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Schmooze Dot Com

Photo by Anne Fishbein
IT WAS THE WORST POSSIBLE NIGHT TO go to the SkyBar. At the very least, it was the worst possible night to go to the SkyBar when it wasn't actually raining. The sky was a starry, starry blue, but a cold, gusty wind raced through the city like a greyhound on amphetamines, making the SkyBar, outdoors and open to every breeze that blows, about the last place you'd want to be.

Outside Le Mondrian, the hotel you have to get into and then back out of to get to the SkyBar, a long, jagged line of cars testified to the presence of yet another Internet launch party unfolding in West Hollywood. But I wasn't going to the SkyBar to report on a launch party. I was going to interview an actor who'd been accused of a hate crime. Little did I know that the actor would not show up (I later learned that he'd taken one look at the cars lined up outside the hotel and left), and that this would be the beginning of a long, painful odyssey through the world of dot-com parties, a dark existential journey that would teach me little about myself and next to nothing about other people, except that they make more money than I do.

ICAST.com, "a multimedia rich online entertainment company that champions self-publishing within a personalized, community-oriented environment" (as per its press release), was holding a party to launch its new iCAST Movies channel, which would allow aspiring and even perspiring moviemakers to "showcase their work to iCAST's growing audience," resulting in "powerful online publicity and brand building." But caveat director: A paragraph at the bottom of the page warned that "This release contains forward-looking statements . . . subject to important factors and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those described in the forward-looking statements."

If they put that on a press release, I thought to myself, I'd hate to see what one of their contracts looks like.

Inside the Mondrian, I asked one of the cream-suited attendants for the press desk and was pointed to a long line of hiply dressed people waiting to pass through the glass doors that led from the inner sanctum of the Mondrian to the outer sanctum of the SkyBar. In short, there was no press desk, and nobody cared if you were a reporter or a freeloader or both. No hierarchies were being observed, except, of course, for the cases when they were being observed, because every so often you'd see someone casually walk down the line of people waiting to get in and disappear through the glass doors.

Out on the SkyBar patio, dozens of space heaters fought vainly to counteract the biting wind that swept over the swimming pool and down the steps and around the surreally large flowerpots and the hundreds and hundreds of guests. A giant-size rendition of Heather Locklear, advertising the Gap, stared at us from the side of a building five blocks away. Leaning against one of the shoulder-high flowerpots, I fiddled with my tape recorder and discovered that it didn't work. "I've got nothing against Bob Geiger," someone said as I pulled out my note pad and pen, "but if you take Geiger away from the Backstreet Boys you've still got 15 million records."

"Absolutely," I replied, and he gave me his card. It said "knitmedia.com." The Knitting Factory, the legendary downtown New York jazz club, was about to open lots of other knitting factories, he informed me. There would be knitting factories in L.A., in San Francisco, in Seattle, in London, in Berlin, everywhere, and they would all be connected to each other by a multitude of screens, so that at one knitting factory you could sit and watch a concert going on at another knitting factory, and there would always be a knitting factory near you. I've always liked the Knitting Factory -- in fact I'd been there just a few weeks earlier -- but the way he talked, it was beginning to sound like Starbucks.

"So who are you writing for?" he asked, no doubt hoping that my answer would be Red Herring or Fast Company or some other cutting-edge new-media outlet.

I told him I was writing for a newspaper called the Glaswegian Herald, and that I was at the party to interview someone accused of a hate crime.

"Nice talking to you," he said, and disappeared into the crowd.

A hip-hop band called Clone Revolt gave a short concert by the pool, ranting furiously into the wind. Though lasting only two minutes, it was perhaps the worst concert I have ever attended.

After Clone Revolt's performance, I spoke to the group's leader, Dr. P, a fast-talking white guy in red pants, black jacket and ragged '60s-style 'fro: a cyberspace Jerry Rubin for the year 2000. "Old school! I like that," he said, catching sight of my pad and pen. With Dr. P was Marcos Siega, iCAST's "resident filmmaker," who was making a documentary about Dr. P that he described as a "post-ironic look at celebrity and media," and that Dr. P himself described as being about the "creation and consumption of media in American society."

