During our half-hour conversation, Richford told me about how she came to San Francisco from the East Coast to become a writer for an Internet start-up; how her wages suddenly doubled; how her new employer was full of energy and enthusiasm and promise; how she and her friends dressed for dot-com launch parties every night, and worked 12 hours every day; and how suddenly, before anyone really truly expected it, they were laid off.
As is the wont of her crowd, Richford sent me a piece of e-mail about an hour after our conversation ended.
"The Gen-Xers, who were in high school and college during the early '90s recession, were part of something for the first time. We were part of this Internet revolution. I think that feeling is gone now. There are still remnants of it, but the energy and the excitement are gone. We are coming back down to Earth," she wrote.
Now, I know that hell hath no greater vanity than recent college graduates ascribing inflated importance to their own daily lives. Just the same, I think Rhonda Richford's reflections bear bearing in mind. Richford, her peers, the city, and the world have just lived an epochal moment of the likes history has never known: San Francisco's Dot-Com Spring.
The past five years marked the instantaneous rise and sudden decline of what amounted to the world's first highly paid, under-30 writer's colony. Not long after online magazine Salon burst into being in 1995, the city became the Promised Land of a sort of intellectual youth movement for the first time since the Summer of Love. Kids leaving college and possessing nothing but literary ambitions landed writing or editing jobs at engineers' wages. There were Web sites for every taste: text-packed health sites, editorial-strewn gift sites, fun-to-read sporty-lifestyle sites. There were girls' sites. There were joke sites. There were literary sites, news sites, news-cum-shopping-cum-chat sites. The kids went to lavish Web-launch raves every other night, and spent afternoons nursing adult-sized lattes talking about parties and articles and the publishing careers that were, by all appearances, forever theirs.
To be sure, the Web sites, and the writing that appeared on them, were more than occasionally trite, and fanciful, and often both. But the ultimate, combined result was a flowering of hundreds and thousands of editorial voices. Some were radical, others banal, some foolish, some brilliant; much of what the voices said was dreck, a bit of it was not -- just as is the case during every epoch of intellectual ferment.
Such moments are ephemeral. And the idea that launched a thousand sinking Internet ships -- that batches of editorial content on a Web site could attract "eyeballs" that could be sold to advertisers, or directed to e-commerce online purchasing opportunities -- has lost favor as a business strategy, because content/advertising/e-commerce sites have failed to make money by the dozen.
The mad extravagance and fanciful business plans are all but gone from San Francisco now. The economic illogic of banner ads and e-commerce icons that no one clicks on has already chased hundreds of Web start-ups to the grave, with hundreds more money-losers measuring their own coffins, as we speak. Without a doubt, content is no longer king. It's serf. And these dot-com Wunderkinder are cycling through the temp agencies, pondering boring, data-clerk desk jobs at tech firms, thinking about hightailing it home.
For those who stay, the jobs will be less writerly, less journalistic, less fun, recruiters say. The survivors will be those who have mastered "content management." A few ad blurbs here, a little html coding there. A few short, snappy sentences designed to get people to click swiftly from advertisement to sale. "The way you phrase a short sentence to get people to the next step is critical, in the same way a Madison Avenue copywriter understands how to cleanly deliver a concept in a short amount of time," one recruiter says.
Translation: The Dot-Com Spring, our city's moneyed version of a 1920s Left Bank, is pretty much over.
So today, as we awake from municipal elections whose debates were driven by a broad civic uneasiness with our local Internet boom, I think we should reflect on the perversity of the supposedly liberal side of those debates.
Thanks to the dot-com boom, for a brief while San Francisco was the site of an immense explosion of published voices -- an explosion that is exactly what any good liberal would hope for in a pluralist democracy. A preponderance of published voices is, perhaps more than anything else, what distinguishes open societies from closed, one-party states, and with the dot-com boom, we were briefly blessed with a megadose of voices of all stripes. Yet progressives of this city just hated this flowering of viewpoints, because (so they claimed) the dot-com companies that created the flowering were replacing traditional, gritty industries, and erasing San Francisco's past.
The dot-com battle was fought building by building, block by block, for more than a year. But a couple of campaign's-end excesses from last week still remain in my mind.
There was the press release that crossed my desk Tuesday, describing a "study" by the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition showing that city policy had failed to keep blue-collar companies from being pushed out by office construction.
