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Aughts

The Ferality Show

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Left, Paris Hilton in Cannes, 2005; right, Bernie Madoff entering Manhattan federal court, March 12, 2009.  

Indeed, PLUs (I’m projecting a bit here) became increasingly maladaptive to the new hustler economy. Eighties college graduates like myself jockeyed for jobs at once irreducibly blue-chip institutions like Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Some of us now sit atop shaky edifices, still smartly compensated but hardly sitting pretty. Others have been forced into shotgun midlife career changes. In our darker moments, we imagine ourselves like John Cusack in 2012, running to catch a plane piloted by a guy who can’t really fly as the ground gives way beneath our feet. It would be hard to imagine a current college graduate dreaming of a career in any of those corporations (perhaps excepting Goldman), spending twenty years brown-nosing and overworking his way to a partnership or tenure with its perks of a Town Car, $38 steamed halibut at Michael’s, and a life of suburban ease in Greenwich. Not only has the cheese been moved, to borrow from the title of the 1998 motivational best seller, but now, we know, we’re going to have to make the cheese from scratch.

T he digital revolution, the outlines of which were in place in 2000, has made the shift from credentialism to hustlerism permanent by wiping out gatekeepers in everything from media to investment to marketing and sales. Ever-increasing bandwidth and mobile computing brought us tantalizingly close to a world of infinite, instantaneous communications. Those who saw this coming convergence at the start of the decade were the winners. Those who didn’t were the losers.

In 2000, the record labels (losers) met secretly with a then-upstart digital music service called Napster—whom they were also suing—to negotiate a grand alliance. The discussion failed, somewhat predictably, and the lawsuit finally forced Napster to shut down in July 2001. Users promptly switched to the more sophisticated peer-to-peer-based Kazaa, launched only that spring by, among others, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis (winners), who would later go on to disintermediate much of the long-distance-phone business with Skype. By October, Steve Jobs (big winner) introduced the iPod, paving the way for the end of the physical CD business. The top-selling record of 2000, No Strings Attached by *NSYNC, sold 9.93 million copies. The top-selling record this year, Taylor Swift’s Fearless, is likely to sell a quarter of that. As of this past June, with the closing of Virgin Megastore in Union Square, there is no major record-store chain in New York City.

Arrivistes proudly wore hooker heels as a sign of contempt for the old order. The point was to look like a hustler.

Across the mediascape, the story was similar: loserville, population increasing almost daily. Blockbuster, the dominant DVD-rental chain, is playing frantic catch-up to challenges by Netflix (founded in 1997) and Redbox (founded in 2002), both of whose business models it is trying to mimic. The independent-movie sector has been more or less decimated as funding for non-massive studio titles dries up. In October, Miramax, the iconic movie studio started by Bob and Harvey Weinstein before being sold to Disney, announced it would no longer operate as an independent entity. Nobody would be shocked if the Weinstein Company, the brothers’ new venture, followed suit. In TV, NBC gave up a prized chunk of TV real estate, the ten-o’clock hour, to Jay Leno, a necessary move but still humiliating for an iconic late-twentieth-century brand. In publishing, the Borders Group teeters at the brink of oblivion, surviving on a high-interest loan from a private-equity group. The print-newspaper business continues its double-digit year-over-year decline as the Washington Post decides to throw in the towel on national coverage. The online news business will prove no savior once Rupert Murdoch has his way and newspapers start charging for digital access. Opportunistic, less-capital-intensive entrepreneurs like Gawker’s Nick Denton, the Business Insider’s Henry Blodget (smartly re-branded after being barred from securities trading in 2003), Politico, and the eponymous Huffington Post stand poised to gobble up market share, and top talent, once the pay wall goes up.

If you weren’t trying to, you know, make a living at this stuff, the aughts were a time when everyone got to floss. Blogging preceded the browser, but it wasn’t until the last decade that it became democratized thanks to blogging tool kits like Blogger, which was later bought by Google, and LiveJournal (launched months apart in 1999). As late as 2003, there were fewer than one million blogs. Today there are over 100 million worldwide. YouTube (launched in 2005 and also later bought by Google) did the same for video, while Twitter (launched the next year and not yet bought by Google) brought us closer to that axiomatically impossible convergence point at which the number of content creators equals the number of consumers.

The geopolitical implications of this decentered, matrixed mediascape are only now starting to become clear. Al Qaeda, mimicking the tactics and shape of a social network, proved nearly impossible to counterterrorize despite all the talk in the Pentagon of a new kind of “asymmetric warfare.” Momentarily, thrillingly, social media seemed to sustain a democratic insurgency in Iran, though, truth be told, old-fashioned texting and the BBC’s Farsi service probably had just as much to do with it. Social networks fed the myth of Neda, the impossibly beautiful victim of a Basij-militia gunman. But the power of social media to disseminate information instantly, uncontrollably, globally, also showed its limits. In a feral age, shame is not a deterrent (maybe it never was), and widely dispersed non-terrorist movements have a hard time exerting nonvirtual pressure. The thoroughly discredited Iranian government, led by its truly scary president, continues on.


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