Not Com

The San Francisco Dot-Com Spring is over. The nostalgia is just starting.

Rhonda Richford, 25, formerly a writer for business-to-business Web site, lost her job last week. But when I contacted her Friday, she hadn't been moping. She was reflecting, trying to understand what had just happened to her, what it meant for her generation, what it meant for her city, and whether the world would ever be the same.

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.

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