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Updated 2001.03.05

A benevolent society?

The Internet kids need to grow up and start taking care of each other

The New Economy has created some losers. And I’m not talking about net firms going down the drain. I mean people.

Let’s run through some myths of the New Economy – some unstated, some common knowledge – and how they relate to the real world.

Indefatigable youth

Myth: We’re all young and physically resilient. We survive on a diet of order-in pizza, Skittles, Coke, espresso, and after-work beer. We put in 14-hour days and “blow off steam" through healthy pursuits like korfball, foosball, nerfball, and of course video games. We’re liberal, multiracial (indeed, anti-racist), pro-gay, educated.

The reality: We’re overworked. We may be young, but we’re biological organisms. We lack exercise and our diet is unhealthy and monotonous. Banal conclusions? Sure, unless you live that unhealthy life. But there’s more! There’s drugs.

  • Aaron Bunnell dies of an overdose. He worked at Upside, one of the myriad of New Economy print magazines. His dad, David Bunnell, ran Macworld for years, and was entirely in denial about his son’s habit, fueled by overwork.
  • Steve Gilliard over at Netslaves wrote a pointed piece about drug abuse in the office; while critics of the article indeed have a case (even chronic drug users are often high-function and pose no medium-term danger to anyone, let alone themselves), they’re not the problem. Focusing on actual harm for a moment, no one is taking particular care to step in to prevent dead, stoned-on-the-job, or hospitalized dot-com workers.
  • An L.A. Times squib (here; registration required) claims that high-tech firms are carefully exempting valued programmers and executives from random or systematic drug tests. As in the Olympic experience, you don’t go to this kind of trouble if the subjects are clean.

Special mention: Michael Rey’s article in American GQ (not online) recounting his experiences at Boo.com. “ ‘There were circus acts and bunnies on roller skates handing out vodka – and there was a regular blizzard going on in the bathroom. The whole company was a bunch of freaks.’ [...] ‘One time in the London office, we passed around a CD cover with lines of cocaine on it. There were plenty of liberal drug users.’ ”


Myth: New Economy jobs are so well-paid, we’ve spawned thousands of “high-tech millionaires.” 19-year-old “college dropouts” form companies out of thin air that attract hundreds of millions in venture capital. Even lowly frontline staff at Web shops pull down sixty to a hundred and twenty grand. The New Economy can’t find enough qualified staff.

The reality: There’s an element of truth to the mythology, of course, but only an element, particularly when you consider the full breadth of the new industry. There is a modest labour shortage, but there’s ample evidence that the hiring shortage is due in notable part to incompetent HR staff, unrealistic job descriptions, and discrimination on the basis of age and ethnic origin. (The industry wants 22-year-olds, and if they’re Indian or Chinese and willing to work for cheap, all the better.)

Furthermore, even in my limited sphere of acquaintances I know a list of qualified people who can’t get a job or are underemployed.

  • A seasoned journalist (not me) with international experience and enough online cred to come within an inch of a Canadian license for a leading American “content” site was surprised to hear the news of the site’s going bankrupt. Thereafter, despite a lengthy round of interviews with Toronto shops, there are no nibblers, let alone biters. (At a leading Toronto Web/TV/convergence shop, the interviewer ate his lunch in front of the journalist.)
  • A foreign national with U.S. training and two years’ experience in the trenches writes: “I’m employed till the 30th of October, so have been job-hunting. Sapient, BCG, McKinsey, Andersen, Viant, etc., but here... they seem to be run by [people who won’t be told the right way to do things]. I study user experience/IA type stuff online and have done so for two years. This has put me too far ahead of the game here and frustration has set in. Looks like I’ll be working for half pay at some dotcom that’s not making any money and trying to turn it round."
  • A young man fresh out of school, with a Web-design diploma and fluency in a useful set of programming and markup languages, complains that a brand-new industry demands two years’ experience, with, as ever, an exact match between the enumerated job requirements and your skills. What’s he doing now? Editing copy in Word. (Actually, he quit that job to save his sanity. He’s back in his hometown trying to find a real job, all of which seem to require two years’ experience rather than skills and knowledge. What was this about a labour shortage?)


