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The end of the Web as we know it

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
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Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"

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Brian Massey was working in the art department on the Roger Corman­ produced Black Scorpion II when he saw what he calls "the coming of a change in media." A storyboard artist and set dresser who has worked on films such as True Lies and Castaway, Massey was starting to realize what it meant when people called the movie industry "the most glamorous drudgery ever created by man." He had seen what could be done with digital special effects and 3-D modeling on Amiga Video Toasters; a little later, he saw what filmmakers were doing with Shockwave's Flash animation software. And so he did what any sensible man in his late 20s would have done at the time: He got some training in digital filmmaking and went to work for a dot-com.

"Two years ago, I got a job at Soundbreak.com," Massey says. "Interactive MTV. Mark Goodman, the first MTV veejay, was our programming director." His official title was "artist," he recalls, but he also took photos of rock stars for the site -- the Sneaker Pimps and Po are prominently displayed in his portfolio. Dressed in wide-legged jeans, a raver-boy jersey and a red Diablos baseball cap, Massey looks like a 13-year-old EverQuest addict stretched out on Silly Putty. Instead, he's a 33-year-old graduate of San Diego State University, a man whose sense of possibility was informed by the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. "You know, how everything comes together, how complicated it all is, how it's all accelerating? I got that from Sterling." He looks off into the distance as he speaks, and the excitement rises in his voice; his pitch climbs, his language gets more floridly poetic, and when he comes up with what he thinks is a key notion, he nearly begins to shout.

"When I started at Soundbreak -- man, it was such a wonderful vibe," Massey exclaims. "We were going to have a new generation of MTV with this new technology, and everybody just felt that. It was going to connect everyone on the planet." And its start was auspicious: "The first half of the year was just go -- just expand! On Memorial Day last year -- we were really cranking back then -- we had a $14 million marketing campaign. We had those billboards, you know, 'Soundbreak drowns out the evil voices in my head.' Remember those? My girlfriend at the time called from New York City; she said, 'You're all over the subways! It's everywhere!' God," Massey laments, "we had a blimp!"

Unfortunately, Soundbreak's was not the only dirigible in town; in 1999, it was a crowded sky. At the height of the e-commerce moment in Los Angeles, it seemed you could have stood outside any local supermarket and interviewed patrons about their startups the way monologist Spalding Gray once asked about screenplays, and elicited "How did you know?" from just about everybody. People with steady jobs were hoping to turn their Web sites into alternatives to corporate toil; waiters, costume designers, key grips and graphic designers were hanging up their aprons and X-Acto knives for better-paying jobs in new media and digital entertainment. Technology stocks soared, office space filled, old words -- portal, hits, streaming -- gained new meaning.

But did anyone think it could last forever? The parties offering endless platters of sushi and copious cocktails, the exposed-beam offices stocked with Aeron chairs; six-figure salaries right out of college, 19-year-old overnight millionaires; venture capitalists with faith enough to bank on hypotheses about what cool kids want. It was an edifice constructed out of promotional CD-ROMs, and many a dot-com was born out of nothing more substantial than party invitations printed in a groovy font on cyan Mylar, and nothing more sacred than the next hip way to make vague ideas like "digital solutions" work for you and your business. True to the notion of Internet time -- a world that bloomed as if in time-lapse photography -- the flimsy framework of dot-com culture fell in a virtual instant, leaving behind smoking ruins littered with debris: dead slogans ("Content Is King!"), blinking red lights encased in Super Balls, coffee mugs galore, vacated loft space (as much as 1 million square feet on L.A.'s Westside alone) and once-priceless domain names: Voter.com, Games.com, Pets.com, Homebuilder.com, Refer.com.

"The little murmurs kicked in about June or July," Massey remembers. "Everybody in online entertainment was on their way down. DEN went first. Pop never got off the ground." Digital Entertainment Network shut down last June; Pop.com, a proposed entertainment venture backed by Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was abandoned in September. Others followed: Hollywood.com fired 30 of its 50 employees in September; Scour.com, which would have been to movies what Napster is to music, closed in October, having attracted more attention from the Motion Picture Association of America's lawyers than it ever did from the moviegoing public.

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