Why Networks Failed
Why Networks Failed
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter analyzes one of the resources that people used to support themselves in risky work. It explores the success and failure of the work that happened at the parties in Silicon Alley in terms of the impact on people’s careers and job security. Respondents that were interviewed considered their social networks to be their unemployment insurance, hedges for risky ventures and buffers for difficult times. The chapter shows that Silicon Alley workers said that attending industry events was crucial for their continued employability. The networking practices in Silicon Alley emphasize how workers themselves experienced the “work” of networking. Networking practices individualized and privatized economic uncertainty, and were important for encouraging workers to engage in entrepreneurial labor.
When Silicon Alley began to reel from the effects of the dot-com stock crash, one of its central figures called for people to show how they were managing. Bernardo Joselevich ran a small dot-com business and published a weekly email newsletter about networking in Silicon Alley. His call for strength was not for more advertising, or financing, or for lectures on best practices. It was instead for people to go out to parties. He wrote, “What a privilege to be in a place and time where you can prove your resilience simply by showing up at parties.1 Later that month he reminded his readers that “partying and schmoozing are not about being in the mood. It’s not necessary to have something to celebrate, it’s a business activity, and not the most unpleasant one.”2 Of course, Joselevich was a bit biased: his weekly email newsletter listed events including parties that were happening in Silicon Alley or of possible interest to the people who worked there. At its height, the newsletter listed over fifty events each week. But Bernardo’s writing about “partying” and schmoozing as a serious business function shows a shift in discourse toward the network as a source of power.
This chapter looks at the success and failure of the work that happened at these parties in terms of the impact on people’s careers and job security. Parties in Silicon Alley often linked club culture and business culture, a feature that Angela McRobbie has noted is common in the labor markets for youth-oriented cultural industries.3 The dense networks of Silicon Alley helped foster innovation and build the industry but ultimately failed to support the people who made those connections in the first place.
The seemingly carefree, hedonistic image of successful young people enjoying nightlife in Silicon Alley was a carefully crafted one, which “could be as articulate in expressing a company’s profile and aspirations as the corporate portfolio,” as Andrew Ross wrote, and companies took seriously their image as projected by these events. Since Courtney Pulitzer, Bernardo Joselevich, and several other trade media outlets covered such events and (p.102) an informal network of buzz about them, parties became another way for companies to communicate their position within the industry. A party thrown by a dot-com had “significance more akin to a high ceremony of state” in which “all of the decisions that go into the event are closely scanned and interpreted by employees and onlookers as if they were intended to send a formal message about the company’s current standing in the business world,” according to Ross.4 Razorfish, the company studied by Ross in No-Collar, set a standard by which other companies parties were judged. At its annual May Day party in 1999, the company celebrated its successful IPO with “a vertically-challenged, bubbly clown-girl popping out of her outfit” who handed guests oversized lollipops, an inflatable kids “moonwalk” where people “gyrated (in various levels of undress and various levels of intensity) and smoked (various types of plants),” several rooms for “making out with a sweet one, or a strange one—of which there were plenty,” a real tattoo parlor, and “young ladies in underwear who were dancing on the stage.”5 Icon, the company that published the pioneering online magazine Word threw a party in Audart Gallery on Broad Street in the financial district in an abandoned Swiss bank. Even though the zine had such a high culture pedigree, the event featured “scantily clad go-go girls dancing on raised cubes to cheesy mid-sixties fake pop music in the front room.” To which, Courtney Pulitzer wrote, making a reference to the tacit, unspoken competition among Silicon Alley companies to throw the best, wildest, most outrageous party, “Take that Razorfish!”6 Pulitzer also likened a smoky, rave-like loft party sponsored by online music company SonicNet (later sold to MTV) to “Razorfish on steroids.”7
Josh Harris, founder of the start-up company Pseudo.com, threw infamous parties in his 10,000-square-foot live-work loft in SoHo that included go-go dancers, live performances, and boxing “operas” along with computer games, live video art, and robotics, like the one shown in figure 4.1 (figure 4.1). Both by Harris and by the media that covered him, the loft and its denizens were likened to Andy Warhol’s Factory. These “happenings” included “club kids, techno-music, drugs, models, cross dressers and computers” and the “geeks who would later become the CEOs of Silicon Alley companies.”8 Even after millions were invested in the company, Pseudo continued its wild and often endless office parties. The company held raves with art installations of naked women, carnival acts, and outrageous costumes including a sea creature, a dragon, and a woman who was naked except for the credit cards strategically covering parts of her body, and in 1999 it sponsored a continuous month-long millennium celebration party.9 (p.103)
Raucous and risqué behavior at such events was widespread across Silicon Alley. Even a post-IPO company deliberating trying to cultivate a professional image hosted a party with professional dancers silhouetted on a scrim, and the CEO of venture-backed company was seen wearing leather pants at his company’s party in a nightclub. But these parties weren’t limited to young, edgy downtown start-ups. Banks, law firms, executive search firms all hosted events, like the one that executive search firm Redwood Partners threw at the Angel Orensanz cultural center in downtown Manhattan where staff from the New York City mayor’s office mixed with people start-ups and venture capital firms.10
However, as Elizabeth Currid argued for other cultural industries, it was not that “creative people hung out in these places and got drunk, snorted coke, and danced all night” but rather that these were “also the sites of meaningful social and economic interaction” forcing “us to look at entertainment venues in a totally different way.”11 For companies in the start-up culture of the late 1990s and early 2000, the industry party circuit served as a way to advertise, announce successes, and continue to build networks and support for their products and services.
Currid argued in The Warhol Economy that New York cultural and creative industries thrive on a density of nightlife. However, little has been written about how these events actually work for the people who attend (p.104) them. How important was networking to people working in Silicon Alley? There emerged a logic that networking was good for networking’s sake, that making connections would have some sort of payoff even if those could not be foreseen at the time.
Social Networking’s Cultural Moment
Networking, within the common business parlance, refers to the meeting of potential business-related contacts in a setting outside of work. Within Silicon Alley, workers thought of networking as a crucial component of their jobs, whether for their own career advancement or for the visibility and success of their companies. Within Silicon Alley there were explicit times and places, both online and physical, for networking including parties, conferences, tradeshows, meetings and lectures. Networking through email lists, online newsletters, and other online communities provided another venue for those working in Silicon Alley to meet one another, and in the early years these were key sources of legitimacy and validation within the industry. Networks are one form of support for venture labor, but the history of Silicon Alley shows that social networks as employment support are ultimately problematic.
Networks of People and Technology
Why did social networks and business networking become so important during the dot-com boom? This isn’t to say that social networking is new, but that as a concept, theory, and practice networking in the Internet industry took on an importance bordering on frenzy. While the party culture of Silicon Alley may be an extreme example of dot-com networking, research in Dallas and San Francisco technology communities suggests that the phenomenon of networking events was widespread.12 The prevalence of “networking” ideas in the media also reflects an increasing importance within popular culture. In the popular imagination, the rise of the Internet linked computer networks with social networks.