Myth: We’re inventing an entire new world, and loving every minute of it. The industry changes every 25 minutes, and it’s exciting as hell to keep up with the pace of change. Because change is our job. We are all change agents.

The reality: Roles in Web shops are now very well-defined, and the walls are to a great degree impenetrable. Sysadmins admin systems. Programmers program, when they’re not expected to design. Designers design, when they’re not expected to program. Medium-sized and large Web shops are entrenched bureaucracies, very often run by megalomaniacs, and the biggest dot-com “success stories,” like Amazon, are glorified sweatshops, where strict performance goals are enforced by tattooed, leather-jacketed managers your own age.

Now, as we all know, unhappiness in the technology field is closely related to money and drugs. Overworked, underpaid employees may get stoned every morning. Or they may do none of the above but simply quit instead: Nick Finck did.

Employees who aren’t overworked or underpaid may simply be surrounded by twits (prevalent in Toronto, by the way). And are unhappy.

The solution:
Taking care of our own

I acknowledge in advance the counterargument that other industries deal with drug use, overwork, low salaries, and nouveau régime sweatshop conditions, and that other sectors are full of unhappy workers.

But I’m not talking about those other sectors. What we have done is to set ourselves up as a parallel society. Not only do we create the Internet, we run our own communications network: Weblogs. They hide in plain sight – anybody could read them – but in reality all the A-list bloggers read each other, counterblog each other, and act in many ways like one of those vaunted virtual communities.

You can’t very well be a real virtual community only when times are good. It can’t be much of a community if the only way to qualify is to be trouble-free, gainfully-employed, and content.

Yet another field that created a medium and communicates among itself – advertising – has developed a tradition of benevolent societies (like the National Advertising Benevolent Society in Canada) that provide anonymous support for ad-agency employees facing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, or divorce, among other tragedies.

Another example: Industry-specific AIDS organizations, like Lifebeat (the music industry) and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It became clear that general-purpose AIDS organizations weren’t sufficient for the needs of those distinct “communities.”

If we’re so shit-hot as an industry, we need to stop acting like greenhorns who actually believe the presence of an espresso machine or a foosball table means anything. (It doesn’t.)

We need to grow up. If we worry about anything, it should not be the “industry.” Despite the current failures and uncertainty, the “industry” will persist and thrive. If we worry about anything, it should be each other.

If our bosses our twits, we should be smarter. I am suggesting that mid-sized Web shops who actually get the net, and the richer individual Web designers, programmers, and IAs, band together to start our own benevolent society. “The New Economy Benevolent Society” might work as a name; tNEBS.org is even available for registration. (Pronounce it “T-nebs.” Coneheads jokes are hereby pre-acknowledged.)

Modeling ourselves after advertising benevolent societies, we’d offer counseling, support, and, not at all incidentally, money to those of us in crisis. Even with Internet valuations in the toilet and stock exchanges’ being quite cool on new Internet investment, and even with failing Web shops left and right, the fact remains that the industry has quite enough money at its disposal to get this sort of thing off the ground.

It would have to function on at least two continents and in multiple languages, necessitating a local focus, but the Internet has trained us all on the importance of local content.

The advertising industry, in a small country, managed to do it in 1983. In three months the 21st century will indisputably be upon us. Either we acknowledge that our parallel society is made up of people and people sometimes need help, or we might as well give up the pretense right here and now and start installing timeclocks near our foosball tables. Is this just a job? Are we really changing the world? While we’re doing that, are we looking after each other?