If you gave a sheep a video camera, what would it film? Grass, farmers, collies, other sheep, would be my guess. And if you hand over a video camera to a young L.A. documentary filmmaker working for an Internet company, what will be the subject of his movie? Why, celebrity and media, of course. And now I was a part of it myself. While I sat talking to Siega and Dr. P, members of the film crew scurried around us, the red "on" lights of their digital cameras glowing like electronic bindis. In the darkness they looked like half-human insects with metal heads, and it was all you could do to keep yourself from swatting them.

Both Siega and Dr. P were very big on the interconnectivity aspect of the Net and the kind of platform sites like iCAST offered to unknown artists who want to promote their work. In Siega's view, the whole "misunderstood artist" pose was a thing of the past. Four years ago, he told me, he was just a guy with a lot of ideas who felt as if there was nowhere to take them. But for young artists now, this was no longer the case: It was put up or shut up. "There's just no excuse anymore," he declared sternly. "Anyone with a video camera can put together something that can be seen by 100,000 people. You can be out there making short films, you don't have to be a feature director."

The problem with talking to people like Siega is that the conversation takes place in two different time zones. You're still in the present, while he's in the future; he's downloaded the iCASTER ("the free downloadable application that brings the thrill of entertainment . . . to your desktop") and you haven't. Or rather, his present is about to become your future, because of course you will download the iCASTER (or something like it), but by then he'll have downloaded iCASTER2 and moved on to an even better future, and it will go on like that forever.

And what is the future like? Well, it seems to be a great place, which is why Netheads are all so annoyingly optimistic. In the real world, there's such a thing as character, predisposition, fate, but in cyberspace everything is possible. If it's raining, you change it, or instant-message your friends and all fly to Bermuda and go scuba diving at scubadiving.com. If your girlfriend's bugging you, you go to newgirlfriends.com and download another one. Sometimes you get bored, but then an "alert" appears on your screen "inviting you to a sneak preview of your favorite actor's upcoming movie. You launch the iCASTER to view the trailer and join a fan chat room. You then instant-message your friends, inviting them to the Webcast, and meanwhile the iCASTER is sending you the latest headlines about the movie and its star cast."

And, presto, you're no longer bored.

The party was still going when I left a little before midnight. I was told there'd be a 45-minute wait for my car, but in the end I got it back in 15. As the wind whipped around the driveway, one of the doormen told me about a woman he'd seen running naked up and down the hotel corridors and about a Web site called pitchfactory.com, where some of his own movie ideas could be found. For a moment I felt as if I'd caught a brief glimpse of the spirit of the times. He was just a low-level hotel employee, but he was young and good-looking and full of optimism. People were yelling at him for their cars, but he had money in the stock market and a movie pitch on the Internet, and his suit was made by Armani, even if he was freezing in it. The present wasn't much, but the future -- the future was just amazing.

AT THE TIME I ATTENDED THE ICAST PARTY IN March, I was getting pretty sick of the Internet. Or rather, I was sick of reading and talking about it, sick of listening to terminally bored public-radio announcers say DOUBLE-YOU DOUBLE-YOU DOUBLE-YOU every five ä seconds, sick of billboards that urged me to get off the streets and go online. In particular, I was sick of the billboard (for cnbc.com) that asked, "SERIOUSLY, CAN ANYONE BE TOO RICH?" It hung over my neighborhood like a taunt, and in my blacker moods I would have been happy to blow it up.

Of course there were lots of good things about the Internet, but its power was starting to feel oppressive. You wondered: Just how big was this thing going to get? And how much of the real world would it need to eat in order to grow? Today the music industry, tomorrow . . .? Furthermore, the ethos behind much of it seemed either brutally utopian (Napster, FreeNet, etc.) or crassly commercial -- a suspicion that talking to people like Siega did little to dispel. Everything was done as a response to the market. And everyone involved seemed to have a focus group sitting right behind his eyes.

