Bringing Nothing to the Party

Suddenly – almost overnight, it seemed – anyone who could get in front of a computer connected to the web could create a website that could be accessed by anyone else with a similar computer, anywhere else in the world. In a blink, the cost of communicating with a single person was exactly the same as reaching the entire world. For almost no money down, we could all be publishers or entrepreneurs and the only criterion for phenomenal success was to create something that lots of people wanted to see, hear, read or buy. The Internet created the ultimate media and marketing meritocracy.

You thought that internet business ended with the dotcom crash, but you’d be wrong. After the bubble burst in the early 2000s, after the chaotic implosion of companies with names ‘that had seemingly been coined by an eighteen-month-old baby’ the survivors of the crash staggered, blinking and trembling, from the debris – and began to regroup.

Soon the net was big business again. Guys in their early twenties were making fortunes from websites without leaving their halls of residence. Bloggers like Belle du Jour and Zoe Margolis had their work adapted into bestselling books. There was big money in the web and Paul Carr, twentysomething new media reporter, wanted to be part of it.

Carr had been something of a web entrepreneur from an early age. He supplemented his student loan  by writing web guides and made his name producing weekly parody newsletters in the style of Brass Eye and The Onion. Carr’s early experiments with web journalism form the most entertaining part of the book, with his spoof paedo-vigilante site being shut down by the Metropolitan Police, and a column for the Guardian almost resulting in a libel lawsuit because Carr’s story of celebrity indiscretion appeared right next to a thinkpiece by the libel lawyer who’d taken out the injunction preventing UK media from reporting the story in the first place.

Carr’s only a couple of years older than me and it shows. From journalist to managing director, his story is marked by hilarious incompetence, from his inept attempts at juggling two women to his chaotic networking experiences to his arrest for ripping off a taxi driver. From industry party to prison cell to strange bed, Carr staggers around London like a young John Self.

The book seems a bit Nathan Barley at times, with arrogant young men expecting unimaginable fortunes for meaningless web concepts. You expect Carr to describe himself as a ‘self-facilitating media node’. But despite his immaturity, you can’t help warming to Carr: his self-deprecation and candid idiocy sees to that, and we laugh along with his giggling opportunism. The footnotes sometimes grate, but there’s an occasional classic: Carr tells that all the national dailies are online now: ‘even the Daily Express got there in the end, and they’ve still barely worked out how to be a newspaper.’

This book is worth reading for the characters alone. There’s sex columist Emily Duberly (‘the only seating options in Emily’s living room included a sex swing and a space hopper with an enormous dildo attached’); Mimi the blogging New York stripper; the laughably pompous teenage web guru Ben Cohen, who defends his promotion of web pornography in this amazing, Lord Gnome-like paragraph:

In one sense I still stand by the comments I made last year about freedom of speech and the right of the individual to access pornography. Yet I have come to realise that there is really little money than I can make out of it.

The book is also recommended for the section on Zoe Margolis, and the evil and shocking way in which she was outed by the Times. There’s also good stuff on the weakness of web hosts when it comes to defending free speech: something political bloggers among us will already be familiar with.

Carr’s book begins just after the dotcom bubble burst and ends just as the credit crunch is looming. This, plus the bizarre and engaging characters, the wild ideas and speakeasy locations, make the book seem like a capture of a twenty-first century Jazz Age: partying from crash to crash.

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