Yochai Benkler argues that individual actions, and especially linked, cooperative ones that do not depend on market forces, are playing a much greater role now than they did in the “industrial information economy.”13 Benkler’s argument rests on the notion that communication networks and social networks are rising in tandem with one another—that the power and capacity to link technically is supporting increased social connections, (p.105) or as he phrases it “the increased capacities of individuals” with a wider range and greater diversity of social ties are “the core driving social force behind the networked information economy.”14
During the explosive growth of the commercial World Wide Web—both in terms of the numbers of users and in the content that was being created for it—computational metaphors and models were linked to social ties. Social theories of connection tied these together. Social networking as a practice found its cultural moment and its technological affordances in the technical networks on the Internet. Manuel Castells’s theory of the “network society,” which first came out in 1996, also referenced the idea of social network changes tied to the rise of computer networks—that emerging computer networks support, foster, or reinforce social ties among people.15 Within the popular press examples, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and other social networking games became popular, and business and career advice columns advised things such as making “networking a career habit.”16 By 1998, an industry survey of job hunters reported that 61 percent of respondents found jobs through “networking.”17 Malcolm Gladwell popularized social network theory in his article on Lois Weisberg in The New Yorker magazine in early 1999 and later in his best-selling book The Tipping Point.18
Within Silicon Alley, the workers whom I interviewed took for granted that they had to hustle for their next projects and jobs. Attending events in Silicon Alley and participating in online communities were considered by many to be prerequisites for continued employment in the field. Going out to the numerous events was “work” for most, and few respondents reported enjoying the cocktail parties and nightclub events that accompanied work in the field. This privatization of job security—through individuals’ networking activities—means that building the social capital of an industry is seen as the work of individuals, not as a function of the industry as a whole.
People in Silicon Alley saw parties as one of their most important business activities and spoke of their social connections within the industry as a form of unemployment insurance, their hedges for risky ventures, and buffers for difficult times. Friends and acquaintances in Silicon Alley were often thought of as the fastest and most reliable sources for information about jobs, rapidly changing technologies, trends, and prospects for clients or projects. For those working in Silicon Alley, social networks like these were seen as critical in maintaining their skills, knowledge, and employability. And those social networks were formed in the places where people hung out, either virtually or literally in dense geographic clusters. Social (p.106) networking and the networks that people build in their industries, I argue, are needed for building a flexible workforce and sharing in the economic uncertainty of the industry. The history of social networks in Silicon Alley teaches a cautionary tale about what happens to social networks during difficult times such as that which occurred during the dot-com crash in 2001.
On the one hand, the social networks that developed in Silicon Alley built a community that supported small companies and helped develop a regional presence for a young and growing industry. These networks were also critical for employees’ own sense of job mobility. However, a tension developed between how social networks supported individuals’ careers and how companies benefited from these networks. Social networks helped manage and shift the risk of the industry, as is often the case in creative industries. Social networks became buffers that helped people manage the risk of one job with the prospect of quickly finding another.19 These buffers failed in the economic downturn. Social networking is certainly not unique to the Internet industry. Other industries—and media and cultural industries in particular—also rely heavily on the networks of those working within the industry. Professional and middle-class workers readily report increased pressures to “network,” or make potential business contacts through social engagements. Nor are the structures that emerge from social networking new—certainly the “old boy’s club” metaphor and the image of the three-martini lunch predate post-Fordist changes in employment structure that encourage workers’ reliance on network resources in the face of shrinking organizational supports. For example, Charles Kadushin identified “lunch distance” as a force that concentrated the American intelligentsia in a radius around midtown Manhattan from which a writer could reasonably travel for a lunch with his or her editor.20 And entrepreneurial companies have dense informational, legal, and financial ties within their industries and among the companies that support them. There is less written, however, about the kind of project-based and temporary organization among the workers in such creative firms that Gernot Grabher has called a pool of resources that “‘gels’ into latent networks.”21 Several scholars have suggested that networks increase workers’ mobility within industries that rely on network forms of organization, and regional networks may substitute for types of workforce support that used to be found within organizations, such as internal labor markets, job training, and job security. How workers fare within regional networks is still unclear. Scholars of technology industries have noted that regional networks provide many resources for workers as well as for organizations, but may also prevent (p.107) workers’ mobility across regions. Social networks provided information on local markets and served as a new form of “labor market mediation for workers,” supplying workers with a type of job security in which personal connections serve as conduits for information about new jobs and new technologies.22 In Silicon Alley, the absence of other organizational and industrial supports meant your social network became the main resource for maintaining employability.
Within Silicon Alley, being good at networking was recognized as being important to success within the industry. In their first ranking of the Silicon Alley’s top 100 movers and shakers, Silicon Alley Reporter ranked entrepreneurs and others in the industry by their vision and execution, fundraising, and a metric called simply “network”: “Our final rating, network, is perhaps the most important. The most successful companies in Silicon Alley, and on the Internet as a whole, are those that are able to partner and collaborate (you know, that whole rising tide raises all ships thing).”23 This “rising tide” reflects the idea common throughout Silicon Alley that regional growth was good for all (or at least most) individual companies and employees. This growth was thought to be generated, in part, through networked reputations. The practice of networking provided ways in which to build companies, reputations, and resources—but it was also a cultural concept that arose at a particular moment in history. That moment coincided with the rise of postmodern ways of working and the rise of venture labor.
Building Communities, Circles, and Industries
Within any industry, there are several ways to create a sense of community among the people and companies in the same field, and in many ways Silicon Alley was not exceptional. Early on several associations formed to build community across the new industry. Competing trade publications covered the goings-on of local businesses. Daily newspapers and general interest local magazines reported on a growing new industry and its rising stars. These are all common across many different types of industries (including my own, academia) and across different regions. However, people working in Silicon Alley along with those who covered it focused on creating community with an enthusiasm that bordered on frenzy.
The New York New Media Association (NYNMA) was one of the first Silicon Alley industry associations. Founded in 1994 with a $50,000 grant from the New York Economic Development Council, its mission was to serve the needs of a growing industry even though what that industry did (p.108) was not yet clearly defined. It was cofounded by Mark Stahlman, who had been an investment banker at Alex.Brown and a financial and strategic advisor for media and technology companies. Stahlman’s vision of the New York new media industry was that it could be a creative and lucrative community: “The Microsofts of the late 1990s are likely to be people working in small creative teams who are thinking about inventing new businesses and models and new industries. That’s the promise of new media, and that’s why New York has a strong claim on being an important geographic center.”24
NYNMA boasted over eight thousand members at its height at the end of 1999 and a professional staff of fourteen.25 The organization lobbied state policy makers, created a visible organizational face for the emerging industry, and published economic surveys and data on Silicon Alley. It also sponsored regular workshops, lectures, panel discussions, and meetings with venture capitalists, as well as SuperCyberSuds, the largest Silicon Alley networking event.
The World Wide Web Artists Consortium (or WWWAC, affectionately pronounced “wack,” slang for cool) was another industry association, albeit one focused less on business development and more on individual members, many of whom were Silicon Alley’s more creative and edgier employees. WWWAC was created to bring together people working in a wide range of companies: designers of interactive kiosks, copywriters for corporate communications who were exploring the new media of the World Wide Web for company brochures, and CD-ROM programmers who were dabbling in html, the coding language for Internet web pages. WWWAC was founded in December 1994 and sponsored smaller-scale “special interest group” gatherings to encourage people to share ideas about particular topics of interest. WWWAC founders used a combination of online and offline connections including email lists, parties, picnics, and panel discussions. While the young Internet industry in New York may have resembled many other industries in this way, it differed in the extent to which young people were involved, in the number of events held, and, as we’ll see in this chapter, in the nature of those events.
