianca's Smut Shack founder Jill Atkinson. It also features a decent glossary and a friendly guide to getting online. It also gets points for its "you can do it" sensibilities. The Web can be an intimidating place for women. Sinclair's training-wheel syntax makes it easy for those who have hesitations about Web life to jump right in.The Happy Mutant Handbook, which Carla co-edited with husband Frauenfelder, Branwyn and Kreth, is a sort of guidebook to what's cool among the Digerati. Designed by artist Georgia Rucker, the book is a compendium of profiles (big points for the ode to Italian porn star/politico Cicciolina), reviews and short articles highlighting the flotsam and jetsam of the hipster lifestyle. The only problem is that most of the content is now old news (many of the e-mail addresses and links no longer work and, sad to say, the Church of the Subgenius and Burning Man are not that interesting anymore). But for sheer street credibility, the Mutant Handbook isn't bad. With articles about kitschy toy company Wham-O! (inventors of the Hulahoop, Instant Fish! and Water Weenie), SF cartoonist Ariel Bordeaux and a hilarious graphically-illustrated guide to net.bozos (including the illustrious sex starved "crotch potato"), the editors show themselves to be savvy connoisseurs of marginalia. Once I scraped the sugary introduction from my teeth ("It's important that Happy Mutants get frequent doses of novelty injected into their nervous systems, or they'll eventually revert to normality -- a gruesome sight, indeed" and "Happy Mutant Thinks life is a gas Uses computer tech for fun and empowerment") and got past the requisite Sinclair/Frauenfelder product placement (Happy Mutants, of course, must like bOING! bOING!, The Happy Mutant Handbook and be "looking forward to the next cool book....") I actually found myself cutting out their bogus International Press Badge, "The World is the Oyster of the Press!" and linking to a number of the "Net.Weirdness" sites. The book also features how to: start your own TV station, make a robot, hack a new e-mail identity and start your own zine. The slick design and sheer hipness of the subject matter of both Net Chick and Mutant lend themselves to instant coffee table notoriety despite their somewhat, well, lackluster content. Won't their publishers be happy? Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a lunch date with my book publicist.