By that time, Butterworth was executive director of Rock the Vote, and when he joined up with his buddy Tim Nye to build an early version of SonicNet, and Johnson grabbed the media's attention with Feed, Griscom realized his Brown buddies were on to something. They all knew there was money to be made on this digital frontier, but part of the ETB myth is that starting a business is as natural and casual -- and hence as appealing -- as taking up with a punk band. "We developed the idea for the literary erotica site Nerve in a few months and then talked about it in the presence of rich people," shrugs Griscom. "It worked, but not without their lawyers' beating the shit out of us." After all, ambition is a form of vanity.
The ETBS make it look easy, but they went to great lengths to engineer the kind of companies smart, creative types like them would want to work for. Razorfish bought Aeron chairs for all of its employees, and SonicNet cleared space in its Broadway loft for a basketball net. "We worked on a principle that was more Apple than Microsoft," says Tribe as he gets jostled by the crowd at a recent net.art opening in a Williamsburg loft. "Web jobs are not like corporate jobs twenty years ago -- they're not conformist or culturally or socially conservative. Look around," he exhorts, gesturing to the twentysomethings ogling a computer logged onto Yahoo! that's meant to be an artifact of the commonplace akin to Warhol's Brillo box. "These kids don't care about their 401(k). They want Special K."
They also created companies that reflected their take on the world. "We wanted to say, 'There are a lot of different ways to be cool and pretty and have a good life,' " says gURL.com co-founder Heather McDonald, ensconced in a narrow red banquette at the Astor Lounge. "And it does not relate to how you match your clothes together or what products you buy." Thanks to ironic animated games like Hairy gURL, which lets users draw body hair on a female image, gURL.com became one of the leading teen sites on the Web, snapped up by dELiA*s (which later made it part of the e-commerce site iTurf). gURL.com was there first, but Drill attributes their success to their Weltanschauung -- "what you present on your site is a reflection of your culture and environment." Like many of the other ETBs, they established relationships with their first users, and they still talk about Moonstream and Krebstar79 with reverence. "One girl was in a wheelchair, and at the time I'd had an accident so I was too, and I wanted to say something -- but what do I know about being a teenager in a wheelchair?" says McDonald. "That girl still logs on sometimes, and my heart starts racing because I love her."
When the ETBs weren't online or meeting with venture capitalists, there were parties at the Razorfish and Pseudo offices and monthly World Wide Web Artists Consortium meetings at the Sony building, where they would dabble in C++ or talk about race on the Internet. Social life was Bud-and-whiskey-only dinners at the Mulberry Street dive Mare Chiaro, Thai food over discussions about Foucault at their monthly book club, and shared houses in the Hamptons. Some of them paired off -- Griscom and Field most famously, Kanarick and Odes most dramatically. "We were all treated to the Craig-and-Rebecca Show for a year or so," says Bowe. "They were the prom king and queen of the Internet." Odes is considered responsible for the restyling of Kanarick, whose original sartorial affect has been described as longhaired Ivy Leaguer. "But even then, he was Joe SoHo, and he still is," says Levy. "And I'm still the East Village chick, and Rebecca's still the gURL Girl and Marisa is still Miss Williamsburg. Things haven't changed that much, considering."
There was more than mere friendship at stake: Many of the ETBs invested in each other's businesses, and Johnson, Tribe, and Kanarick put money into Nerve early on. Calacanis helped by lionizing the group in his magazine: The Reporter's monthly page of party photos once ran under the headline digital dim sum: they lead the charmed life so you don't have to. A towheaded Brooklynite who has a black belt in tae kwon do and loves the Knicks, Calacanis has been accused of using the Reporter to shill for friends and advertisers, but his belief remains pure. "The metaphor for Silicon Alley is the people who reinvented film in the late sixties," he says. "It's the Dennis Hoppers and Scorseses and Coppolas -- the people who didn't care about Hollywood and wanted to build something new."
Like Hollywood's players, some of the ETBs have a tendency to circle the wagons when it comes to the media. "Journalists are leeches," Dachis reportedly has said, "and I don't have time for remoras." Calacanis, especially, protects his friends. "Look, at New York Magazine, you're writing for a group of people who didn't get it early on," he said this month at his Union Square office. "These people don't understand how we're making all this money, and they're pissed. So now they've come up with SomeDumbIdea.com, and they're expecting to IPO with SomeDumbIdea.com. They're Johnny-come-latelys, they're posers, and they're resented." He pauses. "And you're here to write a story that makes the Early True Believers look like assholes so that your readers will feel better about the fact that we have more money than them."
It couldn't last. Harris was the first to exchange some of his dreams and options for cold, hard cash, in 1997, when the Gartner Group put $8 million into Jupiter Communications, the Internet research firm he founded. After that, what one ETB calls his "mind-blowingly offensive personality" became harder to swallow. He began a half-serious feud with Calacanis, who reported in his Paper magazine column that Harris's girlfriend was having a lesbian love affair he'd discovered when he developed a roll of film with incriminating photos. More recently, "Calacanis shellacked me on that last Silicon Alley 100 in the Reporter," Harris complains. "Running a picture of my ex-CEO and my name underneath his! No way is he getting near my court seats for the Knicks this season -- certainly not for the playoffs. He can sit in his crap seats in the rafters."