It was in this frame of mind that I pinned a notice, copied from an opinion piece by Nicholas von Hoffman in the New York Observer, to my front door. It read as follows:

Globaloney is a belief in a global new economy in which we Americans get to do all the buzzy-jazzy stuff, and everybody else does the work. We make our living selling the drone-peoples information, creativity, financial services, ideas, insurance policies, movies, mental products, music, concepts, intellectual property and a diffuse but enthusiastic entrepreneurial oomph. In return they sell us food, clothing and shelter.

The proof of Hoffman's thesis could be found in my own circle. Some associates of mine held the rights to a simple device that could do the impossible: It could mix oil and water. This little invention was so rich in potential applications -- toxic-waste cleanup, burn-victim treatments, etc. -- it was dizzying. But no venture capitalists in America were interested: They were too busy pumping money into Web sites like iCAST, not to mention the parties held to launch them. The only people willing to give my friends the time of day were fantastically shady Israelis and Armenians, or Mexican businessmen so secretive they insisted on meeting only in remote towns without phones south of the border.

Nonetheless, something about the iCAST party piqued my interest. I think it was the self-confidence of these dot-commers, their sheer brazenness. They compared intellectual-property rights to witch burning, and brashly predicted the death of old business models while absent-mindedly failing to come up with new ones of their own. Almost all of their companies were in debt, half of them would probably collapse, they produced little of real value, they couldn't figure out how to make a profit, their idea of art was animation, their idea of news was Britney Spears has a new CD, and yet here they were blowing obscene amounts of money in the hope that someone, somewhere, would mention their name. And now here I am doing it for them.

On Tuesday, April 4, the day the NASDAQ slipped 13.6 percent, I boarded a shuttle bus to attend Stream Search.com's Internet Film & Music Festival Awards Ceremony at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills. It was the week of the Internet World trade show in Los Angeles, and StreamSearch, a St. Louis­based Web search engine with "over a million links to entertainment, music, news, information, special events and sports multimedia," was spending more than $100,000 on a party that would include a sit-down dinner, Playmate-hosted tours of Hef's mansion, a concert by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and booze flowing freely from two large bars. Swimming in the famed grotto pool was optional. Unfortunately, it didn't look like I would be doing any swimming, or eating either. I had been advised by Rogers & Cowan, the Century City public-relations firm that was organizing the event, that the dinner was for invited guests only, that I would be accompanied by an employee of Rogers & Cowan at all times, and that I would be required to leave Hef's hallowed grounds at precisely 9 p.m., when the awards ceremony was over. ä

Outside a bungalow near the VIP entrance, a group of StreamSearch executives stood around in open-necked shirts and perfect suits, backs to the sun, talking and blowing cigarette smoke into the blue late-afternoon air. Against type, they weren't geeky in the slightest. They were tall, good-looking young Americans whose narrow, close-cropped beards gave them a slightly anachronistic look. It was as if they had migrated to cyberspace straight from the backwoods and were subliminally harking back to an earlier, equally revolutionary time, when it had also been good to be a young, white American male with a gun in one hand and the New World in the palm of the other. In the year 2000, America was too regulated, too politicized, and above all too crowded to offer that kind of freedom. But in cyberspace you could make your own rules, set out for the frontier and sail down your very own virtual Mississippi, one, moreover, that you had created yourself. It was amazing when you thought about it: At a time when businesses all over the country were unisex, when girls were beginning to outnumber boys in college and beat them on many test scores in high school, along came another generation of American men who constructed an entirely new business universe all on their own anyway. Now, for purely monetary reasons, they were figuring out how to get more women interested in it.

Looking at them, I felt for the first time a stab of envy for these princes of the new Internet economy as they stood with hands in pockets under the trees. I envied them their money, their clothes and expensive haircuts, and most of all I envied them their timing. They were surfers who had caught the perfect wave and were riding it all the way to the beach, where gold and the love of beautiful women awaited them. Or at the very least, the smiles of a few Playmates, some of whom could be seen filing out of the VIP bungalow along with a handful of more StreamSearchers.

