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The New Old Thing

Is the recent Net boom a real second coming or just a blip? Even the once-mighty new-media ruling class, back on top (sort of), isn’t pretending to know.

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My favorite is the free-food indicator, but there are many other signs: There’s the impending Google IPO ($20 billion? $30 billion?). There’s the tripling, or quadrupling, or quintupling, of almost all of the Internet stocks (at least all of the remaining Internet stocks—the dogs as well as the good ones). There’s Barry Diller’s plans for the first Internet monument—a Frank Gehry building on the Hudson that will be the headquarters for Diller’s InterActiveCorp with its 27,000 employees. There’s the news that Fred Wilson, who ran the much-vaunted New York venture-capital firm Flatiron, which rose brilliantly and sank as ignominiously, is opening its doors again. Even Bob Pittman is out and about, reportedly involved in buying DailyCandy.com. And there’s the Paris Hilton sex tapes—proof once again that the Internet can drive the culture (or lack of it).

The metrics (or what we used to call the metrics) are nearly operatic: usage, ad sales, shopping, even profits, through the roof. But beyond the numbers (which have been misleading before), there is, of course, everywhere, the crazy power of the thing.

The music business has been upended, and now Hollywood is under siege (the Internet is the storm, the entertainment industry the Outer Banks). Everything everybody used to say about the rise of new media and the fall of old is, it turns out, true. Odds are, you won’t be reading these words in the magazine in which they appear. They are more likely the product of a search—not least of all because I’ve used the words Paris Hilton sex tapes. In fact, large numbers of the Websites attached to old-media companies—which became, during the past few years, dreary backwaters—are all of a sudden making steadily increasing profits.

There’s politics. The Internet quite likely will select a presidential nominee next summer.

Then there is the digital transubstantiation of financial services, retail, travel, romance, job classifieds, and education (the University of Phoenix, a for-profit university—whatever that is, exactly—is, rather remarkably, selling boatloads of online college degrees for big-ticket tuition prices).

And there’s the free food.

For several years, I had a social life built almost entirely around the Internet business. Every night of the week, it was possible to join a large and convivial table at the best restaurants in Manhattan and San Francisco—with someone else picking up the check. It was a culture of excess, but it was very civilized excess (getting rich makes people finer social animals). And then, with some embarrassment and sheepishness and a new sense of propriety, it ended.

I haven’t had such a meal in almost three years—until the other evening. I didn’t even understand what it was until I got there. It was like a surprise party.

There was Patrick Spain, an old friend, the former CEO of Hoover’s, the Internet business-information company, who now has a big package of venture financing for his new search company, Alacritude. And Elisabeth Demarse, who left Bloomberg (old media) to run the fledgling Bankrate.com (new media), which pathetically traded as low as 50 cents a share and which now is at $14. And Jay Sears, whose Edgar Online made it through the downturn (the rather surprising thing is how many companies turned out to have made it through). Bill Martin, who founded the financial-gossip site Raging Bull, was there. And so was Robin Johnson, the former CEO of Infoseek (“When did we last see each other?”).

Everybody looked great.

But I don’t mean this to be about the Internet’s return exactly, but about the emotional complexities of its second coming. To be among the people who enjoyed the most heady and transforming experience of the age but who failed categorically and miserably, who were cast out utterly (or felt themselves to be), and who are now looking squarely at the likelihood that they were right all along: The Internet is turning out to be all the things the most far-fetched said it was going to be. How do you deal with that?


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