A veteran of the Internet's 'gold rush' years takes a hard look at 'Burn Rate.'

Published June 12, 1998 11:46PM (EDT)

Perhaps the most telling moment in "Burn Rate" comes a little more than halfway through the book. Michael Wolff, the aspiring Internet entrepreneur, has just succeeded in selling an essentially worthless database of information for "seven figures" to the computer magazine publishing company CMP. He and his lawyer wife, Alison, are discussing their unexpected and somewhat discombobulating coup. Wolff writes: "'Just think,' I said, warming to the moment, 'how many stupid people there are in this world who we can take advantage of.'"

In "Burn Rate," Wolff eventually runs out of stupid people willing to be his dupe. Even CMP wises up. But now, after having dumped his Internet company, Michael Wolff is back, this time in old-fashioned print media, conniving to take advantage once again. We would do well to be wary.

As the narrator of "Burn Rate," Wolff stakes out a position within an ironic literary tradition known as the "unreliable narrator." In such works (think "Dr. Faustus," or "Lolita") the narrator's true persona gradually exposes itself to the reader through the clever irony of the writing. "Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet" adds a new twist to this old tradition. In "Burn Rate" the narrator doesn't just reveal his own neuroses and personality flaws -- he un-self-consciously exhibits all the naiveti, foibles and amoral exhibitionism of Michael Wolff himself. Wolff's narrative audacity is stunning. He is, by his own account, a man who seems willing to break any promise, sell out his employees and do just about anything else to further his own selfish interests.

Should we trust such an obviously self-interested man? Should you even trust this review? In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am also an unreliable narrator. I am a character in "Burn Rate," albeit a "minor one" (according to Wolff). I know Wolff -- I've sat across the negotiating table from him, and I surely have my own interests at stake. So be forewarned. But listen to Wolff's narrator as he proclaims his unadulterated honesty and the unfailing accuracy of his version of Internet history:

"No doubt my memory has at moments exaggerated foibles and sometimes simplified the line between cause and effect," writes Wolff. "I am confident, however, that my memory has not distorted the truth."

Perhaps Wolff has never read Freud, but memory is nothing if not distortion. Indeed, when is memory not a narrative laid down to support and assist our egos? Certainly, the ego of "Burn Rate's" narrator reveals no one as clearly as it does Michael Wolff himself.

Which is not to say that there isn't some useful reporting in "Burn Rate." There's a nice description of Wired Ventures founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe as crazed American exiles returning from Amsterdam. The CMP episode is eye-opening, as is the chapter on the impossibilities inherent in doing business with America Online. But the reader begins to catch on rather quickly that Wolff is not who he presents himself to be, neither to the characters within his narrative, nor perhaps to his readers.

The chronology of the book, however, is so muddled that it proves difficult to know what really happened in what order. What appears sequential in the book, one chapter to the next, in fact happened in many cases simultaneously. Such anachronisms, of course, serve Wolff's own intentions first, since the book sets out to tell us his story, to show that he was one of the pioneers of the new medium and that he failed for perhaps no good reason. Yet, in my opinion -- and I was there myself -- Wolff was no pioneer.

Wolff devotes an entire chapter to the story of the encounter between his company, Wolff New Media, and the one I worked for, the McKinley Group. I was the chief technology officer of the McKinley Group, creators of the Magellan search engine -- one of the earliest online directories for the Web. Along with McKinley Group founders David Hayden and Christine and Isabel Maxwell, I enjoyed the dubious honor of taking the red-eye to New York City to meet Wolff, as our company tried one last time to survive in mid-1996, just before our purchase by Excite, another online directory.

We were there to explore the possibility of merging our two companies -- like us, Wolff New Media was also in the business of rating and organizing the Web's content. At the time no one knew how to make any money on the Internet, but we thought that by bringing together our two directories -- by merging our various online content offerings and search technologies -- perhaps we could come up with something to show our respective investors. We didn't know, of course, that Wolff and his investors only wanted to toss out our founders and take over our technology -- that they wanted to rip us off as though we deserved it.

The meetings between our two concerns, the endless shuffling back and forth between New York City and San Francisco, the intrigue and brinkmanship between McKinley and Wolff New Media -- what Wolff chooses to describe is reasonably accurate, though he gets a number of details wrong and omits plenty. Yet Wolff never seemed to realize that at the same time he and his cohorts were setting out to dupe the McKinley Group, to take over our business and our technology, our CEO was trying to take advantage of Wolff, too. Nothing unusual there -- but seen from "Burn Rate's" perspective, Michael Wolff and his backers were the only manipulators, and everyone else was just plain stupid.

What "Burn Rate" does make abundantly clear is that, more than anyone else, Michael Wolff was his own worst and final victim. By the end of the book, Wolff, seemingly lost in an endless reality-check death spiral, can't seem to muster enough energy to even bother to save his own company and all the people who worked for him. All the 70-odd people he had hired get less than a footnote in his mental meandering. The fate of the writers, editors and technologists comes off as completely inconsequential compared to what is obviously more important to him: his own net worth, his own ego.

Admittedly, he does warn us that the view he provides is myopically his own, that he's only changed or omitted those names he deems not "principal players in [his] tale or the Internet business." But isn't it curious that those "nobodies" turn out to be the very people creating the content and the technology he was selling? The only people consequential to the Internet, in his view, turn out to be the people cutting the business deals or ripping people off. Technologists? Writers? Who cares about them? The important stuff was happening to the people who either had high net worth or felt they deserved to get rich any way they could.

By the end, Wolff seems to have sobered up. He seems to get it now, to realize that he's been a sham, that he's not an Internet visionary after all. But if that's true, then why have we been reading this book? Just to indulge Wolff one more time, that's why. Just to watch him screw with people and in turn be screwed. Unfortunately, he delivers little insight into anything but himself, and then only if one is willing to spend the time decoding his narration. The book winds up showing us how one man thought he knew something and thought he could accomplish something, but didn't and couldn't.

Perhaps in the end Wolff failed because he really didn't appreciate the medium or understand the technology in which he worked. Wolff (founder of Wolff New Media) appears now to have lost faith in the very idea that the Web is a new medium at all. It's also clear that he has little to offer in terms of what kind of medium the Web might be. And that's too bad, because one thing the Web does need is better formulations of what it is or isn't. But don't look to "Burn Rate" to offer you that kind of insight.

By Alexander Cohen

Alexander Cohen is director of software engineering at CNET. He also moonlights as a lecturer in film studies at UC-Berkeley. Prior to CNET he worked at Netscape and Excite and was the founding chief technology officer at Magellan.

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