Tired of watching new arrivals spill out of the shuttle bus and walk through the VIP entrance, a ritual that was supposed to keep reporters enthralled for hours, I went and sat on a nearby wall. There I got into a conversation with a guy called Andy Rosen, CEO of ugwap.com, a wireless entertainment portal, and uground.com, a Web site on which I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, the winning entry in the StreamSearch film competition, was already showing. Andy was from England, and looked elegantly raffish in a techie sort of way: receding curly brown hair, artful scrawl of stubble, black jacket and blue silk shirt worn outside his trousers. His eyes gleamed enthusiastically through small black-framed glasses.

Immediately we got into one of those conversations that only those who grew up in the Old World and now find themselves standing outside the Playboy Mansion on the West Coast of America get into: what we're doing in L.A., when we came over, what we think about it now. It was fun talking. I liked him a lot. Furthermore, he and his wife, Peggy, were going to make sure I got some dinner. Still, there was a divide between us: Andy was a cyber-optimist, and I wasn't. There were plenty of things wrong with the present, but, in my mind, being unable to shop on a cell phone wasn't one of them. (Thanks to something called Wireless Access Protocol, Andy could already shop on his. It was the next big thing, he told me.) Perhaps it was simply a matter of temperament. There have always been people excited about the future, but they were called scientists and lived in laboratories, where they belonged. Now, like a virus, the future has left the laboratory and entered the population at large, where it can be heard talking loudly in restaurants about bandwidth and DSL lines, usually to someone who isn't there.

Eddie, my Rogers & Cowan handler, turned out to be a good sport. After he saw me going in with Andy and Peggy, he left me alone. Perhaps it was just the ghostly vibes emanating from those fun-filled '70s, but it felt terrific to be inside a giant, circus-size tent on the Playboy grounds, even if the actual awards ceremony turned out to be a snooze. (The best moment came when one of the statuettes broke in two and Garry Marshall, who emceed, yelled, "You people are going to go out of business!") The enormous stone bar to the right as I walked in; the impressively large grotto pool straight ahead of me . . . Not even the bank of computer monitors at which guests nervously checked their portfolios could spoil the effect. Here, one thought, looking around and breathing the rich, photosynthesized air, it was still possible to Have a Good Time.

For a lot of people, of course -- the people who worked for companies like StreamSearch -- this was the Good Time, the time when youth and economic opportunity fell into a long, seemingly endless embrace. Unfortunately, the opportunities for some real embracing were limited: As the evening wore on, the number of women at the party diminished rapidly. That, it has to be said, was the one nagging little problem. Just as all the men in the room were reaching that ideal point of inebriation when feelings turn into words and to like a woman is to say so, the few women to be found could barely be seen for the guys standing around them like trees. To suffer such a fate at the Playboy Mansion seemed especially cruel.

A group of people who had been at a party for Red Herring arrived, and they were all men in suits, some of them looking remarkably sinister, some of them, if I'm not mistaken, wearing sunglasses though it was close to midnight, and as a gesture of good will they brought with them a smart, attractive woman who claimed to have been divorced that morning. A couple of Playmates appeared to talk to CEO types, Hef was spotted wandering around in his dressing gown, and a few people even got into the pool. When I took the shuttle back, half the people around me were on their cell phones, organizing the next place to meet. Well, these weren't my Good Times, but it was nice to see people having them.

"I CAME ALONE, AND I DECIDED NOT TO DRINK tonight, so what I'm trying to do here is some totally unlubricated networking," said Psalm Isadora, a striking, smoky-eyed 25-year-old Web mistress for the band Ozomatli. It was Thursday, the 18th of May, and the Venice Interactive Community's (VIC) monthly networking bash at a restaurant in Santa Monica was in full swing with about 850 online professionals in attendance. Out in the back yard, where drinks and California rolls were being served, the people making the new Internet economy happen stood around in groups -- or "pods," as one person referred to them -- swapping business cards and knocking back martinis. It was a very white, very clean-cut crowd. Almost everyone wore tags on their chests bearing their names and those of the companies for which they worked: Liquid Advertising, Euphoria, the Human Capital Group, PeopleLink, SmartSearch, SmartShop, SoftAware . . .

