Long before the suits logged on, a small group of prep-school slackers had faith in the web. Now they're the Alley's establishment.

by Vanessa Grigoriadis
March 6, 2000
p. 28

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 Season, 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 cool. Hosting club nights with exclusive invitation and French DJs 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 a dozen or so early adapters Calacanis and some other Alley residents call the "Early True Believer." The closest thing Silicon Alley has to an indigenous population, the Early True Believers aren't exactly business people or programming geeks - they're brainy math-and-music types with impressive liberal-arts educations, mostly upper-crest backgrounds, and birthdays in or around 1966. They are not necessarily richer or more powerful than their colleagues are, 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 are 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," say 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 ETB's 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, DJ 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 of 1996, Levy asked Alley big shots like MTVI 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, and 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 paaaaid!"

He shrieked again. "Well let me tell you something: Now you have a choice. You can be a guerilla, 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 have 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 are 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 Kanarik and Jeff Dachis (the popular rich kids), Douglas Rushkoff (the underground newspaper guy), Feed founder Steven Johnson and Stefanie Syman (editors of the literary magazine FEED), Pseudo.com chairman Josh Harris (director of the drama club), StockObjects.com 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).

After a respectable period of early-twenties indirection, the Brown clan all found their way to New York, where they began to mix with the pierced programmers and HTML installation artists starting to set up show around Broadway in Greenwich Village and the Flatiron district. Butterworth met Odes through his girlfriend, who studied with her at the Art Institute of Chicago. Odes met Kanerick when she took a course he taught at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Kanerick met Levy an event Echo founder Stacy Horn threw at P.S. 122. Levy met Bowe on Echo, Horns influential electronic bulletin board, before they even saw each other in person. "We bonded over being punk-rock techie girls," says Bowe, "the only girls out there who loved nothing more than to be alone and online all night - especially when drunk."

Odes is responsible for the restyling of Kanarick, whose original sartorial affect has been describe as longhaired Ivy Leaguer. "But even then, he was Joe SoHo, and he still is," says Levy. "And I'm still in the East Village chick, and Rebecca's still the gURL girl and Marisa is still Miss Williamsburg. Things haven't changed that much, considering."

Like Hollywood 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 remorse." Calacanis especially protects his friends. "These people don't understand how we're making all this money, and they are pissed." He pauses. "And you are 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."

But the divide between ETB haves and the ETB have-nots - or more accurately, the don't-have-yets - became more obvious in the spring of 1998, when hundreds of Netheads crammed into Webster Hall for the first Silicon Alley Talent Show, a benefit for a web-development fund. The real laughs came when Levy stepped on stage to rap:

Back in the day when new media was new
I could bullshit my employer 'cuz no one had a clue
I was making e-zines on my Mac II
I was totally wired not like the rest of you!
I'm the biggest bitch in Silicon Alley
I'm better than those nerds in Silicon Valley
Bill Gates calls me up when he needs advice
Cuz I'm Jaime Levy and I'm as cold as ice...
Now I'm a CEO running the show
I said: Now I'm a super HO running the show
Now, I'm just waiting for that big IPO

The irony of Levy's rap song wasn't lost on the crowd. When Kanarik offered her a third of the Razorfish partnership in 1995, Levy turned him down. "I just thought Jeff was an idiot," she says, dexterously rolling a Drum cigarette in her high-ceilinged Flatiron loft office. "I was like, 'What do we need this business dude for?' Was I ever wrong." Kanarick all but disappeared for two years to work day and night on Razorfish; but one night in late '97, she met up with him for dinner; afterward, Jeff showed her how to write a proposal for a corporate Website. "It was depressing," says Levy. "Here I was, an early pioneer, and I didn't do the Razorfish thing, and then I didn't do the Web TV thing (when it was just being built way before Microsoft bought it for 1/2 billion). I thought, "Jeez what have I been doing making content and freelancing" (after WORD). "I felt like shit. It took a year of therapy and someone to give me a half a million dollars to start my own company to recover."

She sighs, stamping out her cigarette in a pewter ashtray. "I still live with two roommates in the East Village, and Craig is a billionaire whose building a penthouse in SoHo, and it's like "Fuck Craig, that beeeaacch!" she says. "But. Aaaaaah! What am I going to do about it now? I didn't want to do the boring shit Craig had to do, like bank Websites. And I will make it. I get it. It's not like I'm some loser from Buttcrack, Ohio, who just showed up. Electronic Hollywood is a self-sufficient Internet animation company and we get to make cartoons and games. I may not be filthy rich, but I'm still staying true to my love of making extreme entertainment."

When losers from Buttcrack, Ohio do show up, their first stop these days is a 'Cocktails with Courtney' gathering. With cash bars, epic business card swapping, and sometimes raffles of MP3 players; these events are a far cry from Levy's loft parties as Bleecker is from Ludlow. "These Courtney events are like cocaine cut so many times it's crap", says a dot-com CEO, gazing hungrily at the kitchen door for more of the free promised pizza squares.

And no one wants to get stuck there. "We're all tired of going to launch parties and getting free oversized t-shirts that I literally give to the homeless or throw out the window," Levy says. "I guess you have to give free booze out at these events to get folks drunk enough to pay attention or not to what the hell you are trying to do."