Silicon Alley had another key difference to established industries in that online groups were crucial for defining their own sense of community. Especially in the early days of Silicon Alley, those who said they “got it” were connected through online news or online email lists, and these relationships translated into the networking practices of the Internet business community. The online Bulletin Board Service ECHO was a central hub (p.109) in the creative networks of Silicon Alley. Founder Stacy Horn explicitly modeled ECHO after the West Coast’s influential service, WELL, founded by Stewart Brand.26 But these networks were explicitly geographically based as the “East Coast” in the name suggests. As Horn said, “The online connection isn’t complete until you meet someone off-line.”27
Trade publications formed another sort of community. The two biggest for Silicon Alley were the online newsletter AtNewYork and Silicon Alley Reporter, which published a print publication. Both provided a place for industry-specific news to be reported and community views to be discussed. More important, they created a sense of community through reporting on local businesses and events.
Founded by Tom Watson and Jason Chervokas in 1995, AtNewYork began as a weekly e-mail newsletter about New York’s new media industry.28 Calling itself “Silicon Alley’s hometown newsletter,” AtNewYork combined a sense of pride in its journalistic integrity with a reflexive recognition of its role in building Silicon Alley, a community in which the editors often included themselves.29 When Chervokas departed in May 2000, he described the newsletter’s mission as being to “report on the first homegrown start-up industry in New York in 60 years, to experiment with e-mail publishing, to deflate the hype created by the tech industry PR cycle that feeds reporters into the hands of ‘analysts’ who are often paid consultants for the companies that reporters are covering, and to serve as a sort of community newspaper for Silicon Alley.”30
Along with creating a sense of community in Silicon Alley, publications like Silicon Alley Reporter, AtNewYork, Alley Cat News, and ArtByte helped define what and who were New York’s new media companies. They did this by framing the coverage of issues, ideas, technologies, companies, and personalities that made up the growing industry. In many ways, these publications functioned as what sociologist Charles Kadushin has called a social circle. Social circles are a model of industrial organization distinct from social networks. In networks, the idea is that people are tied or linked to one another. Social circles are more diffuse and in a way more powerful. As a conceptual model, social circles show that insiders can recognize who is legitimately in or outside of a particular scene or field, without necessarily knowing them or being connected to them by one or two degrees—they don’t need to be friends or acquaintances to be recognized as legitimate insiders. Social circles are how people recognize legitimacy within an industry. Sociologist Howard Becker’s term art worlds is similar in that it describes all those involved in the production, distribution, reception, (p.110) critique, and reproduction of a cultural good. The ways in which people talked about Silicon Alley as a community reflects this notion of production by social circles or art worlds.31
For example, an early cover story of New York Magazine crowned the “Early True Believers” of Silicon Alley, a highly visible group of community insiders, including Mark Stahlman, the founder of NYNMA, and Jaime Levy, the founder of Electronic Hollywood and hostess of the “Cyberslacker” parties.32 New York Magazine featured the “New York Cyber Sixty” in 1995; Silicon Alley Reporter had the annual “Silicon Alley 100.” Such press coverage from within and outside of the industry generated attention and cemented a core and outer periphery—in terms of visible companies and people—within the field. The model of social circles reflects the importance of generalized recognition, “buzz,” and industry reputation—not just an exchange information or direct and indirect links as is theorized with social network theory and analysis. So links are not about transmission of goods or the enactment of social capital, but rather the creation of what we might call a community, with members learning to recognize one another even if they don’t know one another. In the process they define what the industry is, a process that is exceedingly important for the production of artistic, creative, and cultural goods and services.
Such coverage also helped define what kinds of activities constituted Silicon Alley. For example, New York Magazine’s “Cyber Sixty” included a successful magazine designer turned media services designer, a programmer turned game designer, educators with programs at New York’s universities, a technology publicist, advertising executives at advertising firms Saatchi & Saatchi and Poppe Tyson, executives at magazine publishing houses like Hearst and at entertainment companies like Sony, independent CD-ROM producers, and digital artists and computer animators.33 This wide range of business types and activities represented the diversity of activities in early Silicon Alley and an openness in the industry’s early stage over its definition and potential directions.
The Importance of the Schmooze
Schmoozing in Silicon Alley was pursued with vengeance. During the dot-com boom there were companies dedicated to helping plan corporate parties, several people regularly reported on parties, and specialized event spaces flourished in the districts where Silicon Alley firms were located.
One of the earliest features of AtNewYork was a biweekly column reporting on Silicon Alley events. Calling herself the “AtNY gossip columnist,” (p.111) Jennifer Pirtle reported a wide array of events that included art exhibits at mainstream museums such as Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image. The coverage also extended to nightclub parties with technological themes such as the regular “Click + Drag” party, which was a “far-out yet decidedly unpretentious ‘happening’ featuring drag queens, cyberculture, Internet …, S/M and fetish themes, and live performances,” and “Rhizome@Robots,” which featured top DJs and projections of film, computer graphics, and computer animations by digital artists and which founder Mark Tribe described as “highly charged with creative energy.”34 The column also reported on Silicon Alley–related conferences and panels and web site launch parties along with private events such as the birthday parties or going-away parties of Silicon Alley notables. When she left her position in April 1997, Pirtle wrote, “Who would have thought that one industry could sustain so many events!”35
The industry would soon sustain many more. Courtney Pulitzer succeeded Pirtle as the social columnist for AtNewYork, and the column became a weekly feature. Pulitzer came to AtNewYork from SmartMoney Interactive and Young and Rubicam’s New Technology department. More important, she had been a party organizer for the World Wide Web Artists Consortium.
Silicon Alley events were covered in “The Cyber Scene,” “Bernardo’s List,” Silicon Alley Reporter, and Alley Cat News as well as in general media coverage such as New York magazine. From 1996 to 2002, “The Cyber Scene” covered over 900 Silicon Alley events and listed over 8,500 participants in those events. The reporting in “The Cyber Scene” extended to the most important gatherings, such as meetings of the local Internet industry business associations, as well as more intimate events. Reported events included educational forums (such as conferences, panels, seminars, and workshops); private social events of people working in Silicon Alley (going-away dinners, engagement parties, and the like); and public social and networking events, such as award ceremonies, company launch parties, and regular networking gatherings. Compared to the number of events announced on “Bernardo’s List,” “The Cyber Scene” reported on roughly 20 percent of the publicly announced events in Silicon Alley, for an average of 4.6 events per week over the 1999–2002 period, which is, of course, roughly one event per weeknight. “The Cyber Scene” is far from a random sample of social events in Silicon Alley—after all, it represents the reporting of mainly one person, Courtney Pulitzer, who wrote most of the articles from 1997 to 2002. It is also one of the richest sources of historical material that exists to date on the Silicon Alley community. Even (p.112)
Table 4.1 Summary of cyberscene coverage, 1996–2002
Number of people
People per event
Roughly 70 percent of the Silicon Alley events reported in “The Cyber Scene” were parties, receptions, dinners, and the like, with conferences, panels, and seminars making up 27 percent of the total number of events. Half of all events reported were parties, receptions, or dinners held in nightlife locations—bars, clubs, restaurants, or such. Conferences or meetings held in offices, universities, or conference venues comprised only 20 percent of the events. By the height of the dot-com boom, (p.113)
The concentration of the production of Internet content in New York and the socializing frenzy that came with it reflected what Matthew Zook called the new economy’s “remarkable degree of clustering despite its much ballyhooed spacelessness.”36
While Pulitzer’s columns were far from a complete listing of all events in Silicon Alley, their coverage extended to the most important industry gatherings such as NYNMA and WWWAC meetings. Panels featuring industry leaders were frequently covered, as were networking breakfast meetings, parties celebrating new offices, companies, or products, and annual awards ceremonies. In the first columns, the launch party for Total NY, a site owned jointly by American Online and the Tribune Company, was covered; less than a year and a half later, its “closing” party was also featured. Birthday parties, anniversary parties, going-away parties—in the early years of coverage, Silicon Alley, at least through the eyes of its social reporters, was a community that celebrated rituals together. Even otherwise (p.114) staid business public relations functions or informal panels became opportunities for a bit of frolicking, and both the serious and the frivolous were found in the columns. By March 1999, events reporting had moved to AtNewYork’s web site and was no longer included in the version of the newsletter sent by email to subscribers. Pulitzer continued writing about social events for her own newsletter, “The Cyber Scene,” and formed her own company, Pulitzer Creations, that ran both the newsletter and regular social networking events called “Cocktails with Courtney.”