The restaurant was called the Victorian, and that seemed apt: Just as young men in Queen Victoria's day bought products that would make their beards grow faster and wore glasses when they didn't need them, a lot of VIC males worked hard to appear, if not older, then considerably wiser than their years. Small, self-important beards sprouted on chins, and scholarly half-glasses sat snugly on the noses of robust 20-somethings who looked as if they could read a business card at 20 paces. Close your eyes and you could almost imagine them wearing top hats, brandishing canes and squinting at each other's name tags through gold-rimmed pince-nez. Most of them had jobs that, in the offline world, would be about as glamorous as knee surgery: sales manager, accountant, headhunter, ä pharmacist, service-supplier. But online, it was a different story.

"Everyone's very intense here, because they feel like they're on the cusp of this big Internet wave," said Psalm, whose own name tag (minus company ID) was affixed, with just a hint of defiance, to the front of her hip. "There's an almost religious sense of conviction. They really think they're the shit." Perhaps it was due to the comparative profundity of the Milan Kundera novels she'd been reading recently, but Psalm seemed unimpressed by the biz chat around her. She described the typical conversation at a VIC networking event as "very friendly, but moving quickly into a territory where people can be mutually beneficial to each other."

Steven Klein, a manager of product marketing in his mid-20s, put it more succinctly. "It comes down to sex vs. networking, and networking always wins," he said, grinning a slightly manic, almost Beavis & Butt-head grin. He had braces on his teeth and spoke in the hyper, staccato rhythms of someone who's been staring into a computer screen and sucking up Diet Cokes for 12 hours straight. "Steven Klein" was not his real name. It was a name he decided to use after confessing that, "in all seriousness," he did not find the Web "interesting at all" -- a statement he said could get him fired should the wrong person read it. "The Internet's great for work, there's nothing remotely as powerful as a communications tool except TV, but at the end of the day I want to be outside swimming or standing around with a beer in my hand." Steven claimed to have "close to no social life at all" save the two or three dot-com events he attended weekly, which ended up being mostly about work anyway. "I went sailing recently," he said, "and everyone on the boat was a dot-com person. I wanted to watch the sun set, but I ended up making deals instead."

Steven's friend "Chet," a thoughtful, circumspect type who wore glasses and was as deliberate in his speech as a 19th-century bank clerk, said that dot-commers were always complaining about dot-com parties but actually liked them. "We like the fact that we're elitist and that we're doing something only a fraction of the population understands. It's our club," he said.

"It's an exact extension of the college fraternity system," agreed Steven. "There are cool fraternities to work for and uncool ones. We look at each other's tags and size each other up by domain." Steven then demonstrated what he called the "VIC look" -- the moment when your eyes stray from the person you're talking to toward the tag affixed to the chest of whoever's walking by. "No one at these parties can keep eye contact for more than five seconds," he laughed.

I asked Steven if he read e-economy magazines like Industry Standard and Red Herring, but he said no, no one read them, they were just for window-dressing, things to put on your desk. The three magazines he liked to read, he said, were Teen, Wallpaper and Time. Teen, he explained, was for 13-year-olds, and that was exactly why he read it: to find out what 13-year-olds were thinking so he could market their thoughts back to them. Thirteen-year-olds might be too young to drive the economy, but they were definitely old enough to be its engine. And in any case, he liked their attitude: "Kids have a really short tolerance for bullshit. Britney Spears has got another three months and then it's over."

