The Oral Sex Solution
In San Francisco there's a billboard for an e-trading firm that reads, "Make love not war," and then -- down at the bottom -- "Screw it, just make money." Drive down Highway 101 to the San Francisco airport and you come to another instructive dot.com billboard, this one saying: "Root of all evil ... Can't buy happiness," with the punch line, at the bottom of the sign, "Blah, blah, blah."
Now I am not the kind of person whose pulse rises and falls with the NASDAQ. Until embarrassingly recently, I had never heard "dot.com" used as a noun. I thought an IPO was an International Peace Organization and a "browser" was someone you might try to pick up in a bookstore.
You could attribute my ignorance to denial, and trace that in turn to envy. For five months of this year, I lived in a suburb of Silicon Valley called Berkeley, where rents have gotten so high that the university is issuing sleeping bags and pup tents to incoming students -- forget about four walls and a roof. And why are the rents so high? Because just a few miles south lies Silicon Valley, where the poverty level is now more than $50,000 a year -- thanks to the cost of housing. New millionaires are being minted -- or were, as of a couple of months ago -- at the rate of sixty a day. My fellow professors at the university used to choke on their lattes as they shared stories of colleagues who had bolted for dot.coms and were now using $50 bills to insulate their ski lodges in Aspen.
Finally I got my own chance to join in the e-frenzy. A few weeks into my Berkeley sojourn, a fellow called to invite me to participate in his start-up -- a web site that would publish brief instantaneous news commentaries by approximately 100 "famous people" like myself. The "famous people" part had the desired effect, reducing me instantly to a mood of craven compliance, and the pay had me practically groveling. We commentators would be paid not in money -- which is, when you think about it, so 1999 -- but in the more up-to-date form of stock options. Though I am not too sure what a stock option is and how it differs exactly from a stockyard or stockpile, I knew I had to have some.
But it was the means of determining each commentator's rate of pay that excited me: We web site contributors would be paid on the basis of the number of "hits" our commentaries attracted, which in e-biz corresponds to the number of people who bother to look at them.
As it happens, I know something about the technology of attracting hits. As reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, the on-line magazine Salon has found that stories with titles containing the word "sex" get twice as many hits as those that do not. And titles containing the phrase "oral sex" get three times as many as the sex-free variety. Salon claims not to pay much attention to the hit counts of their writers, but even Salon may someday be forced to make a profit. So the future of journalism is clear: Write about oral sex, or back to grading freshman Comp papers. I would choose the obvious path to riches: producing dozens of commentaries with titles like "Oral Sex and the Papal Succession: What Commonweal Won't Tell You" until I became the most hittable writer around.
Then it dawned on me: As someone who understands the secret of attracting hits, why should I settle for being a mere commentator? Why not be a dot.com myself? I would rent a loft, hire a bunch of skateboarders in cutoffs, and put them to work cranking out hit-worthy commentaries on any subjects they liked, so long as "oral sex" was in the title. Anyone wanting hittable commentary on anything at all would have to come to my e-firm, which could be called "oralsex.com" or -- I should I ever decide to sell out -- "blowjob.com." (Turns out that these sites have already been put to other uses.)
But as I was mentally fondling the stock options that would soon be coming my way, I was struck by an even better idea. Making money by selling things, even immaterial things like commentaries, is just so 1985 -- better to take a lesson from the truly up-to-date dot.coms, the ones that never get to the point of having anything to sell. I would start by creating a buzz in important venture capital circles: "Sexy new dot.com to replace Crossfire, Arianna Huffington, and Daniel Schorr. Get in on the ground floor now!" As the VC guys flocked to me, checkbooks in hand, I would pump up the stock price with extravagant claims: "Millions cut off newspaper, cable, subscriptions in anticipation of new news that's all oral sex, all the time." Maybe I could have my IPO before ever having to issue a commentary on "Oral Sex No Solution to the Ethiopian Famine." Maybe when the buzz reached a sufficient volume I would proceed directly to my merger with AOL/Time Warner, which will of course see the newsstand advantage in becoming AOL/TimeWarner/OralSex.
It is not easy, however, to leap overnight from a life of diligent debt management to the status of a gazillionaire. The May issue of Money magazine talks about the epidemic of "sudden wealth syndrome" in Silicon Valley, the symptoms of which include a feeling of being "uncomfortably different" from others, sexual inhibition in the face of a potential onslaught of gold diggers, and paranoia about picking up the phone, lest some sub-gazillionaire supplicant await you on the other end of the line.
There are other drawbacks to having a fortune the size of the annual budget of Argentina, such as the problem of needing a GPS or at least an experienced guide to help you find a bathroom in your 24,000-square-foot home (actual size of single-guy Mark Cuban's house, purchased after his sale of Broadcast.com to Yahoo.com for $6 billion). Or the problem of finding a pocket calculator with enough digit slots to hold your checking account balance. Not to mention the pressure to keep working until the standard Silicon Valley retirement age of thirty, which may seem young to some readers, but is still well past one's prime skateboarding years.
I am willing to shoulder these burdens, if only to help keep the NASDAQ aloft, and you, the reader, can help. Start pumping up the buzz among your friends and neighbors or, better yet, send me your checks and money orders now, and I'll send you, by return mail, some, um, stock certificates, I think is the phrase. Oh yes, I can imagine your misgivings. But to the outmoded concept of journalistic ethics, today's ambitious e-pundit and her eager investors must learn to say "screw it" and also "blah, blah, blah."
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.