With control of her own publication, Pulitzer expanded coverage of Silicon Alley events and number of participants named for each event she reported increased dramatically in 1999. Rather than serve as a document of a downtown party scene, Pulitzer’s column attempted to inscribe the diversity of Silicon Alley businesses and events. A mention of a company became a mode of advertising to a select group of peers. For example, Pulitzer describes the people she talked to at the NYNMA Cybersuds party in January 1999, a large gathering held on an empty floor of an office building, demonstrating how social events reporting was important for company publicity: “I met Catherine Winchester, CEO of Soliloquy, Inc., whom I’d heard about before, but never met. She explained the nature of her company to me. It’s an interesting company in that the name indicates speaking alone and the product is about conversing with a computer. Standing by Oven Digital’s display table, I saw Michael Hughes of Oracle, who sent me a most interesting link the other day about Oracle and its new $100 million venture fund to foster companies that leverage its Oracle Internet computing platform. There’s an incentive!”37
The mention of businesses in such a column became a kind of advertising. Companies attempting to show their cultural capital of young, cutting-edge, avant-garde design by throwing the hippest, coolest parties could count on buzz from events coverage and industry insiders talking about the event. For other companies, like Oracle and Soliloquy (mentioned in the previous quoted passage), being able to connect with people to talk about their business success was only amplified through the trade media coverage that came with such events.
Of course, the proliferation of events came at a cost: competition. Bernardo Joselevich started Bernardo’s list, an email list with the sole function of telling people about the Silicon Alley events of the week, and a hierarchy of events emerged later in Silicon Alley’s history, with smaller, more exclusive events replicating the early “insider-y” feel of what some called “old” Silicon Alley. By the end of 1997, AtNewYork referred to the New York New Media Association’s large CyberSuds events as “roundly mocked by Silicon (p.115) Alley insiders, but it’s always been the place where newcomers discover a new industry.”38 Still, the time required to stay connected within the field was enormous, and as we’ll see from the interviews presented in this chapter, many people felt it was part of their job responsibility to keep abreast of these events in order to maintain their careers.
The key finding of Mark Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties,” a now classic article on how job seekers found information that led them to their jobs, is that weak ties, not strong ones, are most important for information that leads to jobs. Job seekers in Granovetter’s study didn’t find work through their close friends, but rather it was the friends of their friends—the weak ties in their networks—who gave them the new information that led to jobs.39 Network diversity is important because diverse networks help people get new information—information that is not duplicated by their close, strong ties, who presumably know many of the same things that they do. Fresh ideas—and some argue innovation—come from information from weak or more distance ties. This theory rests on the idea that your friends know much of what you do and think more similar to the way you do than strangers would. But people at the periphery of your social network are connected to other people and in different ways.
In the early days of Silicon Alley events, people came from a diverse array of subsectors and related industries. However, as the industry boomed, Silicon Alley events got more and more homophilous, or similar in terms of the kinds of businesses represented at any particular event. That means people from that e-commerce companies were hanging out with other people from e-commerce companies and people working in the arts were more likely to be at specialized art-specificevents. This in and of itself does not seem like such a bad thing until one considers the importance of diverse networks for people’s career stability and innovation within an industry.
Events in early Silicon Alley brought together people from many different kinds of businesses—both inside and outside the Internet industry. Perhaps this was because a unified industry had yet to consolidate from the distinct activities that comprised it.40 People from the arts, print media such as magazines, technology, and Internet companies most commonly frequented Silicon Alley events in 1996 and 1997 (see figure 4.4).
By 1997, dense networks had formed across these events. Linking these parties together were people who were mentioned as having been at two or more events. Most commonly, the people Pulitzer mentioned as having been at multiple events in a time period were from arts and creative sectors. That’s not to say that there weren’t other people in Silicon Alley attending multiple events, but rather that what we know from Pulitzer’s reporting is (p.117)
As Silicon Alley grew, so did its social networks. With growth, the parties were larger and Pulitzer began listing more of the attendees at each event. The composition of the attendees changed as well. More representatives from professional services and financial firms were reported as attending or sponsoring these events, and people working in public relations, finance, and business frequented these events almost as often as those working in Internet content companies (see figure 4.5). As the industry grew fewer artists linked the multiple events together, and the networks as a whole were dense, more homogenous (or homophilous), and less richly linked.
Early events in Silicon Alley reflected the creative and artistic image of the industry compared to the later events at which there were more people from business or finance. The networks got more homophilous over time, with people tending to go to events with people who were in sectors similar to theirs. While these social networks of people working in similar parts of the Internet industry can provide a benefit when the industry is growing, it limits the diversity ties that can be formed during such events. As a result, (p.118) in the economic downturn there would have been fewer people and businesses to turn to for new ideas, job opportunities, and information.
The Work of Networking
People who worked in Silicon Alley had clear ideas that they “benefited” from attending parties and other events by meeting people who could potentially be useful in promoting themselves, their work or their companies. Almost all of the people I interviewed thought of Silicon Alley–related events as potential ways in which to advertise their companies, meet potential business partners or investors, and connect with their peers. As economic geographer Susan Christopherson phrased it, “In New York new media, who you know matters almost as much as what you know, and that, in turn, determines what kind of work you get and how steady it is.”41 Within Silicon Alley, independent workers and management alike had a keen awareness of the people who could help them get things done or help them get their next job.
While social networks may be an efficient mechanism to provide information to participants and to share technical knowledge and skill diffusion, they also functioned to distribute risk across Silicon Alley. And although there has been much written about the “regional advantages” that networks bring, few have looked at the disadvantages of such closely linked industries. While building regional networks helps a region as a whole accrue “regional advantage,” there are private, and unequally distributed, gains to be garnered from the successful navigation of those networks.
