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Bill and Steve's Servile Adventure 

Long hours on the HTML assembly line

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
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Art by Calef Brown
MEET BILL LESSARD AND STEVE BALDWIN, TWO horribly average new-media guys who have never grinned mischievously on a sorbet-colored cover of Wired magazine or even playfully aimed toy ray guns at each other inside. What they have done is worked behind the scenes in the Internet revolution, schlepping long and hard toward no stunning payoff -- no IPO jackpots, no worshipful cover shoots, not even a long-term health or retirement safety net.

In that respect, they're like most people who build the Web sites, crunch the code, sell the ads, write the copy and perform all the other infinitely minute tasks that have made the Internet revolution possible.

Call them "netslaves." Bill and Steve won't mind. In fact, that's their term. It's also the name of the Web page they co-produce. There on the main page (http://www.disobey.com/netslaves/index.shtml), you'll find their mission statement: NetSlaves is "a new zine devoted to real-life 'Dilberts.' If you've worked in new media, chances are you've been burned. Maybe you're a freelancer owed thousands of dollars by a giant corporation, or someone who 'bet her career' on a content project that went sour. Whatever your story, NetSlaves is here to tell it."

It may sound grim, but Bill and Steve weave plenty of black humor into their therapeutic paean to "the real people who build this medium every day . . . everybody in the industry who [isn't] Bill Gates, Jerry Yang or Marc Andreeson."

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Bill explains the impulse behind the zine: "The stories you see in the media [of soaring Internet successes] never go below the CEO level. It's the same story over and over again. So and so started his business in a garage, and now he's worth $300 million. The meaning is You can do it, too! But that's a bunch of shit!"

NetSlaves offers itself as a kind of shit antimatter. And the message seems to have hit the fan. The site went live last December and is currently notching upward of 75,000 visitors each week, according to Bill and Steve.

Their own stories are fairly typical in the tender annals of new-media serfdom and burnout. Bill, now 33, got his start in the online world as a "cyber-censor" at Prodigy, scrubbing chat rooms of swear words and sex-inflected verbiage. Steve, now "over 40," went from a career as a recording-studio engineer to being an editor at Ziff-Davis computer magazines.

In 1995, riding the new-media job swell, both washed into the hallowed halls of the Time & Life building in Manhattan. Time Warner, then the world's largest media conglomerate, was about to throw all resources necessary at the most ambitious new-media project ever, the Pathfinder Web site.

Pathfinder was to be the online repository of Time Warner's vast media holdings. But more important, it was a bold experiment that sought to write the book on original online content and advertising dollars. Steve took charge of Pathfinder's original computing content, while Bill secured the thankless chore of coordinating bulletin boards for the far-flung (and ego-ridden) magazines.

Ultimately, the great experiment failed to attract either readers or advertisers in substantial numbers. Pathfinder eventually abandoned its original content and became the floating hulk it is today, a shovelware barge for People, Time and Sports Illustrated.

During the startup, say Bill and Steve, 17-hour days were not unusual, as Pathfinder people struggled to stake out a new medium of which the traditional Time Warner had little understanding. Poor management, unrealistic expectations, dueling egos and a stream of resignations took their toll. "People began to crack under the strain," says Bill. "My boss lost his marbles, and two months into it I'm doing his job, too. I couldn't take it. I hadn't cleaned my house for six months.

"Eventually, I cracked. It was killing everybody. There were multiple generations of people who went through that place who just burned out, or quit, or got fired. Imagine a spring wound as tight as it can go."

"The pace was actually making me physically sick," says Steve. "I was exhibiting some strange symptoms that my doctor ascribed to an overactive thyroid. As soon as I left that place, my thyroid returned to normal, and I've been fine ever since."

Out of that bruising experience came the idea for NetSlaves, first as a book pitch that was rebuffed by New York publishers as "too negative," and ultimately (and ironically) the Web site.

"I began to think about all the people I know in new media," says Steve, "none of whom had made it. Everyone was working very hard, and we were all employed, but in a medium that was very demanding. You work around the clock. You sleep under your desk. You might not go home."

Worst of all, many true believers sacrificed stable careers for a shot at a brass ring, and discovered too late that the ring didn't exist.

"We're dealing with a gold-rush mentality," says Bill. Bosses will work their employees into the ground because "They're not interested in building stable businesses. They just want to get a quick hit and get rich. Everybody thinks they're going to get rich. And that's a complete lie! Unless you're one of the few founding partners in an Internet firm, forget it."

Although New York and San Francisco hog most of the headlines when it comes to new-media hype (and horrors), Los Angeles has a much larger population of potential netslaves -- 181,000 "new-media professionals" in 1998, according to the Carronade Group, which compiles a local multimedia business directory.

A fairly random sampling of new-media workers here elicits the kind of gripes that would be at home on the NetSlaves site. Says Dori Smith, a Culver City­based Web developer and Javascript consultant, "There's a chew 'em up, spit 'em out philosophy" toward Web workers. Managers have discovered a seemingly endless supply of eager "19-year-olds dropping out of college to make quick money working on the Internet."

And in a business where profits are highly speculative, fundamental employee benefits -- like salaries -- tend to get overlooked. Nadia Conners, a graphics designer in Venice, recalls working for a large local Web development firm where "people weren't paid for months." Instead, the employer dangled "percentages in the company" that never materialized, leading to sundry lawsuits against the owner.

And yet new recruits kept signing up.

Which brings us back to Bill and Steve, who aren't out to badmouth new media in knee-jerk fashion. In fact, they've both gone into business themselves as Internet publishers and consultants. They're just uploading a reality check.

"WHEN I STARTED WORKING IN NEW MEDIA," RECALLS Steve, "I said, 'My God! This is rock & roll all over again. Everyone is driving hard and there's all this creative activity.' Where's it going to lead? Are we all going to be stars? No. But hopefully we'll be able to earn a living."

And maybe become the next Jerry "Yahoo" Yang along the way, confidently beaming that sorbet aura to the wired world?

"No," he says. "It's more like working at a filling station on the information superhighway: You're pumping gas into the engines of commerce."

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