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Diaries from the wild youth of the internet

A Very Public Offering. The Story of and the First Internet Revolution / Valley of the Boom
Regissør: Matthew Carnahan
( USA)

DOTCOM: The first internet revolution is a wild chapter with a strange mix of comedy and disaster. An inside perspective and the wisdom of the future help us to ask again if everything could have gone differently.


It is a known matter that historical events, such as the French Revolution, can be portrayed as both comedy, tragedy and horror – and that the repetitions of history seem ironically to play across the same register. But what is the right genre to tell the story of the internet revolution? National Geographics web series Valley of the Boom seems to prefer a mix of farce and comedy, where a possible tragedy belongs to later chapters. The theme is the start of the dotcom crisis, when a strange new technology called the "Internet" revitalized American pioneer mythology.

Weird pioneers

The series follows three companies that were ahead of their time – The, which was Facebook ten years before, Netscape, which targeted the browser market ten years before Google, and finally Pixelon, which was not just ten years ahead of YouTube, but that was also ahead of the technology it needed to work. In other words, Pixelon was far from something between a bluff and a dream, a landscape in which the founder, the legendary semi-psychotic and colorful "Michael Fenne", operated as if he were born for the task. Fenne, who was actually named David Kim Stanley, is portrayed in the docu-drama masterfully by Steve Zahn, who has a mop-like hairstyle with bleached curls – a look that was a disguise for the creditors who persecuted him after he was jailed for stock fraud. . Fennes Pixelon may have been visionary and ahead of its time, but the company was also far ahead of technological developments and the bandwidth of the web – they were nowhere near being able to deliver the live streaming of images they so sensationally promised investors and audience. The common feature of the protagonists is that they survived the dotcom bubble between 1995 and 2000 – but the hysterical Fenne was one of those who perished, as the captain of a submarine of an online company, who nevertheless, with a certain right, saw himself as a heroic explorer .

Valley of the Tree. National Geographic, USA

The other main characters of Valley of the Boom, that Marc Andreessen from Netscape, is played by actors. The Globes Stephan Paternot comments in retrospect in the series, while his 22-year-old self is played by Dakota Shapiro. The result is a double person gallery, where many of the characters talk about each other, and where a large number of characters and real veterans show up in quick succession. This hectic storytelling style fits the material, but in the confusing rush of meetings, visionary ideas, desperate bidding rounds and funding strikes, personal conflicts and sudden warp, it's hard to keep up with the turns. Even where the technicalities are unclear, we gain astonishing insight into the intoxicating gold rush atmosphere of the era. We are presented to the diner or diner Bucks of Woodside, California, where a sketch of a napkin was enough to land million contracts. We meet a car salesman who talks about how the money flowed and the day he sold seven red Ferraris in one afternoon.

"Get Big Fast."

As in imperial and colonial globalization, digital globalization was characterized by the logic of the lead: It had to be big first. GBF – or "Get Big Fast" – is a principle not only dictated by competition between browsers or other similar service providers. The expectation of exponential growth is also being pushed by investors who see the shares rise in the weather and who fear that a fall in the price will mean ruin. Access must be followed up immediately by more access – real or finger. More profoundly, advances in innovation are an advance on world history, on technology development and, at times, on legislation.

As a 24-year-old, The Globes Stephan Paternot had become a billionaire, but only on paper.

The highly flammable mix of radical innovation and speculative financial economics that led to the dotcom crash is a unique historical once-in-a-lifetime event that has changed the world forever. The historical moment is felt by the protagonists, and reluctant and skeptical investors are persuaded to believe this. Faith itself becomes a decisive factor for success, which for several parties made the race over time an almost unbearably exciting leap into the unknown. Michael Fenne with the blonde angel curls is deeply religious and sees himself as being called by God when it can help him, while in the next he is guilty of gross lies and deceit, brutal means always sanctified by the goal.

In Paternot's memoir book from the years with The Globe, written ten years after and re-published in the context of the series, we get an insight into how the game works. When The Globe, which he had started with his buddy Mike while still in college, was listed, the shares rose from a value of $ 9 to $ 90 in an instant, and Paternot had to settle and get used to fluctuations of up to 30 million dollars per second. As a 24-year-old he had become a billionaire, but only on paper – because the shares could not be sold if he wanted to. Investors had secured the right to sell first, which they also did when the value of the overpriced firm fell. Paternot had to pay the restaurant bills out of his own pocket and barely had the means to maintain the operation of The Globe. It did not get easier when investors recommended him to buy other companies to signal success and thus build confidence. These other companies, too, had to be marketed offensively and expansively despite the fact that, like his own company, they would rather need slow and patient growth, a more gentle operation. Investors' interests were quick and short-term profits. The only ones who profited at The Globe were ultimately speculative investors and day traders on the stock exchange who bought and sold at the right time.

In retrospect – wise of injury

After five years of wild ups and downs, the social network The Globe collapsed to never again resurrect. In a thoughtful afterword for the book – written in 2018 – Paternot draws on the experience and advises young inventors and innovators to cope with no major investors – as they run too hard and rarely put the firm ahead. Since then, Paternot has worked as an investor himself and built up alternative public financing networks such as Indigogo, which gives projects the opportunity to control developments themselves – albeit within a more modest framework. He deplores the stock market's prioritization of short-term profits, while the developers are left with the laborious work of making a vision a reality.

In the confusing mishmash of meetings, visionary ideas, desperate bidding rounds and funding hikes, personal conflicts and sudden warnings, it's hard to keep up with the turns.

Paternot's vision with The Globe was to create a social network that could ensure that outsiders like himself could get in touch with each other, "so no one needed to be alone". Of course, he was also looking to make money, but would not do so at the expense of the project. He later moved into the film industry, and with his new company Slated, he tries to help independent film projects in a world where finance and production often end up in a nightmare of lawsuits and crippling compromises.

A lost revolution?

The Valley of the Tree gives a picture of a time of revolution where everything seemed possible, including a new world and a new society. Inventive and avid hackers and programmers could be rewarded for the effort and recognition of the purchase. The early internet era of intense teamwork enthusiasts generated, has been cynically exploited and created a generation of overworked programmers. This is what Franco Berardi calls cognitariatet – the diffuse class that sells its own creativity and intelligence.

Valley of the Tree. National Geographic, USA

Through all the interviews with the original participants and an endeavor for intelligence, National Geographic has, for entertainment purposes, created an important historical document on a brief period of world historical significance. With its quick and agreed style, the series kicks off the docu-drama The Big Short – about the housing bubble and stock market crash in 2008. Like this movie shows The Valley of the Tree that the game is too large to be completely changed by the players – the choices they make have unmistakable consequences. Would other people in the same roles have chosen differently? Would The Globe have been any different than Facebook – or is the logic of the game crucial, regardless of idealists and ideals?

Internet empires Microsoft, Google and Facebook have gained near complete dominance over the Internet in the Western world, with a power greater than many nations – but far removed from any democratic control. In China, Tencent, Alibaba and other giants have merged into a single giant system controlled by the government – which in turn uses it to control the population. As in political revolutions, the emergence of the Internet was also characterized by the fact that idealistic associations and free forums were infiltrated by ever larger players with political power interests.

Revolutionary times have an attitude of life that is open and intoxicating. This is exactly what makes them worth going back to: It is still possible to dream of new internet revolutions.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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