Forgotten Web Celebrities: Netslaves' Steve Baldwin and Bill Lessard
The Web 1.0 Golden Era (1995-2000) may have had its share of bird-brained ideas, but none more ridiculous than Netslaves.com, a preposterously grandiose attempt to document the lives of dotcom workers that most people barely remember today.
Unlike many dotcoms, which were launched with great hopes for the future, Netslaves.com was a final act of desperation on the part of its authors, Steve Baldwin and Bill Lessard, who had recently had their book proposal turned down by several prominent New York book agents. "This would make a fine magazine article," said one, "but it's not a book." Cyberpundit Michael Wolff said it even better: "cute idea, but you'll never make any money from it."
Oblivious to such sagacious advice, the authors launched the site in October of 1998, and when a couple of screwy online magazines linked to it, they convinced an agent who should have known better that the project had "buzz." Within two weeks, they had a book deal - proof that the Web's power, at least in the year 1998, had the power to cloud otherwise sane peoples' mind.
Once the writing of the book was behind them, the authors began expanding the threadbare content on Netslaves.com, most notably by hiring Steve Gilliard, who years later would rise to enormous fame as one of the Web's most renowned political bloggers, to write for the site.
For a while, everything worked, because Gilliard's logomaniacal articles kept Netslaves.com's content fresh, plus the fact that there were enough angry IT workers to provide a continuous stream of content. New features, some funny, some embarrassingly sophomoric, were added to the site with dizzying speed. At some point along the line, a "comment on this" feature was added to each article on Netslaves.com, which transformed what had been a quiet little electronic e-zine into what at times seemed to be a boiling pit of hair-pulling rage and brooding cyber-despair.
The authors would have been well-advised to keep Netslaves.com the way it was. Steve Gilliard's razor-tipped posts succeeded in pissing just about everybody in Silicon Alley off, which generated great traffic but caused Baldwin and Lessard to become instant industry pariahs, destroying their chances of finding anyone to pay them for their writing. Still, the period of 2000-2001, when Gilliard wrote for Netslaves on a daily basis, was its high point.
Unfortunately, in 2000, just as the dotcom bubble began to collapse, a site called FeckedCompany.com was launched which was much better at revealing the white-hot rage of investors and dotcom workers than Netslaves.com was ever designed to do. Overnight, whatever marginal Web celebrity status Baldwin and Lessard once enjoyed evaporated when Phil Kaplan, who ran FeckedCompany.com, was anointed the avatar of Web-based negativity by the mainstream media.
Enraged, envious, oblivious, the authors attempted to fight back against FeckedCompany.com by launching a bulletin board of their own and merging with a low-rent dotcom gossip site called DotcomScoop.com. But the game was over before it began, because Phil Kaplan would simply mobilize his thousands of anonymous minions to mob the Netslaves board, post porn, spam, and otherwise "troll" it whenever it suited him, which was most of the time. Once someone from FC (and we'll never know who it was) hacked into the site, jamming it completely. If we'd been contentious, we'd have sued, but who? Phil Kaplan wasn't a saint, but he had his nose to the ground and we were all on the same side, ultimately, in the way that's conveyed at a funeral.
Defeated, but too pigheaded to simply give up, the authors tried one more ploy: they attempted to poach FuckedCompany.com's best writers, who were clearly unhappy with the purile, juvenile prose written by 95 percent of the people who posted there. This strategy seemed to work, especially after Cheopys and Uncle Meat, two of FuckedCompany's most erudite posters, decided to take up residence on Netslaves.com in late 2001.
For about four months, Netslaves.com was actually winning its pointless war with FuckedCompany.com, but then, in June of 2002, the corruscating online flame wars between Uncle Meat and Cheopys grew to such an intensity that Steve Gilliard, who, ill-advisedly, had been granted the power to ban people from the bulletin board who pissed him off, banned Cheopys for the rest of his natural life.
Baldwin pleaded with Gilliard to let Cheopys stay, but Gilliard would not relent, nor would Lessard support Baldwin in his efforts to restore Cheopys' membership. Within a very short time, so many users had defected in sympathy that Netslaves.com soon found itself empty of anything resembling robust authentic discourse, and while the site limped on for another year, it was never the same, and closed in June of 2003.*
There are several lessons in the sordid saga of Netslaves.com which aspiring Web proprietors would do well to study. First among these is this: if you're running an e-zine and it's working, experiment with commenting carefully, because it can completely screw up your editorial mission. If you do make the fateful decision to add a bulletin board to your site, be very careful about who you give administration rights to, because your best blogger might just turn out to be the Sysop from Hell, and once the damage is done, it's likely to be irreparable. Finally, do not ever let the notion that you are popular and powerful enter your mind, for pride always goes before a fall, and once you've fallen, nobody on the Web will ever let you forget it.
* Note 06/07/05: I have received e-mail from a former user of Netslaves.com who wishes to take issue with me over this statement. In his view, there was actually a "content renaissance" which took place after Cheopys was exiled in June of 2002 which, had the authors' correctly perceived its importance, might have led to a much happier outcome. I will leave the sentence as I first wrote it, but agree that the statement "Netslaves.com soon found itself empty of anything resembling robust authentic discourse" was probably overstated, and erred by overlooking the contributions of users such as the correspondent, who did engage in such discourse. Unfortunately, no data was preserved from this period of the site's operations (even by the Internet Archive), making it far too easy to overlook these contributions.
Which leads to another interesting lesson: if you want your words to survive your site's destruction, don't use ASP to power your Bulletin Board - Archive.org just won't archive it!
Another former NS member offers an insightful message that adds much to the historical record:
I would like to add my $.02 about the Netslaves demise: I always thought that the downfall was due to the content straying from tech issues to political issues. I lost interest in the site when the articles turned into "Why can't Liberals tell the truth," followed by "Why can't conservatives tell the truth." I personally don't find such writing on a tech site to be at all interesting. Also, when sites stray into the political, Hiroshima-style firefights inevitably follow, as they did on Netslaves. After that happened, RIP Netslaves.
I still miss Netslaves. I haven't found another site that tackles tech and lifestyle issues in the same way. The article on Match.com that appears in the archived snippet recently posted on Ghostsites is a good example. I also found the reporting on bogus employment agencies that appeared at the tail end of the Netslaves run to be excellent. I agree that there was a content resurgence on the site during its last months.
One note: I think a lot of people found out about your site via its mention in the ultimate house organ for dot-com self-aggrandizement: Fast Company Magazine.
I found your comments about Pud to be interesting. Feckedcompany.com was interesting for its first year or so, but since then has been a sewer of racism, homophobia, immigrant-bashing, and even support for terrorists. Has anyone ever explored who the source of this crap is? Is it Kaplan himself? I wish we still had Netslaves around to explore issues like that. I might even write that article myself if I had an outlet for it.
(name omitted to save him from assault by the Spam Spiders)