Why should we care about a bunch of whining millionaires?
Millionaires are rare in the new-media biz, but the perception is that we’re all doing very well financially. For those who believe this myth, it’s only a small leap of the imagination to wonder just what we have to complain about. The reality: We’re not all rich. Many of us are just getting by, if that. And in any event, money doesn’t buy happiness.
Drug abuse or divorce or something I can see as a problem, but who cares if gainfully-employed people are “unhappy”?
The conventional wisdom about the New Economy: It breeds fulfilment. We’re young, we’re using our full faculties, we’re changing the world. But this public-relations whitewash obscures the reality: We’re human beings, and, with work taking such a big chunk of our days, any kind of frustration or disenfranchisement at the office will have an effect. How long before some enterprising reporter decides to canvass Silicon (V)alley for “fulfilled” workers taking antidepressants? Or should we just wait for a few suicides here and there? Will a “soft” issue like unhappiness become important then?
If people have some kind of problem, why can’t they just make use of some general community service?
A few reasons:
  1. People in new media do not necessarily have any experience with “general” community service agencies. The first thing that might come to mind is the United Way, which would not directly help you. You may know how to find the best Metallica fan site in Croatia, but you may not know where to go for the kind of help you need. You may be so snowed under that you don’t know where to begin, or even what name to apply to your problem.
  2. The only service that might come to mind is your medical doctor, if you have one, and people hesitate to bring up problems not clearly related to the biology of the body with their doctors. Some of us, particularly the programmer types who see the world in discrete rational categories, may classify what’s happening to them as explicitly non-medical; they may have a family doctor, but if the problem isn’t medical, the logical mind freezes. They’re stuck. Where to turn?
But couldn’t the general community-service agencies provide the right kind of help, presuming we could get people over the hump of even calling them?
Quite likely, but the assistance will not be culturally-specific. There’s ample evidence that not having to explain every little detail reduces people’s unwillingness to seek help.
  1. You shouldn’t have to explain what an ASP programmer is, or how a Webmaster differs from a Web producer or a Web editor, or what Flash is if your problem revolves around a huge new workload in converting your old HTML site (“ ‘HMTL’? Can you tell me more about that?”) into Flash.
  2. In the advertising example, it actually is important not to have to explain how your job as a copywriter (junior or senior) differs from a creative director’s. And how since you moved over to Chiat/Day the workload is incredible and the salary is only 20% better. “I hear that a lot from people moving up from the boutique shops,” says the counselor, using appropriate jargon, which he or she actually understands. You continue: “It was like, it was 20% more money, but the workload is double, and my wife is freaking out that I’m never home, and the extra money is enough to buy some more recreational activities for the kids but it doesn’t replace their father.” And that is why you’ve been drinking every night after work. That’s the real problem, but the cause can only be understood by someone with industry knowledge.
  3. If there’s a dedicated service that’s marketed toward a certain “community,” (a) there’s at least a background knowledge that there’s somewhere to turn, (b) a net search on “help with drug abuse in the Internet industry” would actually turn up something specific and useful, and (c) even if you don’t know about the organization, some of your compadres in the business will, and they’ll mail you the URL.
  4. In the United States, there may be repercussions if you go through so-called proper channels, even your doctor. Three letters: HMO. A third-party, separately-funded, confidential agency solves that problem.
Would we have to set up our own agency?
Not necessarily. Training dedicated counselors at an existing agency, and giving them dedicated phone numbers and E-addresses and a Web site, seems to work for the National Advertising Benevolent Society in Canada. Rather like virtual Web hosting, in contacting this benevolent society you should never be particularly aware that you are dealing with a larger organization.
What’s in it for you?
Less than you might think. At the very most and under the best conceivable conditions, all I would do is sit on the organization’s board. Rather more likely, I would use its services. I sure as heck don’t want to run it.
What is the next step?
Wait for enough people to care. History suggests it will take a few more dead bodies for that to happen.


News items (last updated 2001.03.05):