The day after the VIC party I interviewed Brad Nye, VIC's ponytailed founder, over the phone. I was sitting at my desk, but Brad was all over the place: in his car, on the street, in an elevator, in an office, back in the elevator, back in the car . . . Brad, to use his own terminology, is one of the "digitally empowered" who have cell phones, PalmPilots, laptops and two-way pagers that make them reachable at all times. "It's a new way of living your life," he told me from inside an elevator somewhere in Los Angeles. "I'm hardly ever at home anymore, and I'm hardly ever at my office."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Why not? Because there's always some event going on every night, or I'm out with friends, or I'm at business meetings . . . I have balances, but my lifestyle is so caught up in my job, my life is revolving around my business, it's almost 24/7. I like that, and if it wasn't healthy I wouldn't do it. I don't have family. I have a girlfriend this weekend, but . . ." And then, temporarily, we lost the connection.

Brad, 42, used to be in the film business (he named VIC after the venerable Old Vic playhouse in London), but since founding VIC five years ago, he has become the man responsible for much of the offline networking done by online professionals in L.A. "For me, VIC has always been about stimulating people's business and social development at the same time," he told me after we'd reconnected, sounding like a party planner with a degree in behavioral psychology. "The Old Vic was the hub of the theatrical community, a place for people to exchange information and entwine their lives. I put VIC together in the hopes that it would do the same thing, and beyond my expectations it has done so. Like in the entertainment business, good personal relationships lead to good business opportunities. When you're pioneering in a new area, you need friends to support you."

"I hardly ever see any black people at these parties," I told him. "I don't see many Indians or Asians, either. It's almost always a very white crowd. Why is that?"

"It's perhaps more a state of the industry," he replied. "There are less blacks in the industry, for sure. Why I don't know. I guess it goes back to the digital-divide saga. People joke about it being an upper-middle-class male industry, and it was, but now the state is -- look at all these great-looking women in the industry. Women are having tremendous opportunities in leadership roles."

"And what about content providers?" I asked with just a hint of anxiety in my voice. "I don't see any of them at these parties, either."

"There's not a lot of original content creators, because there aren't business models to support them. When you write a screenplay, there's a definite market for it and standards of pay. We don't have that yet."

"And what would that content be?"

"I have to be honest with you, that's what I don't know. Maybe short vignette-type animations, interactive storytelling, gaming . . . What I'm waiting for is something that's equivalent to what Myst was to CD-ROM and Star Wars was to the movies."

AH YES, "CONTENT" -- THE MOST vexed of questions as far as the Internet was concerned -- at least if you wanted to make money off it. I'd already witnessed one attempt to put major-league content on the Web, and that was at a party held by SightSound.com to celebrate the premiere of Quantum Project, "the first original motion picture ever to be instantaneously released worldwide via the Internet with a simultaneous gala celebration."

For a gala celebration, it was a pretty dismal affair. The party was held at the MiauHaus on La Brea, where, a few weeks earlier, a Web site called iFuse had thrown a particularly lavish bash, complete with a trapeze artist and so much dry ice that, from the street, the place looked like it was on fire. Now the NASDAQ had sunk dramatically, and the SightSound bash looked as if it had succumbed to some drastic last-minute cost cutting. The theme seemed to be an unhappy mixture of sci-fi and low-rent Americana. The waiters wore lab coats and hardhats, the women just lab coats, and they walked around with trays of mini­turkey burgers, mini­corn dogs and elaborately carved pieces of Jell-O. There was wine, beer, and Guinness on tap, and two battered Volkswagen beetles, evidently rescued from a junkyard and spray-painted a deep red, were parked anomalously in the courtyard. No one knew why they were there (until they'd seen the film at least), but they were obviously part of the "theme."

Naturally, the genre the filmmakers had chosen for the world's first Internet movie was science fiction. This brought to mind "Show Off Your Shorts," the short-film competition sponsored by iCAST, which included the categories "action/adventure," "mock/rock/documentary," "horror," "comedy" and "romance," but didn't include drama. A telling omission, when you think about it. In my dictionary, drama is defined in part as "a composition . . . intended to portray life or character," and the very vagueness of that definition is what leaves the fledgling filmmaker free to make a film on his own terms. Whereas the other categories can all be seen in the strictly utilitarian terms beloved by niche marketers. In action/adventure, you excite people; in horror, you frighten them; in comedy, you make them laugh . . . But in drama -- the stuff of life itself -- you try to move people, and that may be too uncontrollable for the Web.

