Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book 32: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

When I was hired in 1996 to host an AOL website called Urban Legends I'd been online exactly twice in my life. Once in France on a very crude version of the internet and once a few years earlier at a Greenwich Village apartment party of a rich girl.

Neither of these internet experiences seemed to be of the mundane day-job variety.

I was about to be married. Maria (my then fiancee now ex-wife)had presented AOL Greenhouse (a division of AOL dedicated to discovering content designed specifically for AOL) with a Romance Novel website idea. Write stories as a community, critique existing books, market new books, etc. etc. The idea went pretty far up the AOL chain before it was eventually rejected. But they liked Maria's ideas and that is a good little poem.

Another idea was in the hopper, one that focused on urban legends. The sense was that this was a natural kind of transition, taking stories that spread organically and giving them virtual pathways. A different New Yorker had presented AOL with the idea of doing an Urban Legends website and they thought that Maria's presentational sense would mix well with the content.

She went to work in Greenwich Village, quite near the apartment I'd first seen a computer online. The original host (a fellow named Tim Disney and yes he is a Disney) had to drop out due to a television opportunity. They then thought a host wouldn't be necessary and that they could just make it APPEAR as if there was a host.

Here is where I come in.

They hired me to portray Legs Urbano, private eye/investigative journalist on the trail of urban legends (hence the name). We did a photo shoot at Chumley's where I dressed vaguely like Legs Urbano and that, I thought, was that.

But no. The date of their going live was still quite a ways away but it became clear that they would need an awful lot of content re-purposed for internet reading. Most of the famous legends had been compiled in several psuedo-scholarly volumes and to avoid copyright infringement they all had to be rewritten.

This was the first writing job I ever got.

They gave me the books. They gave me the titles, like "Alligators In The Sewers", "The Hook!", "El Chupacabre", "The Moon Landing Is A Lie", etc. etc. I then familiarized myself with the stories and wrote short peppy versions of them. They had all sorts of categories and wanted to have as many examples as possible in each one.

At this point I was auditioning several times a day for commercials, TV and theater through an agent and hustling my own amateur auditions all over town wherever I could get them (NYU, black box theaters, etc.) I was happy to have a part time job that was creative but I assumed I'd be moving on shortly.

Then they upped the ante, they being Maria and her boss, the creator of the site. Who I won't name. For reasons I may divulge later on in this post. But maybe not because I'm a classy joe.

Would I consider becoming a full time employee and writing and researching the weekly investigation into a particular legend? And build the online community?

Mind you a mere weeks earlier I'd NEVER BEEN ON THE INTERNET. Thus was the way of the Internet boom in New York City.

We worked extremely hard to get the site ready for launch date. I made bizarre phone call after bizarre phone call asking people questions they had no interest in answering.

"Hello Chairman of the New York Subterranean Sewage Plant Association...have you ever seen a white alligator in your time beneath the city?"

"Being a spider expert, have you ever seen a spider lay eggs in a coed's face?"

"Has a man with a hook as a hand ever been convicted of serial murders in the United States?"

As you can imagine, I had more than my share of angry hangups. Before I knew it Urban Legends went live and became a bit of an instant hit. This was back when AOL was still charging by the minute so our success was measured by how long people stayed and browsed.

A great aspect of Urban Legends was that readers were encouraged to submit stories that they heard. Before we knew it each category in the Library of Urban Legends was full to bursting.

Our little 4 person operation had caught the eye of the channel who housed us on AOL, The Hub. A joint venture between New Line Cinema and AOL, The Hub was AOL's stab at the MTV demographic. Our blood encrusted horror ridden tumor-in-a-KFC-sandwich-which-seemed-like-mayonnaise was a perfect fit for them. And we were getting a lot of traffic.

A meeting was set up. The head of The Hub came down from Midtown to talk us into signing up with the parent club. My boss was freaked out because by this point she had no input into the content itself. She'd had the idea but had no affinity for actual work. She was like the stoner at the after party who can't stop coming up with new names for the band which had just played a sold-out show. Like, bitch, we got a name already.

She was petrified that I would blow the meeting. She'd been angry with me ever since the site went live, something she attributed to me "not answering the phones quick enough" but which I knew stemmed from a deep jealousy at the response my take on Urban Legends was getting.

She told me not to mention my acting career to the Pres. So of course that was the first thing I said. I said that I had a concurrent goal which involved auditioning as much as possible and that with the move I wouldn't be letting go of that. I would complete my work but on my own time. He seemed a bit put out but more or less accepted what I said.

She however was apoplectic. In the week between that meeting and our move she seemed like a bug pinned to a wall. She'd no longer be directly involved in Urban Legends. Which when you think about it is a pretty big slap in the face. This little limbo in which she was still my boss but wouldn't be shortly seemed to send her over the deep end. She also would now have to be part of a team and she was incapable of anything but looking in the mirror and attempting to be pithy and clever.

I remember her sipping her coffee like a rabid ferret, eyes all bulging and brain all misfiring, knowing how useless she was and being unable to do anything constructive about it. So she decided to attack me.

Literally on the day that all the hard work and creativity I'd poured into the project resulted in what should have felt like a slam dunk. But she was too wrapped up in her own reflection to be able to handle the intrusion of another image of ownership or triumph.

I lost my temper and told her I quit and that I wasn't going to make the 50 block transition to the larger team at The Hub. I sarcastically wished her good luck finding someone who could do what I did. My sister (now a contributing member as well) quietly typing and pretending to do work. Actually, I think Maria was not in the office that day, which gave Unnamed Bitch the license to attack.

A minute went by as I gathered my things. Then I realized how wrong all of this was. Sure I wanted to be an actor first, but this was a portal into a strange new world of creativity and I was in on the ground floor. My creativity had been exploited and I liked it. I told her that I wasn't quitting, that I was going to continue the work that I was doing and that once we got up to The Hub we would barely have to deal with each other.

She twitched and stammered a consent of sorts, one-hundred percent incapable of true dialogue. It was as if she walked around with a 360 degree helmet on which had no visor to look out of, the interior of which was all mirror so whichever way she turned all she had to see was herself.

The next year and a half were a deadline, each week getting weirder and weirder. Legend after legend fell apart at the slightest scrutiny. Nothing could be proven. Buried in the Library Category were rumors that seemed to come from DC about the President having clandestine meetings with an intern in the White House library. Turns out there is no artistic connection between rumor and legend.

Oh. Yeah. And Microserfs is about people who work at Microsoft but go off on their own to start a small company. We all felt that something new was coming.

Maybe our helmets were mirrors too.

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