  • Life After Dot-Death for a Pair of Content Providers (Valerie Reiss): “The death knell sounded in mid-November, after Mr. Stoker-Ring had been at iCast for three months. He and about 39 other employees were dismissed via a conference call from the company's headquarters in Boston. Afterward, he said, they performed the ritual of the newly laid off: ‘We went out to drink on the company credit card.’ ”
  • We Have Failed You”: Steve Gilliard offers a mea culpa for dishonest press coverage of la nouvelle économie. “I once had a debate on a mail list which claimed [we] were too negative about what [we] wrote [in the book Netslaves]. They acted like the cases they cited were exceptions. Even before I was a part of Netslaves, I knew things that were wrong: that people were working too hard, and getting shafted by their bosses. By talking to the workers, my image of the dotcom world emerged that was very different than the one which ran in the glossies.”
  • Ground Floor Perspective on the Usability Job Hunt (Berna Tural): “As a recent graduate researching the market for nearly six months now, the market does not seem very promising. Because everywhere I have applied to is either asking for or preferring experienced individuals. I perfectly understand the point of view of employers on hiring experienced professionals vs. new graduates, however, I fail to understand where and how I will be one of those experienced professionals in the future if nobody opens the door.”
  • How the axe falls: True-life recollections of getting shitcanned. Quite entertaining in parts. “The final insult came later, as the newly laid-off Listen.com staffers congregated at a bar next door. The company's CFO and CEO joined the crowd and tried to commiserate with the workers they had just laid off.”
  • Discarded Dreams of Dot-Com Rejects (“Jennifer 8. Lee” [sic]): “They are the victims of the recent wave of layoffs in the high-technology industry, and many of them cannot believe how clumsy their former employers were in delivering the bad news.... The people in charge are themselves often young and inexperienced in the art of management, they say, and are so used to devoting all their energies to relieving the stresses and strains of fast growth that they do not know how to cope with decline gracefully. As a result, they can be insensitive to workers and even ignorant of their legal obligations to them.”
  • The age of overwork (Katharine Mieszkowski): Interview with Jill Andresky Fraser, author of White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America
  • A Modest Dot-Com Proposal: “What if the start-ups that are lucky enough to receive more funding, that plan to send expensive, formal invitations to members of the press about the next launch event, instead take those monies and start a rainy day fund? The accounts would help make sure that those hard-working employees partying today donít end up looking for new gigs six months or a year from now.”
  • A Season of Discontent for Laid-Off Dot-Commers: “Only months ago, corporate America seethed with envy at all the money lavished on the dot-coms and was off-put by workers’ pompous attitude toward the cubicle drones who just didn't get the revolution. But the devastating crash of Internet companies and the crescendo of layoffs over the last few months have brought the dot-com world face to face with its first grim winter – a once-unimaginable season of discontent.”
  • Amazon workers seek union: If Amazon is such a blue-chip New Economy house, why do workers need a union? (Amazon doesn’t need a union, the company says. Of course Amazon doesn’t. The workers do.)
  • Etown.com workers to seek union
  • Drugs and dot-coms, a republication at Netslaves of an article by Cliff Barney at Tales of the Network Frontier. Frankly, Barney’s piece sounds a lot like this page. I admire the coincidence.
  • Dot Conned, Dot-com Employee Gets Laid Off Without Knowing It: “ Apparently, it’s a new management style: Don’t tell your employees they're fired, and ignore them until they go away”
  • Hire these people!: “V-2 has been dismayed by the bloodbath in the Internet services industry lately, with the resulting layoffs of many energetic and talented people. The following have recently been ‘made redundant,’ as the lovely phrase goes. Won’t you see if you can make room for them in your organisation?”


It has come as something of a surprise that a proposed voluntary organization dedicated to improving the lives of workers in the New Economy has generated spiteful denigration.

In a typical example of this growing trend, Simon St. Laurent writes:

Sorry, Joe: “Just say no” + “grow up” → serious vomiting.

Maybe it’s just that I grew up during the Reagan monarchy, but I’d really prefer to have absolutely nothing to do with your so-called benevolent association. Seems obnoxious to me, not benevolent.

Mark me down in the absolutely positively uninterested category, thanks. I suspect there are more of us, but you don’t seem to hear from them.

Steven Champeon, a friend and colleague of St. Laurent, is another key detractor.

It’s very simple. We’re not talking about mandatory union dues here. If you don’t want to participate in any way, you don’t have to. We can leave each other alone. Since no one will be harmed or even hampered by discussing an organization that doesn’t even exist yet, St. Laurent’s style of vitriol is unnecessary.

Questions? Send E-mail.