People in Silicon Alley talked quite a bit about “community” and the “scene,” especially in the early years of the industry. Although New York’s young Internet industry was much smaller than Silicon Valley both in terms of the size of companies and in the number of employees, people in New York commonly made comparisons to what was happening in California and deliberately modeled behavior on what they perceived was the case. For example, Pulitzer wrote the following about a conversation she had during a party for Feed magazine with a reporter who was covering northern California’s technology industry: “We were comparing what’s been happening with the Silicon Alley “Scene” versus Silicon Valley. While SV has been around developing soft and hardware for much longer, it seems as if there is a stronger community sense here. He commented, parties like this one are not fringe, or trivial at all, but essential and core to the scene. It is events like this that propel the scene forward and give (p.119) it validity.”42 Pulitzer’s comment that parties can help “propel the scene forward and give it validity” fits squarely with theories of regional growth. Networks generated from “events like this” are “essential and core” to developing what Pulitzer called “the scene,” or the regional industrial network. Or as Elizabeth Currid has argued, scenes have a “dual purpose” of promoting one cultural product while simultaneously providing the site for further cultural production.43
In her book Regional Advantage, AnnaLee Saxenian found that successful high-tech areas like Silicon Valley had established “network based industrial systems” that are “organized to adapt to continuously fast-changing markets and technologies.”44 Such regionally based networks encourage collaborative practices across and within organizations, allow for the rapid diffusion of continually changing technical information, and build environments of innovation that provide positive economic externalities for firms and workers. Saxenian and other scholars have argued that such networks support regional growth, especially in high-tech or rapidly changing industries.45
There are several reasons why these regionally based networks emerge in high-tech fields in general and in the Internet industry in particular. Informal communication through social networks provides a mechanism for information about new technologies to be rapidly diffused, which is more valuable for rapidly evolving high-tech industries than is information from other, slower media such as technical journals.46 The benefits of networks to an industry also include complementarity, adoption, lock-in, and scale.47 Complementarity refers to the technical compatibility, such as the emergence of standards or conventions of working with new technology. Benefits of adoption refers to how a networked group adopts new technologies more quickly than isolated individuals—a kind of viral form of technology adoption that we see when people working in a networked industry become avid consumers of other companies’ products and services. Regional networks also help producers avoid the costs of switching, either by encouraging “lock-in” to a particular technology or by providing the resources such as information or training to reduce the costs of switching. This occurs when an informal consensus emerges within a regional network about which technologies are deployed. Another economic advantage is that regional networks can enable small producers to utilize effective scale in production through subcontracting or cooperative production relations.48
These regional networks provide many resources for workers as well as for organizations. They are a form of what scholars call labor market (p.120) intermediation that connects jobs and workers, especially within rapidly changing industries. In addition to providing information about job opportunities, networks are a way to share information about emerging technologies, learn new skills, and keep up with rapid changes in the industry.49
The parties formed a sort of arms race—during the height of the boom, the notion that companies could build publicity and legitimacy through parties was prevalent. Brand awareness was seen as an avenue to company profitability, and making a circle of early and intensive technology adopters aware of the product was one means of generating buzz. This is one of the ways that the nightlife social networks benefited Silicon Alley companies. Another was ostensibly through the connections of the employees who attended such parties.
Social networks form a unique sort of resource that is at once both public or shared and private, helping support collective, industrial goals and needs while still being generated by and often benefiting individuals. Social capital, one of the kinds of resources that social networks build, is often thought of as the public use of collectively held resources. For example, James Coleman, a key theorist of social capital, conceived of it as an asset that a group can utilize when certain social network conditions are met.50 When Pulitzer talks about building a community or scene in Silicon Alley that propels the industry forward, she’s evoking this sort of definition of social capital.
However, we all know that there are differential uses of power and social capital within the same networks, and people have different capacities for building such networks and different resources for navigating them. People with families or other obligations might find the party scene difficult to keep up with. A web design firm founder quoted earlier talked about how “easy” it was to create a community when people in the industry have similar educational backgrounds and are the same age, but what does this imply for those who don’t fit this model of dot-com hipster? And on the evenings when I felt awkward “circulating” in a crowded room at some launch party, I had the strange feeling of being in high school again, with the popular kids getting even more popular in these settings and the shy ones staring at their feet. British cultural studies scholar Angela McRobbie examined nightlife as both a literal and metaphorical passage point into creative industries in general, arguing that people move from “clubs to companies.” Club culture patterns how people can manage their work identities, infuses the workplace with cultural norms of behavior, dictates (p.121) how professionals in such industries should model their careers, and further closes gaps between leisure time and professional reputation and between creative production and cultural consumption. Metaphorically, McRobbie likens navigating the club guest list and getting a bouncer to let you inside to the informality of recruitment and hiring in creativity industries. But if nightclubs are literally hubs for networking in creative industries, “then age and domestic responsibilities define patterns of access and participation” and getting your foot in the door of an industry becomes as difficult and subject to the whims of fashion as getting past the velvet ropes.51 The irony, as McRobbie puts it, is “that alongside the assumed openness of the network, the apparent embrace of non-hierarchical working practices … there are quite rigid closures and exclusions.” These networks, McRobbie argues, provide individual solutions to systemic problems when creative workers rely on informal networking without having institutional or organizational supports.”52
There are other types of privately held power from such collective social resources. Ron Burt in his theory of “structural holes” addresses the power of brokering—of literally bridging gaps in a network. People positioned at the intersection of two otherwise disconnected groups can use their position for a kind of power.53 Within Silicon Alley, Susan Christopherson identified personal social networks as inherently exclusive because they encourage the development of “nontransparent hierarchies” that are difficult for certain groups of workers to navigate, concealing the power relations within an industry.54 Her line of thinking suggests that the new networking frenzy that took hold in Silicon Alley and other high-tech regions duplicates many of the practices of the “old boys’ network.” Some people I interviewed felt uncomfortable hiring or having to manage friends, while others saw no conflict in the practice.
Christopherson also found that what made social networks such a powerful force within a region could also work against the mobility of individual employees. The predominance of personal networks within New York’s Internet industry made leaving the contacts in one region or learning the ropes difficult, negatively impacting workers’ national geographic mobility. In an irony of the digital world, Christopherson suggests that there may be less geographic mobility for Internet workers—not more—than other types of workers because of their reliance on these dense, regional networks for exchanging information on credentials, reputation, technology, and skills. Further, the reliance on social networking as a job-matching system creates more inequality within an industry relative to (p.122) industries with other types of job-matching systems, because it privatizes into a social sphere job-market functions that were once (at least somewhat) more transparently conducted within organizations.55
Sid, a programmer I interviewed who had made the transition from San Francisco to New York, talked about how little mobility he felt he had, even though he had worked for big-name national clients and was known as one of “the guys that got there early” in Internet design. As he said, “People knew who I was in San Francisco. When I moved to New York, nobody knew who I was.” Sid’s first steps were to join the WWWAC email list: “Probably the scariest thing was that I didn’t really know that many people here. A couple of years before I moved out here I discovered the WWWAC group…. I came out to visit a couple times, went to some WWWAC events, and that was great. That community was great. I got to know people that I know even today. They weren’t in hiring positions. They were more like me, like ‘Hey, this is cool. What are we going to do?’”
One of Sid’s early contacts was a leader in the WWWAC circles, from whom he began to sublet office space, which meant, in his words, “I had a phone number, I had the West 25th Street address which was great [to] establish that I had my own office in the right district.”