Predictably, the film was depressingly bad: a festival of geek-friendly special effects masquerading as a story. It was made even more depressing by the knowledge that at that very moment people were watching it in countries as far away as Egypt -- or so John Cleese assured us in his filmed introduction. There was excitement in the room when the film started, but it dissipated rapidly. After 10 minutes I walked out, bitterly regretting that I hadn't walked out after two minutes: That way, I could have gone down in history as the first person ever to walk out of an Internet movie. As things stand, I suspect that somebody -- an Egyptian with a good head on her shoulders, perhaps -- may have beaten me to it.

PERHAPS IT WAS THE ROUND OF video-game parties I went on that did me in -- "Say Freedom!" Macy Gray exhorted the audience near the end of a corporate concert on the Sony lot in Culver City. "Say Love! Say Sex! Say Peace! Say PlayStation!" -- but eventually I lost my appetite for Internet bashes. Or perhaps it was just the feeling of not belonging: I felt so depressed after the SightSound party I could barely speak. Technology rules, advertising rules, money rules -- and everything else can be flushed down the toilet.

At the VIC party, I had been advised by Steven and Chet that only faux Netheads bothered to talk about how "interesting" the Web was anymore, let alone blather on about how your television and computer and refrigerator and anything else you might have lying around the house would soon become part of a single network, busily communicating with itself. Real Netheads took all that for granted, so there was no point in discussing it. As for the extent to which the Internet might change the world, that all depended on how you looked at the world. To Chet, the world was full of what he called "replaceable behaviors." The Internet, he explained ä simply, would grow only to the extent that we were willing to replace them.

The last party I attended was for the entertainment-news site Inside.com. It was held at Spago. Inside, the brainchild of Kurt Andersen, former editor of New York and Spy, purports to give interested parties the lowdown on the latest in media and industry power plays and gossip. Because part of the Web site is subscription-only, its progress is being closely followed. While it's reasonably easy to get people to spend money on the Web, it has so far proved very difficult to get them to pay for the privilege of using your particular Web site.

The choice of Spago reflected the bravado of Andersen and his partners, who apparently figured they'd found a way to do it. And because it was Spago rather than the MiauHaus or SkyBar or the SoHo Club, everything was done with discreet efficiency. At the door, you gave someone your name, he checked it off a list, and -- miracle of miracles -- he let you in. Just like that! He didn't even have to consult with someone on his cell phone to do it. The food, of course, was delicious: oysters, lobster tail, shrimp, mussels, beef carpaccio . . . and you could have any drink you wanted from the bar. Befitting its classy, old-media origins, Inside didn't go for the hard sell. The coasters and napkins bore the company logo, but otherwise you could have spent three hours at the party without knowing who was throwing it. And if you came alone, you could have spent three hours there without meeting anyone. As at most dot-com parties, people came in groups and stuck to them as if their lives depended on it.

For a media star, Kurt Andersen seemed like a very approachable guy. As a result, it was impossible to get near him. Dressed in a sober suit and tie, occasionally blowing cigarette smoke over the head of whoever had managed to squeeze in front of him, he seemed happy to talk to anyone who wanted to talk to him. When I spotted him moving toward the bar, I slipped in beside him. I can't say our conversation was momentous, but it was pleasant to talk to someone at an Internet party for whom books, not Web sites, were still the preferred point of reference. His first novel, Turn of the Century, was published last year, and he was eager to write another one. Nonetheless, he said, the Web site contained enough elements that were of genuine interest to him to make it feel worthwhile. And then, almost imperceptibly, someone else took my place in Andersen's orbit: Stars are hard to come by at Internet parties.

There was supposed to be dancing later on, but no one danced. The party went from being over- to undercrowded in a dismayingly short time. But then, what were parties, if not "replaceable behaviors," I thought to myself, looking around the room. There were hardly any celebrities, but then, they weren't really needed. The Internet was now the ultimate celebrity. The people were there simply to supply the buzz.