Behind (and beneath) every Internet gazillionaire is an army of downtrodden "NetSlaves."

By Janelle Brown

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It is about time someone wrote an antidote to the books of Po Bronson. That's not to suggest that Bronson's writings -- depicting a Silicon Valley of hopeful high-powered geek geniuses whose achievements have industry-wide repercussions -- aren't enjoyable; but anyone who has spent some serious time in the Valley knows that the Net biz ain't all it's cracked up to be.

In fact, most literature covering the Net industry, from the happy-happy joy-joy profiles of Wired magazine to the nasty nonfiction tomes like Burn Rate, predominantly focuses on the wealthy, powerful, creative and successful. It should be self-evident that any industry has its share of underlings, but if you read half of the purple prose that's out there, you'd justly think that everyone associated with a dot-com is en route to fame, fortune and eternal self-satisfaction. No wonder there's a housing shortage in Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, we now have "NetSlaves," a bitter little pill of a book that champions those pathetic losers who aren't rich, well-rested or at all happy with their lot in life. Produced by the disgruntled duo of Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin, "NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web" surveys the nocturnal and underpaid: the customer support crews that slog through ever-growing piles of e-mail queries; the night-shift manager in charge of monitoring smutty chats; the product manager who loses it after one insane deadline and bullying boss too many.

"I'm a living testament to the fact that more Internet careers are nasty, brutish and short, and I'm not alone," writes Lessard, himself a veteran of seven tech companies. "Let's face it, it's a lot sexier to talk about the American-Dream-come-true of some kid who made a pile of money selling a geegaw to a big conglomerate than to talk about armies of Silicon Schmoes putting in 90-hour weeks in two-bit electronic sweatshops."

"NetSlaves" is based on the Web site by the same name, an online community at large for those who feel betrayed by their jobs. Here you can post your own horror stories and read the warnings of others; if your story is pathetic enough, you may even get profiled as the "NetSlave of the Week," an interesting twist that encourages sob stories over achievements. In the year of its existence, the NetSlaves site has become a bit of a legend, providing a somewhat high-profile outlet for all kinds of complaints.

The book, on the other hand, posits itself as a kind of anthropological study of the various genera of digital slave laborers. Lessard and Baldwin divide the general group of "NetSlaves" into 11 subcategories, affixing each with a cute little moniker that reflects the generic characteristics of the humans that toil within. There are Garbagemen, Cops and Streetwalkers, Gold Diggers and Gigolos, Cab Drivers and Mole People, all the way up to the evil Robber Baron.

Although the tags that Lessard and Baldwin use are toothache cute -- the pair has a painful practice of taking metaphors to the extreme and beyond -- they do rather aptly capture the nature of the jobs. "Cops and Streetwalkers," for example, are, respectively, those who are paid to monitor online communities and purge smut, and the pornographers and leches who lurk within. "Cab Drivers" are the "itinerant, faceless drones who code Web sites for a living," often on a temp basis. The "Garbageman" is the lowly underpaid tech-support staffer who lives by his beeper. "Fry Cooks" are the project managers who sweat over deadlines and are held ultimately responsible for all failures.

The book is stuffed with charts explaining how you can identify these different species (as well as a quiz in the beginning to test whether or not you have been exploited enough to quality as a NetSlave yourself), using such criteria as age, income, hours worked per week, mode of dress, recurring nightmares and favorite offline activities (if they have any).

The real meat of the book, however, is in the "true tales" of the NetSlaves; each category is graced with one horrifying tale to demonstrate just how bad that job can get.

In the "Robots" category, for example, we learn the story of Hussein, an immigrant engineer who diligently toiled his way up to a middle-management job at ChipTek before being mercilessly laid off when he took time off after a terrible car accident. "Gold Diggers and Gigolos" offers the story of Kellner, an unsuspecting writer who was seduced and then betrayed by femme fatale ad exec Mira, who stole his idea for a Web soap opera and sold it for a fortune. "Fry Cooks" boasts Boyd, former porn-store clerk turned customer support guru at CPU Central, so overworked and backlogged that he would delete thousands of customer e-mails just to say sane.

"CPU Central," "ChipTek" and "Mira" are, of course, pseudonyms -- Lessard and Baldwin have changed the names of people and companies to protect identities (the introduction also explains that "in a few instances, we've created character composites"). But anyone who has spent some time immersed in this industry will identify some of the stories and real companies behind weak disguises like "CPU Central" (CNET), "Aggro Software" (Microsoft) and "Fibre Magazine" (take a wild guess). One particularly obvious tale is that of Jane, a production grunt who took the heat from "Hedge-Downs" after the Web site accidentally posted the wrong O.J. verdict on its front page. Think way back, and you'll recall this was a Time-Warner Pathfinder blunder.

The prose in "NetSlaves" is nothing notable, stuffed as it is with homilies, metaphors, and groan-worthy lines (Kellner doesn't have sex, he "takes his pleasure" with Mira); the book also makes few pretensions about epiphanies or thoughtful analysis. Still, it's worth picking up for the evil vindictive thrill you might feel when you see companies (anonymously) "outed" for their nastiness. And anyone who has spent time in the lower levels of the Net industry -- and there are hordes of us -- will appreciate and recognize at least a few of the stories here.

Though the stories might provide an insider-ish chuckle for industry veterans, and a sigh of sympathy from others in similar positions, after a while it's hard not to view the subjects of the book's collected profiles as a pathetic bunch of sorry losers. Lessard and Baldwin's biases fall too hard on the side of the downtrodden, diluting those genuinely interesting stories with generic stereotypes about the upper echelons of NetSlave hierarchies. Personally, I find it hard to swallow a sentence that describes the favorite offline activities of "Cowboys and Card Sharks" (i.e., technology consultants) as "pretending to know the difference between an overpriced cigar made in Cuba and another made in the Dominican Republic; bitching about their stock portfolio; bragging about their 'great time out on the links last Saturday' with fellow Cowboys and Card Sharks."

After all, while it's fine and dandy to champion the rights of the working underclass, there are also questions of personal culpability. The Net industry sure stinks sometimes -- I've personally experienced some of the horrors of insane deadline pressure, long hours, bad management and lousy pay -- but doesn't every industry? After a while, you just want to slap some of these people and demand that they stop whining and pull it together, man. The person who stays at a miserable night-shift job patrolling chat rooms in an industry that currently boasts a cornucopia of job opportunities is at least partially responsible for his own situation. You may not make a fortune, but there's got to be a better job out there somewhere.

Lessard and Baldwin do recognize this in their afterword, noting that "NetSlaves are partially responsible for the hells they've put themselves in," thanks in part to lackluster screening of potential employers. And, to their credit, their book seems to be motivated less by animosity toward the Net -- after all, the authors now make their living by writing for Web sites -- than by a desire to deflate the Internet hype balloon that has ignorant kids rushing towards potentially disappointing careers in high-tech. Any book that informs people that, gosh, the Net might not make you into the next Marc Andreessen is worthy of the shelf space awaiting it in the Canon of Net Literature.

But perhaps the finest, and truest, moment of the book comes in the final page, where Lessard and Baldwin let their bitter black colors fly high. It's been a long time since I read such a disillusioned rant as this in print: "Technology has changed, but human nature hasn't. Whether it's the Gold Rush of 1848 or the Web Rush of 1999, people are people. More often than not, they're miserable, nasty, selfish creatures, driven by vanity and greed, doing whatever they can to get ahead, even if it means stepping on the person next to them, crushing the weak, and destroying themselves in the process."

That's right. Now -- crack! -- back to your desks, boys.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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