That double mark of legitimacy—the right address in the Flatiron District and a connection to an established figure—helped him eventually land his first interviews in New York. Sid saw all of these as much more important for getting a foot in Silicon Alley than he did his previous contacts, reputation, or experience. Still, he was hired by “an old friend” from California who was setting up a design firm in New York.
Regional networks replace other types of workforce support provided by organizations, unions, or associations. These include what sociologists call job ladders or internal labor markets, which are opportunities for career advancement within a company. Regional networks may also serve to help privatize job and skill training outside formal organizational settings. A study of Seattle information technology workers and the companies that employ them found that employers overwhelmingly thought of job training as the responsibility of workers, not companies. At the same time employers thought that workers who had held many jobs within the region were more likely to have higher skills than workers who had more experience within one company.56 In fact, as shown in surveys conducted in both New York and Seattle, the perception that potential employees bring in knowledge from outside the firm is crucial for freelancers’ continued employability.57 Skills gained outside benefit the firm, raising the level of knowledge and access to new technology within. This means being able (p.123) to bridge organizations is both how freelance, contract, and temporary employees get their work in the first place and a tacit expectation of what they should do once hired. Individuals, in seeking out relationships to provide for their own continued work, create ties between their company and other organizations and among industry sectors.
At first blush, there is little wrong with the picture of a rising social network tide that lifts many boats. But it leads to a kind of entrepreneurial reflexivity in which people continually monitor their own ways of being in these kinds of industries. Any blame for not having a job, for losing a job, for having out-of-date skills comes back onto the self. As McRobbie writes: “If we alternately consider reflexivity as a form of self-disciplining where subjects of the new enterprise culture are increasingly called upon to inspect themselves and their practices, in the absence of structures of social support (other than individualized counseling services), then reflexivity marks the space of self-responsibility, self-blame. In this sense, it is a de-politicizing, de-socializing mechanism: ‘Where have I gone wrong?’”58 Such is the work entailed in self-managing, the continual monitoring of how to “be” within the industry, a position that entails, among other things, knowing how to conduct business in nightlife settings. Building social networks as a form of support also requires this sort of individualized work. Just as one of the senior producers I interviewed said, there is a continual “performance” that must be put on in order to navigate such opportunity structures. In this way, we could say that networking has an aspect of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild termed “emotional labor”—people need to act a particular way in order to affect a veneer of dot-com professionalism.59 It’s one thing to do this as part of a job; it’s quite another to be expected to keep up the performance after five o’clock.
Whether or not attending networking events led to jobs, people in Silicon Alley believed that it did. This suggests that the same the tight links among professionals that are credited with supporting work in innovative industries may reproduce inequalities between men and women, between people of different sexual orientations, between those with domestic responsibilities and those without, and between young and old workers. Certainly people living in the suburbs, or people with families to care for, would not be able to participate in Silicon Alley in the same ways. And based on the descriptions and my observations of many of the events, those unwilling to go along with the sexual innuendo, flirting, risqué behavior and displays, and public drunkenness wouldn’t either.
The nightlife activities of young professionals have been credited with being an engine of economic growth not only for the industries that they (p.124) are in, but also for the cities where they live. Nightlife is integral to Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class” and creative cities. Nightlife is not simply beneficial to young professionals in growing industries; it is essential, in Florida’s formulation, to the innovation of those industries. Florida argues that what he calls nightlife “scenes” are important to the creative class and, by extension, to creative cities, because they offer choice, inspiration, and, in his term, “efficiency” in the use of leisure time. As imagined by Florida, in such a scene one can immerse oneself “in the bustle of sidewalks or head into an energized club and dance until dawn—or find a quite cozy spot to listen to jazz while sipping a brandy, or a coffee shop for some espresso, or retreat into a bookstore where it is quiet.”60 According to Florida, not only does nightlife inspire the creative class with innovation and creativity, it constitutes the urban spaces where they want to reside and work.
What this means is that the spatial and temporal lines between work and leisure are blurred. There is not any inherent problem with combining play and labor. However, in writings of the creative class, the work of nightlife has not been adequately addressed. Elizabeth Currid’s examination of the “Warhol economy” of cultural production in New York City focuses on the role of the tight connections and the blurred lines of nightlife and business, arguing that creativity “would not exist as successfully or efficiently without its social world—the social is not the by-product—it is the decisive mechanism by which cultural products and cultural producers are generated, evaluated and sent to the market.”61 However crucial these nightlife scenes are for career advancement and cultural and creative production, they come with an unspoken set of rules and norms that could be a challenge to navigate. People working in industries that rely on this type of networking are aware of the significance of their social life to their careers but “are uncomfortable formalizing it or being overt.”62 Currid’s analysis of the role of nightlife for New York City cultural production ignores the political economy of the work involved. It doesn’t ask, as the urban sociologist Sharon Zukin has done, “whose city and for whom”—what kind of city such activities create and what control these activities can assert over neighborhoods and which groups of people have the cultural capital to control urban spaces through “privileged consumption.”63 While the kinds of connections that party going builds seem spontaneous and open, they can duplicate many of the pernicious old traits of the old boys’ network—exclusivity, nontransparency, and inequality.
(p.125) The social networks of production can tightly link firms within an industry and region together. The networks of these regional economies are particular to a specific place and are reinforced by regional contexts that shape a particular industry. However, there is a darker side to the highly linked urban economies of cultural production. There is clearly work involved in building and maintaining these regional economies, and in Silicon Alley this work was disproportionately done after hours by people who had the time, ability, and social capital to navigate nightlife events. Networking among the employees of an industry forms a paradox of social capital creation. Workers in Silicon Alley felt an enormous pressure to build their own social connections in order to maintain their employability; in doing so, they obtained resources for their employers and the industry as a whole, by providing visibility for their companies and through building ties among subsectors of the industry. As the downturn in Silicon Alley showed, the creation of this social capital was an effective strategy for managing the risk incurred by and at individual companies, but it did little to help buffer workers against the “systemic risk” of an industry downturn. The development of subgenres or types of companies within the industry meant people felt less affinity across Silicon Alley. The sheer numbers of types of events made it impossible to stay on top of all things digital in Silicon Alley.
But specialization came at a cost—over time, there was increasingly less diversification in the event networks of dot-commers. Of course, the event circuit was not their only source of contacts and is only a very rough proxy for what might have been going on among the eight thousand participants’ own personal networks. But in terms of social gatherings, people were reporting that they needed to go out to drum up business for themselves and potential jobs, when the networks would have been well trod by others very similar to them. These events could not have possibily been a rich source of new information from outside Silicon Alley. As event networks in Silicon Alley grew more specialized, so too did the job support networks of the people who relied on these events.
One senior project manager described how he saw the line between social and business with the following: “I believe in networking, but I’m not a networking addict. I do go to industry events, exchange business cards. That’s an integral part of my professional, as well social, life actually. I’ve met two really good friends through that networking. I sometime have networked with people who I have not benefited from directly in a professional manner and we’ve just become very good friends. (p.126) That’s just as important. That’s almost even more important. I really value that.”
