Fear and Gloating
Despite the increasingly absurd pronouncements of capitalism's Candides at glossies like Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0 and Red Herring, the numbers of new-economy apostates are swelling. They're the disgruntled masses of dotcom disbelievers salivating over each slide of the NASDAQ, grinning with gleeful Shadenfreude every time layoffs are reported at a high-tech startup. Though obscured by the 23-year-olds piloting Lexus SUVs, a brisk trade in multimillion-dollar real estate and the still-thick haze of irrational exuberance, the new naysayers are forming a rapidly growing presence online, where a group of websites are channeling their anxiety and bile into venomous but oddly vibrant communities. They're the dotcom deathwatchers, and their swelling numbers suggest that a backlash is brewing against the Internet economy. As the dotcom layoffs mount -- a recent New York Times article counts more than 2,000 -- so do the ranks of the disillusioned.
There are three major websites devoted to jeering the demise of sick and dying dotcoms and providing a forum for venting against slave-driving startups, ludicrous business models and betrayed promises of stock-option riches. The oldest is NetSlaves.com, a website and mailing list founded at the end of 1998 that has seen its membership increase by 25 percent in the last month. Then there's the self-explanatory dotcomfailures.com (its slogan is "kick 'em while they're down"), which tracks online layoffs and shutdowns. Founded four weeks ago by 25-year-old Ryan Nitz, the site includes a convenient "Lackey Calculator," which allows users to compute how much money they've lost if they work more than 40 hours a week or they took a salary cut to work at a startup -- and how much their options need to be worth in order to break even. Nitz says he gets between 15,000 and 20,000 hits a day, and his newsletter goes out to 1,200 people.
Finally there's FuckedCompany.com, the most ingenious site of all. With a logo designed to look like that of Fast Company, the bible of Tom Peters acolytes, Fucked Company allows users to choose five companies they expect to suffer setbacks, winning points for various degrees of failure. There are also news items and lively bulletin boards. Since 24-year-old Philip Kaplan started it a month ago as a joke intended to amuse a half-dozen friends, Fucked Company has had a growth rate most websites would die for -- according to its founder, there are currently 80,000 people playing and there have been a million page views. The response has been so phenomenal, Kaplan says, that 30 or 40 companies have offered to donate prizes in order to get exposure on the site. Starting on July 1,those who pick the worst companies can win gift certificates and possibly even vacations -- something that will come in especially handy for all those layoff victims. Those who post juicy news to the site will get their own reward -- stock from, well, fucked companies.
A wide range of motivation draws players to Fucked Company. Almost all are connected to the tech industry, but while some want to see the whole dotcom pyramid scheme tumble, others simply enjoy watching the most ridiculous startups flame out. Kaplan, 24, is clearly in the latter camp -- in fact, he says that he hopes all the attention Fucked Company has been getting will be good PR for PK Interactive, the web shop that he runs.
"I'm not rooting for the whole thing to implode," says Kaplan. "I just think the really silly ideas have to go." Indeed, some of the Fucked Company favorites read like bad jokes. "Flake.com was a portal for breakfast cereal. I don't think you heard me. FLAKE.COM WAS A PORTAL FOR BREAKFAST CEREAL," reads one of Kaplan's news items. "I like breakfast cereal like the next guy, but sites like these make me so angry -- not to mention VCs who support crap like this. 'I'm discouraged, and I'm essentially broke,' says the founder." How can one not gloat?
At the same time, the site has become a kind of support group for those who worked at the Flake.coms of the world. "The most feedback I get from the site is from people who were laid off from the companies I list," Kaplan says. "I've gotten as many as 100 emails that say, 'I was laid off and I don't know what to do, but I came to your site and saw that it happened to 20 other companies on the same day.' It makes them feel like they're not alone. Somebody recently emailed me and said they know I'm not making any money from the site, but I should be because of all the money that this person has saved in therapy."
Then, of course, there are those who were never invited to the party to begin with, many because they didn't fit into the youth culture of startups. Over and over on Fucked Company's bulletin boards, workers in their 30s and 40s express rage at the arrogant kids who assumed that older people couldn't grasp the infant industry. The dotcom industry's ageism is one reason why 38-year-old Linda Laubenheimer is finding such satisfaction in the current rash of startup failures. "Thirty-eight is young, except in the valley," she says. "In the valley I'm over the hill, and I really resent it. I won't be considering myself middle-aged until I'm 45, and being treated like I'm a dinosaur is offensive."
A regular on both Fucked Company and NetSlaves, Laubenheimer currently works as a release engineer for a software company. But though she's involved in a thriving industry, Laubenheimer herself hasn't benefited much, because she's been stuck in temp work, without stability or benefits. "Contract or temporary labor is a whole underclass of people that the valley sort of uses up and spits out," she says caustically.
Its not just ageism that Laubenheimer feels has worked against her. Since her early 30s, she's been partly paralyzed on her right side. Her disability doesn't interfere with her performance, she insists, but she believes young people are especially uncomfortable with her handicap. "There's a very strange reaction by younger people in interviews when they realize, 'Oh my God, this could happen to me,' " she says. "They can't deal with the fact that I can't run up the stairs."
So even as she worries about being laid off from her current gig, she finds solace in uniting with her fellow naysayers online. "It's fun to say, 'I told you so,' " she says. "When some guy in a BMW cuts you off on the freeway, you can just smile knowing the dotcom he works for is going to go under."
She continues, "Fucked Company is sort of like the phenomenon that makes people slow down and look at a car wreck to see how many bodies are on the ground and say, 'Hey, I'm not one of them yet.' It's the feeling that you get when people are lording something over you and then you see them a few years later and they're in the dumps. The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
While there's an obvious acridity animating these websites, there's also a direct and very positive challenge to the workaholic values that dominate the culture of the Valley. Recently, when ABPNews.com laid off all its employees and 70 percent of them volunteered to work for free while the company searched for funding, many in the media treated the story as an inspirational tale of loyalty and camaraderie. Those on NetSlaves and Fucked Company, though, point out the sickness of the situation. Bill Lessard, one of the founders of NetSlaves, says that what's happening at ABPNews.com is a kind of office Stockholm syndrome that shows how much work has come to supercede everything else in American life.
"That's what's going on in our society these days as a whole," he says. "Turn on one of the major networks any given night of the week. Chances are you're going to see a sitcom about people at a job. Twenty years ago, you had shows about families. Now job is the family. And the Internet industry is like what's going on in the rest of the economy on crack."
For the past few years, there has been both intense social and professional pressure to accept 80-hour workweeks. Now, says Lessard, many of those who are turning to websites like his are realizing that they've been exploited. "That's why there's all this rage coming out, rage not just at their employers but at themselves for having been so foolish," he says.
This new sense of wariness about the dotcom world seems to be having an effect on people's employment choices. John Rosica, owner of the Silicon Valley employee recruitment firm MRI, says he can see the bubble deflating. "Candidates are looking more carefully at companies before they quit their current jobs, asking themselves, 'Do they have a legitimate business? Are they going to be around next week?' "
He anticipates lots of bitterness among those lured to dotcoms by promises of stock-option wealth only to see their companies fizzle. "I can only imagine some of these people who came out here and bought houses with these options. I'm sure there are people who live just at or slightly outside their means. If things shrink a little bit, they're going to be in a world of hurt," he says. At least thanks to FuckedCompany.com, NetSlaves.com and dotcomfailures.com, they'll have company in their misery.