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Jewish World Review May 17, 2000 / 12 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Are those lazy, hazy dot-com days fading? -- ALL UPSTANDING AMERICANS are supposed to root for a strong and vibrant economy, I suppose, but it's difficult to repress a feeling of glee over growing predictions that most of the gloating dot-com entrepreneurs may soon be flushed away.

For a while there, it was difficult to escape the daily business-page stories about dot-com millionaires and dot-com billionaires who were either (1) 23 years old, (2) brand-new to the business world, (3) talking about retirement after only six months of work, or (4) all of the above.

It made you envious -- there was no getting around that. The old American work ethic -- toil hard for years, save your money, invest conservatively, and when you reach retirement age you may have accumulated enough to buy a small place in a warm climate -- was being laughed at. Fledgling hotshots a day or two out of college came up with a word (seemingly any word would do), added dot-com to the end of it, persuaded some big-money backers to supply limitless financial support . . . and were worth a billion dollars eight days after they announced their "idea" to the world. That "idea" being the hyphenated phrase "dot-com," and not much more.

If you manufactured barbecue prongs, you slogged along in a gray and dreary workaday funk. If, however, you founded, you were a visionary, you were glamorous, you were wealthy beyond a potentate's fantasies. (Pardon me if there really is a; I made it up, and I refuse to look on the Internet to see if one actually exists. I am swearing off dot-com searches.)

All of this sounded much too good to be true, to the great majority of the people in the working world who toiled the way they had always been taught to toil.

And -- within the last month -- there have been growing indications that, yes, it all is, in fact, too good to be true.

Did the dot-com game seem too easy?

Evidently it was.

One of the first signs of the coming dot-com collapse emerged when Forrester Research Inc., a leading Internet research firm, made a rather startling pronouncement. Internet research firms, it long appeared to those of us among the uninitiated, were the outfits that were always shouting to the world that if you weren't a dot-com capitalist, then you would end up living in the gutter, begging for scraps from the passing dot-com billionaires on the gold-and-diamond encrusted sidewalks.

But recently, Forrester proclaimed that most of today's dot-com retailers will be out of business by 2001. "The tide is turning against dot-coms," Forrester concluded. Many dot-com merchants "will collapse before marketing expenditures ramp up for the next holiday season."

But what about all of those dot-com sites that tell the world how many millions of "hits" they receive -- about the throngs of people who can't stay away from their Web sites?

Many of those dot-com sites are -- to use an impolite term -- lying. That's the only conclusion you can draw from a fascinating long article by Joseph Menn in the Los Angeles Times.

Menn reported that "with no guidelines or regulations about how Internet traffic is measured, many Web sites frequently inflate by 50 percent to 100 percent the traffic figures they give to advertisers, investors and the public, executives say."

In other words, the dot-com entrepreneurs who lure investors by saying how many men and women look at their dot-com sites are jacking up the numbers -- and the reason they can get away with it is because no one really knows. It's new territory -- when someone tells you that 7 million people visited his Web site last month, how are you going to prove him wrong? Apparently many high-dollar investors have been bluffed. They didn't know the territory, they believed the puffery . . . and they may be about to find out that the dot-com promised land that seemed unbelievable with its easy money actually was just that: unbelievable.

How did this all happen? Take the case of Michael Adam Fenne, a founder of a California start-up called He raised millions from investors; he envisioned as "an on-line entertainment network broadcasting its own shows," and last October, at a $12 million Las Vegas party called "the largest event ever held to launch an Internet company," treated guests to performances by Kiss, the Dixie Chicks, Tony Bennett and the Who. The acts reportedly were paid in -- of course -- stock options.

Now Michael Fenne is no longer with According to the Associated Press, he turned out to really be one David Stanley, a convicted embezzler who, according to authorities in Virginia, pleaded guilty 11 years ago to 55 counts of bilking elderly men and women in a fraudulent stock scheme. He disappeared from Virginia before repaying all the money he owed his victims, the AP reported -- and resurfaced with another name in California's dot-com land.

Where he was a big success, when it all seemed so easy. Evidently the easy days in dot-com land are over, or soon will be. Those of you who never quit playing by the old rules may have known something after all.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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