Even though he was not an “addict,” he did go out to local events at least every other week, and even more frequently on outings with people at work, which met at least one evening a week for drinks or dinner. While it was important to his social life outside of professional development to make friendships from such events, his justification of having “networked” people who did not benefit him professionally shows an underlying expectation that networking would indeed have benefits for his career. For his next job, though, he wanted something that he could “leave at five o’clock” and for which he would ostensibly not feel the need to do so much afterhours networking.
From very early in Silicon Alley’s history, networking events were often alcohol-fueled functions in bars and lofts where witty repartee and a party atmosphere made the events seem social even if there was an undercurrent of professional schmoozing going on. While the media covered these events as evidence of the youthful fun of Silicon Alley, many people who worked for Silicon Alley companies viewed making connections at such functions as a vital part of staying current in their careers. When asked if he goes to Silicon Alley events, a reporter for an online publication that covered Silicon Alley, vacillated on whether to call these off-hours events enjoyment or work: “I go. I schmooze. I view them as much work-related as enjoyment. Actually, they’re not fun at all. You’re drinking and what does the CEO want to talk about, the Mets? No! I don’t think so. He wants to talk about his latest software upgrade that’s going to change the face of chat. Why do I care? Talk to me between 10 and 7 on weekdays.”
But, of course, he said, like many others I talked to, he felt as if he “had” to go to these functions. For some, though, networking events became their social life, and that social life could, at times, feel and be exclusive. One interactive producer described people she worked with in Silicon Alley as having “a big expectation that work is going to fulfill a social need in people’s lives. And they want to socialize with people who are like them. My friend said, ‘Working in new media is being able to dress like a hipster and get paid like a yuppie.’” Of course, there is a downside to this sort of expectation: as he said, people want to hang out with others who are like them, other hipsters. That made it difficult for a genuine diversity to emerge among Silicon Alley employees. A cofounder of an interactive design firm said, “There’s a definite community…. And a lot of people involved come from very similar backgrounds as us. They’re very intelligent, (p.127) they’re our age, they have similar sets of education, and that very easily makes a community.” The drive for “community” may have excluded people who were perhaps not considered “hipsters” or were somehow different in background or education or age.
For example, one woman who was a senior writer for web sites talked about how she felt as if she had damaged her career by dropping out of the party circuit, saying, “I actually went to parties at Pseudo but not too many…. Then I got pregnant. That’s what derailed my rise because a lot of this is about going out and networking and working a lot and I just stopped.” Another woman who was a senior producer said that she was “not connected at all,” which had limited the amount of publicity she got for her web sites. Her problem with Silicon Alley events was that they required “that kind of performance of ‘I know a lot’ [which] is fine for work, but I don’t want to do that in my off hours.”
Still, many people I interviewed justified how frequently they went out as a part of their jobs and saw little distinction between work-related and non-work-related events. Whether building the sense of community within the company by frequent nights out together, or building their own community of networks and contacts for future job leads, most people felt, like the two women quoted previously, that these events were crucial for keeping up with the field. For the cofounders of an interactive design company, that meant at least one night a week was devoted to “socializing at specialized new media parties.” Clearly, maintaining contact with a group of colleagues, whether or not through the Silicon Alley party circuit, was critical for breaking into Silicon Alley and for getting new jobs.
One woman, a senior writer at a large, interactive media conglomerate, compared networking to looking for dates at singles events, saying that she didn’t go to what she called “events events”: “It’s not that I have a problem with them. There’s some that I did pretty regularly, but I’m pretty good at following up…. But you don’t have to go to an event for you to do that. It just makes it a little bit easier. It’s like going to a singles event. There at least, we all know what we’re there for, so you don’t feel like a shark digging around for cards. The whole world is a networking event, if you’re a freelancer…. I mean, my friend is a financial planner … but networks on his hockey team. You know, so, to get new clients.” Even though she may have preferred other types of networking, still felt as if she had to make connections and follow up on them. Nor was she alone. Eighty percent of employees within Silicon Alley reported that their social network connections were their most important source for finding jobs. (p.128) In contrast, only 11 percent reported that newspaper listings were.64 In addition to helping people get their jobs, friends and colleagues were a key source of new skills, and ranked only behind being self-taught and on-the-job learning in importance.65
Another senior writer admitted that she got most of her jobs through friends and other contacts: “All the full-time jobs I’ve gotten in the web industry have been through a personal reference, except one where I answered an ad but I probably got the job because I knew people who could vouch for me personally. There’s a strong component of ‘who do you know’ not ‘who do you know who is important’ but the assumption is that everybody knows everybody else and it’s a small world and communications just flies.” Later in the interview, she added that in addition to networking it was important to have a good reputation because if you’re a pain in the ass people hear about that too.” She, like many other people I interviewed, reported having obtained short-term jobs through people they knew through email lists such as WWWAC or ECHO, saying jobs would come “in off the WWWAC list—like [they would] say, ‘I’m looking for a writer and I saw your post and I saw you used a serial comma, so you seem super competent.’” Even applying for a new advertised job was followed up with personal connections. A junior producer who was working his first job in Silicon Alley had this to say about his position: “I saw it listed somewhere either Hotjobs or NYNMA or somewhere, but in following up, I found a bunch of people that I knew there,” and by the time he got to the interview he was “an employee reference” for the job.
People working in Silicon Alley felt the necessity to maintain social ties in order to stay employable. My point is not that the Internet industry is unique in the social networking practices of employees. Other industries—and media industries in particular—also rely heavily on the networks of those working within the industry. But in the absence of other organizational and industrial supports, networking in Silicon Alley became the main way workers sought to maintain employment security. Workers’ necessity for maintaining these ties benefited organizations and the industry as a whole.
In the interview data reported in this chapter, Silicon Alley workers said that attending industry events was crucial for their continued employability. Workers sought out social networks across Silicon Alley as a type of support and for access to resources that increased their opportunities for new employment should their own companies or projects fail. More important, my research on the networking practices in Silicon Alley highlights how workers themselves experienced the “work” of networking. The (p.129) quantitative data in this chapter show that there was indeed a pattern of industry affiliations at Silicon Alley networking events over time. These data suggest that particular types of companies stood to gain from the association of their employees at these events. While the work of networking was done by individuals—and the type of individuals central to Silicon Alley changed over time—benefits accrued, at least in part, to their companies.
Silicon Alley also drew upon the forms of work and organization in New York’s publishing and advertising industries, which also thrive on network practices to coordinated work and information. Social events circumscribed who was in Silicon Alley. The number and types of companies reported on as having representatives at Silicon Alley events changed over time; documenting who was at Silicon Alley events helped circumscribe which companies considered themselves a part of the “community,” and, in turn, the industry. Company partners could feel so out of the loop by not being on the networking circuit that they often considered themselves not part of the industry. One partner in a small firm insisted that he could not take part in my study even though his company provided the same services that Silicon Alley companies provide. He told me that he did not belong in a study of Silicon Alley, saying “we’re not a Silicon Alley company—I mean, we’re not a dot-com, those parties, that life, that’s not us. We’re just computer geeks.”
