True Lies

Michael Wolff
Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet
Simon & Schuster

In 1994, journalist Michael Wolff's start-up media company, which developed ideas for books, magazines, and television with modest success, turned its attention to what everybody was then calling a "new medium": the Internet. To everybody's surprise, their NetGuide, the first substantial "off-line" guide to cyberspace, went straight to the best-seller lists, and Wolff New Media became a magnet for everyone itching to stake a claim in the Internet gold rush. By 1996, during the topsy-turvy six months in which most of the book's action takes place, Wolff's tiny firm was being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars--as though it were a software company. But as the book opens, the market for Internet stocks has just begun to plummet, and Wolff's company's "burn rate" (the massive amount of money one must spend each month in order to remain attractive to potential investors) had rocketed out of control. Unless he can make a deal with somebody, anybody, his company has only a few weeks to live.

Although, or perhaps because, Burn Rate is heavily salted with the vertiginous language of high finance--"mezzanine fixes" and "country club rounds" that have nothing to do with theater seating or golf--this is a gripping story of what used to be called "romantic capitalism." The villains are creepy I-bankers, rapacious venture capitalists ("VCs"), fast-talking corporate lawyers, and self-hypnotized techno-futurists; the heroes, hard-working entrepreneurs looking to make it to an initial public offering without losing their souls in the process. Actually, scratch that "hero" part--Wolff makes it clear that nobody makes it to IPO unless they are soulless to begin with.

The "I" in the title speaks worlds. Though adept at publicly questioning his own motives and moral habits, Wolff is still the kind of solipsist who can write 250 pages about the rise and fall of a company that employed dozens of people and make it sound as solitary a journey as Dante's through Hell. The action takes place not in the offices of his company but on airplanes and in taxis, in the boardrooms of investment-banking firms, and in hotel lobbies and conference halls. When he does mention the twentysomethings "with baseball caps and dramatic piercings" who work for him, it's only to use them for comic contrast to the suits with whom he spends his days and nights. This is the Great Man style of writing history, and not many people can pull it off. Fortunately, Wolff can.

Wolff, whose background as a journalist had shaped his early vision that the Internet might be a new, extremely cost-efficient and democratic kind of publishing system, casts himself as Faust tempted by a Mephistophelian I-banker to forget about well-crafted sentences and focus instead on "building brand" as an online "content provider." With visions of fabulous wealth dangled before him, Wolff bounces from conference to conference, where search-engine execs say to him, "We're averaging under three impressions per visit. I wonder if we gave them some content, if we gave them something to read, could we get them to stay a little longer?" and he replies, "Guarantee, I can double your click rate" with a straight face.

In between various macho face-offs--shades, again, of the Old West--with hostile investors ("Fuck you. No accommodation. No nothing. I'll bury this company. I'll bury you!"); unsentimental insider peeks at the workings of Wired magazine, America Online, Pathfinder, various search engines, and even Microsoft; and wry asides on the world of venture capitalism, Wolff finds time to reflect on the nature of the medium and the message. In the end it is this tendency to philosophize which is his undoing, for over the course of the book he moves from enjoying the intellectual challenge of morphing his business model every few weeks to getting bogged down in fundamental questions like "What if the Web, the Internet, this whole thing, wasn't, well, media?"

"My business, after all, was to create content that would be interesting and useful to an audience reachable through the Internet," Wolff muses. "But, frankly, I was not seeing a clear demand for such content. A demand for services, for applications, for efficiency, for data but not a demand for a point of view or reporting or discernment or entertainment." If content isn't king online, as promised--if, in fact, people don't even read online--what the hell, he wonders, is he doing there?

The answer: "creating legitimacy" and "building image," making a "land grab." In short, putting so much spin on his nonexistent business model that he finally becomes unable to separate fact from fiction. In the end, Wolff finds he can't go on: "How many fairly grievous lies had I told? How many moral lapses had I committed? How many ethical breaches had I fallen into?" This is not a rhetorical question, since we've just read every single lie he'd told for ourselves. Burn Rate is, Wolff suggests, an "anti-press release," and--Hallelujah--it's every bit as savage as that sounds.

 
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