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What I Learned from the Internet Boom, Part I

By Jack Powers

Published: March 28, 2002


Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

 ―Wordsworth on the French Revolution


How quick it all happened. In January of 1994 I gave my first talk about the World Wide Web for a publishing trade group in Norway, Den Norske Fagpresses Forening. I had always been skeptical about Internet publishing -- public access was hard to come by, Winsocks and networks were painful to configure, and the early search programs Archie, Veronica and Gopher were unserious information tools. Net culture was both high-geek and home-brew, the worst sort of intolerant insider tech jocks clueless about the big picture and feverishly evangelical about a libertarian digital future.

In the Q&A after my presentation, we got to the "what ifs." What if Mosaic didn't lock up all the time? What if open architecture and the World Wide Web actually took off? What if regular people -- and regular businesses -- could go online without the overhead in money, time, grief and aggravation that conventional online services consumed? That would really be something.

Soon enough, the "what-ifs" all came true in the Internet Boom, an orgy of innovation, ideology, hubris and unfocused financial mayhem. Within six months of my Oslo speech, the number of Web sites grew from fewer than 650 to more than 2,700. A year after that the total topped 23,000, the "acceptable use" policy that banned Internet commercial activity was suspended, and the dot.com gold rush began. The last time I looked, more than 8.5 million web sites were online. Google had indexed more than 3 billion web documents. Web use rivals TV viewership in some demographics, and every business person everywhere is online or about to get online. Business was quite good for tech consulting in those years.

INTERNET WORLD 1997-2001

In January of 1997, I became the head of the Internet World conferences, the biggest, fastest-growing trade events in history. In each of the next four years, we gathered over 10,000 paying conference attendees, 100,000 to 150,000 exhibit-goers, thousands of press and hundreds of exhibitors. The people were smart, the business was booming, and everything we touched turned to gold.

To build the Internet curriculum, I hobnobbed with the major players, geeked around with the up-and-comers, served on start-up boards and even angeled a few companies myself. Those of us riding the crest of the Internet tidal wave made millions -- and lost millions -- in a frenzy of business development, roiling traditional companies and destroying jobs for retail stock brokers, travel agents, booksellers and hundreds of thousands of others.

But by the end of 2000, it was all over. Dot.coms were anathema. The highest flying visionary executives crashed to earth. Stock options were underwater, and schadenfreude web sites like NetSlaves.com and Fuckedcompany.com chronicled the dissolution of hundreds of Internet dreams.

Thoughtful books are no doubt being written about the six or seven years of Internet excess. Finance experts point to the 1990s revolution in stock ownership, the rise of discount online trading (the Internet bred its own investing class), the inherent conflicts between market makers and their research departments, and plain irrational exuberance. Tech gurus barber on about the historical applications of the "network effect," open architectures, collaborative development and the triumph of infrastructure. Marketers and e-business mavens spotlight disintermediation, permission marketing and interactive media's "audience of one."

The Internet Boom focused climactic changes in many different fields into an historical moment of stunning opportunities. Many of those opportunities were built on dung and collapsed in a heap of broken promises and rotten business. Some were too far ahead their time, and we'll see them again in the by-and-by. Most had to be washed clean of excessive ardor and dialed down into rational business plans. The echoes of that 90s boom are the foundations of business in the electronic age, and I was privileged to have a front row seat at the creation.

Read Part II...

 

 

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