Not everyone shared in the feeling that these parties were important. One junior producer who began working with an Internet company in 2000 contended such parties were “an entirely closed subculture for people on my end. There were people in sales or on the [advertising] side that got out more.” Several company founders interviewed suggested that networking at Silicon Alley social events was not as important to their careers or the survival of their companies as was other, more targeted forms of networking. One founder of an e-business company had a clear understanding of the structural holes bridged by the brokers in his network, as he worked to connect to the business associates of his associates whom he meticulously researched. “Networking is crucial, although time is so precious I only go to the [events] that I think will make an impact. Going to a conference of a thousand people and paying $1,500 trying to talk to Steve Balmer [of Microsoft] or Michael Dell or [Jeff] Bezos [from Amazon]. Do they care who you are? Are they going to remember? … I like going to smaller events. I think spending an hour [talking one-on-one with people] is much more productive. That’s my way of socializing.” He also said he avoided launch parties and other Silicon Alley events, saying “those are (p.130) more for social reasons” and are a “different level of networking” for a “different level” of employee.
Conclusion: The Functions of Networks
Networks became a way to manage economic uncertainty. People invested in specific kinds of networks—which, based on who was attending functions together, got even narrower as the Internet industry grew in New York. This was a great investment in employability while times were good, but this was difficult to bank on when the downturn eventually came. These networks weren’t able to buffer people from the risks of the industry; rather, they were codetermined with them—in terms of social networks, as the tide rose, the tide fell. People working to stay employable create the social networks that innovative regions need to grow.
Venture labor is embedded into the process of building and maintaining networks. The work people do for companies through off-hours socializing is work; benefits companies and may become worthless in a downturn in the industry. That is because the social capital investments that people were making in Silicon Alley were specific to particular companies and a particular industry. An analysis of Courtney Pulitzer’s reporting indicates that these networks created at industry events got more—not less—specific as the industry grew. The problem is this is that it did not help to diversify employees’ venture labor. Networks allowed for an institutional rearrangement of risk and uncertainty, but the mediation of risk by through social networks was necessarily incomplete. Silicon Alley social networks were not diverse. While they worked when the industry was growing, they were not sufficiently diverse to buffer against the dot-com crash.
Networking practices individualized and privatized economic uncertainty. But networking practices were key for encouraging workers to engage in entrepreneurial labor—in the simultaneous marketing of themselves and their companies. This close proximity also produced a workforce that was highly attuned to the requirements of a networked industry. The experience of workers after the economic downturn, however, suggests that while social networks within the industry could be used to their great advantage during the economic boom, networks alone were not enough to buffer the uncertainties that individuals faced afterward. Instead, workers faced economic pressures directly, as free agents. As one cofounder of a start-up firm said, “In terms of a real sense of community, a lot of people try to foster that, but in the long term, it’s still all about economics, though.” The tension expressed by this respondent was clearly one of (p.131) balancing the needs of the industry at large with that of the economic growth (and relatively competitive standing) of a particular company. This same tension was clearly felt by employees who were asked—implicitly or explicitly—to contribute to their companies but felt little loyalty expressed in return. Without clearly defined social and organizational structures, economic uncertainty bears down directly on individuals. These social network connections can serve as a hedge against this uncertainty for the workers who are able to access and maintain these networks, but they ultimately failed to protect them in the crash. (p.132)
(1.) Bernardo Joselevich, “Bernardo’s List” email, March 7, 2001.
(2.) Bernardo Joselevich, “Bernardo’s List” email, March 26, 2001.
(3.) McRobbie, “From Clubs to Companies.”
(4.) Ross, No-Collar.
(5.) Pulitzer, “Razorfishsucks.com.”
(6.) Pulitzer, “@The Scene,” July 11, 1997.
(7.) Pulitzer, “@The Scene,” March 20, 1998.
(8.) Gabriel, “Where Silicon Alley Artists Go to Download.”
(9.) Pulitzer, “Three Day Rave.”
(10.) Pulitzer, “Holy Holiday.”
(11.) Currid, The Warhol Economy, 95.
(12.) Chet, “Like Exporting Baseball”; Centner, “Places of Privileged Consumption Practices.”
(13.) Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, 3.
(15.) Castells, The Rise of the Network Society.
(16.) Weinstein, “Make Networking a Career Habit.”
(17.) Leonard, “Networking Still the Best Way to Find Work.”
(18.) Gladwell, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”; Gladwell, The Tipping Point.
(19.) See, for example, Batt et al., Net Working; Benner, Work in the New Economy.
(20.) Kadushin, American Intellectual Elite.
(21.) Grabher, “Collective Tinkering: Emerging Project Ecologies in New Media,” 1919.
(22.) Batt et al., Net Working; Benner, Work in the New Economy; Christopherson, “Project Work in Context.”
(23.) Anonymous, “1997’s Silicon Alley Reporter 100,” 5. (p.174)
(24.) Cited in Tractenberg, “New York Grows as a Multimedia Hub as More Firms Set Up Projects There.”
(25.) Joyce, “Alley Buzz.”
(26.) For a fascinating account of WELL and the role it played in shaping digital culture, see Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.
(27.) Reported in Pulitzer, “@The Scene: Why Silicon Alley Is a Real Community,” AtNewYork, October 17, 1997.
(28.) The newsletter was known as @NY in its earlier years and often refers to itself in this shorthand. For consistency, I’ll refer to the publication as AtNewYork.
(29.) From the masthead of the July 25, 1997, issue.
(30.) Chervokas, “Saying Goodbye to Atnewyork.com,” AtNewYork, May 25, 2000.
(31.) Kadushin, American Intellectual Elite; Becker, Art Worlds.
(32.) Grigoriadis, “Silicon Alley 10003.”
(33.) Anonymous, “The New York Cyber Sixty.”
(34.) AtNewYork, September 20, 1996, and AtNewYork, November 1, 1996.
(35.) She also left her email address and a reminder about the fact that she hosted a discussion group on ECHO, the East Coast Hang Out, an early Internet provider and community site for many who worked in Silicon Alley. See “@The Scene,” AtNewYork, March 21, 1997, http://web.archive.org/web/19980516041614/http://www.atnewyork.com/scene.htm (accessed May 20, 2003).
(36.) Zook, “The Web of Production,” 418.
(37.) Pulitzer, The Cyber Scene, January 29, 1999.
(38.) Watson, “What the Industry Needs.”
(39.) See also Granovetter, Getting a Job.
(40.) For more, see Neff, “Associating Independents.”
(41.) Christopherson, “Project Work in Context,” 2012.
(42.) Pulitzer, “@The Scene,” November 14, 1997.
(43.) Currid, The Warhol Economy, 103.
(44.) Saxenian, Regional Advantage, 9.
(45.) See also Heydebrand, “Multimedia Networks, Globalization and Strategies of Innovation.”
(46.) Saxenian, Regional Advantage, 33.
(47.) Shy, The Economics of Network Industries.
(48.) Piore and Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide.
(49.) Benner, Work in the New Economy; Batt et al., Net Working.
(50.) Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.”
(51.) McRobbie, “From Clubs to Companies.”
(53.) Ronald Burt, Structural Holes.
(54.) Christopherson, “Project Work in Context,” 2012.
(56.) Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, “The State of Seattle Area IT Employment and Training.”
(57.) See Batt et al., Net Working; Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, “The State of Seattle Area IT Employment and Training.”
(58.) McRobbie, “From Clubs to Companies,” 522.
(59.) Hochschild, The Managed Heart.
(60.) Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 184.
(61.) Currid, The Warhol Economy, 4.
(63.) Centner, “Places of Privileged Consumption Practices.”
(64.) Batt et al., Net Working.