The San Francisco Examiner adorned the release with a touch of news-copy-ese, and published it as a front-page "story," giving this piece of anti-tech propaganda the appearance of a social science document. "The six-page study released Tuesday said the area has lost 1.7 million square feet of industrial space -- a 57 percent decrease -- since 1991," this "story" said. "During the same period, 540 lofts have been built, and 1.75 million square feet of space has been devoted to digital industries or other office uses, according to the study."
Left tacit in the press release and the Ex story was this notion: Although industrial jobs have been disappearing from San Francisco for decades, it is harmful to renovate or replace the buildings that once supported those jobs to create the space needed to support plentiful, high-paying Internet jobs.
Two days later, the Ex ran a story describing the apparent end to a Mission District battle in which anti-Internet activists had defeated plans to turn the 300,000-square-foot Armory Building, a hulking Mission District structure that had stood vacant for 20 years, into multimedia offices employing around 600 workers. Instead, it will become an Internet switching site, employing about 150.
Still, dot-com opponents complained: "Because it serves as infrastructure" for dot-coms, said Luis Granados, director of the Mission Economic Development Association, which is mostly dedicated to opposing economic development in the Mission, "it has potential for growth-inducing impacts."
Translation: Ideally, we would have killed even more Internet jobs. Granados should be ashamed.
It wasn't Mission District complainers, but economics, that led to the closure of dozens of content-based dot-com companies this summer and fall. In the future, when our city looks back on its younger, year-2000 self, there will be more wistfulness and thoughts of lost opportunity than one imagines now. Nostalgia for '60s San Francisco lasts to this day; sometime not too long from now, there will be a yearning for the Dot-Com Spring.
They had flower children. We have the dot-com dispossessed.
Aimee Sicuro, 24, of San Francisco, spent her first year out of college at American Greetings, a Cleveland, Ohio, card company. As an illustrator, it was easy to get lost at such a huge company, Sicuro says. She was recruited by Ynot.Com, a Milpitas, Calif., online greeting company.
"At Ynot.com, I actually had the chance to write, illustrate and animate my own ideas, that was truly amazing (and unheard of)," Sicuro wrote me in an e-mail.
After Sicuro worked there a year, Ynot pared back its operations, laying off most of its creative staff. Looking back over the Dot-Com Spring, Sicuro recalls San Francisco's land-use wars with sympathetic detachment.
"I feel for San Francisco natives," she writes. "I would hate dreamers like me, too."
Then there's Alisa Weinstein, 27, laid off a couple of weeks ago from her job as senior editor at Kibu.Com, a teen Web site whose directors pulled the plug 46 days, and $15 million, after the site's August launch. Weinstein had moved here from New York after being seduced by the city's dot-com boom during a visit with some California friends.
"I was floored at this whole world going on that I hadn't touched in New York. It seemed unbelievable to me. ... The instant gratification of the Web is so cool. You write an article and put it up the next day. I like that," she says. "There were just a load of talented people. Everybody cared about it. Everybody wanted things to be good.
"I don't think things are ever going to be like they were then."
And then there's Rhonda Richford, who had been working for a Washington, D.C., trade newsletter when she got a job here with MizBiz. CEO Natalie L. Wood told me the company let two content workers go last week as part of a "shift in focus."
"We're hiring a couple folks for access to capital and for programming," Wood said.
It seems like all of Multimedia Gulch is shifting focus right now, and Richford is sitting at home, recollecting.
"It seems like there is so much less out there than even a few months ago. I have several friends who have been laid off in the last few months from different kinds of jobs, all from dot-coms. I have friends that have freelanced, but haven't been paid. There is definitely a feeling that it isn't as good as it was," she says.
But then she shifts her focus to the halcyon Dot-Com Spring days of a month or so ago. "We finally had the chance to prove ourselves. We had the chance to change the world in a different way, to bring technology to the masses, to make information and, by default, knowledge accessible to people of all incomes and races, across all borders. That was the "something' in the background.
"But there was also an energy in this city that I hadn't felt anywhere else, an energy that I hadn't felt in D.C. or Dallas. And I liked being part of that energy."
Years later, when we look back on this unprecedented time, we may decide we liked being part of that energy, too.