The Internet is the most democratic of media, but Silicon Alley, like everything else in New York, has its own distinct hierarchy. Throwing a pricey Website launch party at The Four Seasons, with bodysuited models dancing behind a scrim and guests like Stephanie Seymour and Guy Oseary, as style365.com did three Sundays ago, does not make you cool. Hosting club nights with exclusive invitations and French D.J.'s, as Rockstar Games does every few months, does not make you cool. What makes you cool is when you got there. Nineteen ninety-five is cool. Nineteen ninety-six or early 1997 is all right. Anything after that is not. Two thousand makes you a real loser -- a suit, a kid just out of college, a fiftyish businessman looking for one last hurrah and another $100 million. "It means you did not get it," says Jason McCabe Calacanis, editor and CEO of the Silicon Alley Reporter. "You did not believe. You did not have religion."
At the pinnacle of Silicon Alley cool is a clique of a dozen or so early adopters Calacanis and some other Alley residents call the "Early True Believers." The closest thing Silicon Alley has to an indigenous population, the Early True Believers aren't exactly businesspeople or programming geeks -- they're brainy math-and-music types with impressive liberal-arts educations, mostly upper-crust backgrounds, and birthdays in or around 1966. They're not necessarily richer or more powerful than their colleagues, but they had faith long before this year's "hordes and hordes of carpetbaggers," as Word editor-in-chief Marisa Bowe puts it. And they're not about to let anyone forget it, whether or not they've participated in an IPO. "There's pride in saying you were around back then," says gURL.com's Rebecca Odes, a slim blonde who played bass in an alt-music band before she saw the light. "It was so new, so exciting. It was punk rock."
Back then, the cool kid the other cool kids looked up to was Jaime Levy, now a 33-year-old with dirty-blonde hair who chain-smokes Drums and rarely deviates from a uniform of flannel shirts and baggy jeans. "Jaime," says Bowe, "is a rock star." Long before every movie trailer included a Web address, Levy published a floppy-disk 'zine called Electronic Hollywood and provided the ETBs with their hangout, an Avenue A loft she lucked into one night after reuniting with a former lover. "I woke up the next morning in his huge-ass two-story loft," she says, "and I was like, 'Wow, you've got a rad place,' and he was like, 'Yeah, but I'm leaving the country -- do you want it?' " Every few months, she threw "CyberSlacker" parties, where would-be new-media impresarios showed off HTML tricks, D.J. Spooky spun records, and skateboarding indoors wasn't a problem. "You know," says Levy proudly, "I had one of the first PPP connections in the East Village."
At the last CyberSlacker party, in November 1996, Levy asked Alley big shots like MTVi President and CEO Nicholas Butterworth and Feed co-founder Stefanie Syman to get on the mike. "The death of the Web as we knew it!" declared Butterworth over jungle music, starting a fifteen-minute rant. "It's over! And wasn't it good while it lasted? Who was there, who was there in 1995? Reaping it in -- the money, the fame, the parties, all of it flowing in. They came to you -- marketing directors, the executive vice-presidents, the general managers, they came to you and said 'We don't know what the fuck we're doing.' " He let out a soulful wail. "It was beautiful! Everyone here, all my friends, doing creative things with a capital C. . . . It wasn't about a database or a search engine . . . the dream was to be a media assassin, to be a guerrilla -- and to be paaaaaaid."
"It's powerful to feel that you are one of seventeen people who understand the world."
He shrieked again.
"Well let me tell you something: Now you have a choice. You can be a guerrilla, or you can get paid. You cannot do both." Throughout, he shouted, "Baby needs new shoes, and I'm a baby!"
If MTVI spins off from its parent company and goes public in a few weeks as planned, Butterworth will be able to buy those shoes and have them dipped in 24-karat gold. Not every ETB who went to Levy's parties has any gold at all, but because they were there first with the picks and shovels, they've staked a claim as the intellectual and social heart of the nascent Alley Establishment. To the extent that the Internet business is a pyramid scheme, they're sitting at the top. Besides Calacanis (the yearbook editor of Silicon High), Odes (the riot grrrl), Levy (the snowboarder chick), Bowe (the cynical girl who sits in the back of class), and Butterworth (singer for the school garage band), the crowd includes Razorfish co-founders Craig Kanarick and Jeff Dachis (the popular rich kids), Douglas Rushkoff (the underground newspaper guy), Feed founders Steven Johnson and Stefanie Syman (editors of the literary magazine), Pseudo.com Chairman Josh Harris (director of the drama club), StockObjects.com chairman and Rhizome.org executive director Mark Tribe (president of the fine-arts-appreciation society) and Nerve co-founders Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field (the bookish types who smoke cloves, read Sylvia Plath, and have sex).
There are those in the Alley who are wealthier, like DoubleClick's Kevin Ryan and Kevin O'Connor, and those who are hotter, like Kozmo.com's Joseph Park and StarMedia's Fernando Espuelas. There are even leaders who inspire more devotion: When a deal is made at Jay Chiat's Screaming Media, someone hits a gong and the entire office starts screaming, and last month one of the programmers got a tattoo of the company logo the size of a Lender's bagel on his forearm ("I think the guy who did it messed up," he says, inspecting the tender red circle. "It looks a little infected"). But none of them are as well respected, as widely networked, or as interested in the social ramifications of their revolution as the ETBs. Others may be content to make a few million, but the ETBs want to reboot the world -- Butterworth wants to change the music industry, Johnson and Syman want Feed to dethrone The New Republic, and Harris says that "Pseudo's competition is CBS." Even Kanarick, whose company designs Websites for firms like Schwab and Bank One, says "We will change the world."
Few of the ETBs have an extraordinary aptitude for programming, fewer still have Jeff Bezos's genius for envisioning a new kind of business. What they do have is ambition, ideas, and -- perhaps most important -- the kind of finely tuned pop culture antennae that unerringly lead one to the most exciting place at the most eventful moment. "We had amazing cultural timing," shrugs Griscom. "It's incredibly powerful to feel that you are one of seventeen people who really understand the world." Especially when the world is lining up to pay you top dollar to explain it back to them.