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Kibu-ki theater. (Political Booknotes).

I KNEW THE INTERNET EMPEROR had no clothes the day my esteemed former colleagues at Time published a cover story about how the Internet was liberating creative people from the arrogant publishing houses and record companies by enabling them to self-publish or self-produce and reach audiences directly. The news hook was that Stephen King was going to e-publish his next book, a reasonable experiment that ultimately failed. But the lead character in this cover article was an animator who ran a Web site called doodie.com. Every few days, he would posta new 15-second cartoon that showed a stock character--a cat, a dog, a mad scientist--taking a dump. That was it. Time's tough-minded, hard-headed journalists--professionals I respected and admired!--had seen the future, and it involved cartoon cat poop. At that moment, I was grateful that I had squandered all the money I had been underpaid over the years and had nothing in the market, because I knew it was a house of cards.

Inside the Cult of Kibu and Other Tales of the Millennial Gold Rush, by Lori Gottlieb and Jesse Jacobs, aims to tell the story of those years in the words of the people who were out there in the trenches, drinking the Kool Aid by the vat. Gottlieb was the editor of Kibu.com, a Web site devoted to the preoccupations of teenage girls, or as they put it in the glittery, overheated Silicon Valley Girl-speak of the era, a "digital lifestyle brand" that will be "Yahoo! for Gen Y with an estrogen slant" (One can't help but recall Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon remarking, "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.") Jacobs is vice president of content at IFILM, called the Net's leading online film company. This is a good title, but I cannot speak to the scale of measurement. I'm sorry to say that they have taken a great idea and turned it into a mishmash of a book. Kibu contains a lot of entertaining stories, many of them telling and insightful, about the era's delusions and incompetencies and lifestyle excesses. But most of the book is an oral history, with one person's memory following another's, and the effect is rather like brunch at a mediocre dim sum place where too much time passes before the next good dumpling appears.

I say most of the book is an oral history because Kibu is really a melding of two books: Gottlieb's account of her three months at Kibu.com, chopped into chunks to which have been appended the oral histories. Gottlieb's sections are really funny, and I hope she is happy with the vengeance she has wreaked upon her vain, clueless colleagues. Unfortunately, Gottlieb worked at Kibu for only three months, not truly enough time to get a book's worth of adventures. The solution: the Hamburger Helper of Jacobs's oral histories.

Had Gottlieb and Jacobs forced themselves to impose a narrative on this material, they might have really had something, a history instead of a film-strip. They do have the right Alice-in-Wonderland perspective, the naive good sense that frames the irrationalities around them. There's entertaining stuff here about the stupid names entrepreneurs chose for their multimillion-dollar enterprises. This was always supposed to indicate diffident coolness, but I believed it showed a psychological distancing, as though the owners didn't have the confidence to call whatever they were doing by some proud name, like, say, the owners of the National Biscuit Company once did. There's also good stuff about the waste, the lavish parties, and the insistence on staff-wide distributions of Blackberrys. So many of these people had no respect for money; it came to them without sweat and apparently without end, from people who believed there was going to be a jackpot at the end. We were building the new railroad, dude, and we would all get rich from our part of the line--a Web site for teenage girls, or pet food, or cat poop.

I wonder if this era--the era of the bubble and the bust and the corporate scandals that followed, separate events connected by some of the same moral problems and market imperatives--will be remembered like the `60s. Possibly not, because these business excesses aren't tied to a political movement or party the way political liberalism and personal liberation were unified. But there are similarities. People in the `60s thought they were going to change the world, and did some good things. But they did what they did on mom and dad's money, and often they equated changing the world with getting laid or getting high, and a lot of people used the times to exploit others, and a lot of people ended up hurt. Many of the same things could be said about business people in the `90s. If the eras are at all alike, it will be interesting to see what happens. Bad times bring out the fundamentalists; after the `60s and the resulting hang-over came Howard Jarvis, the force behind California's Proposition 13, and Ronald Reagan. If the market problems continue, if even more of corporate American proves untrustworthy, if the political parties seem incapable of reacting, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a political sensibility emerge. It would develop among people who are afraid that they'll never be able to retire to educate their kids, who were angry that their pension plans and 401(k)s evaporated in Enron Ken's Aspen cottage and Tyco Kowalski's Picassos. It would be a sensibility that is suspicious of business, that rejects Clinton's Lincoln-bedroom fundraising as muchas it rejects Bush's corporate cronyism, and that regards the cult of Kibu and its ilk with the same fear and loathing that it holds of Timothy Leary's LSD.

JAMIE MALANOWSKI is a writer in New York.
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Author:Malanowski, Jamie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Words:963
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