A Personal Reflection on Investing, Archives, and the Socio-Economics of Electronic Literature
– Megan Sapnar Ankerson
If you could go back in time and unload your shares of dot-com stock at the very height of the internet speculative bubble, then Fri. March 10th, 2000 would be the perfect time to sell. The NASDAQ closed above 5,000 the second day in a row, double the value from just one year earlier. At the time of this writing (Sep. 2012), the market hovers around the 3000 mark.
After looking through some of my personal records, I see that I made two investments on those two historic days when the index topped the 5,000 mark. On March 10, 2000 I bought a significant amount of shares (for me at least) in a technology and information mutual fund, the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Information Fund Class B (IFOBX) for $44.90 per share. Sometime around 2006 this was converted to Morgan Stanley Information Class A (IFOAX). Today IFOAX is trading around $11.91– I am pretty far from recouping my initial investment. (Update from March 2014, when I officially published this piece: IFOAX is now at $15.27!)
My other investment was purchased on March 9, 2000. I bought the domain name poemsthatgo.com. My partner Ingrid and I were starting a new media poetry journal, and we launched the first issue of Poems that Go on April 1, 2000. I’ve written a little about the background of Poems that Go here (and specifically our work “Cruising,” here) which was inspired by an experience watching a signer accompany a poet at the Baltimore Book Festival in 1999.
I remember trying to get our local paper, The Baltimore Sun, to write about the launch of our site, April being National Poetry Month and all. I had high hopes for transforming the paper’s “Plugged In” section from a digital buying guide to a local digital culture report. (No such luck.) At this time, newspapers all over the U.S. were launching new “cyber” sections devoted to covering technology, the internet, and the information revolution. The New York Times debuted “Circuits” on Feb. 26, 1998 and not to be left behind, The Sun launched “Plugged In” on April 20, 1998. (“Whether you use a computer, fax machine, VCR, telephone, pager or high-tech mixer, Plugged In will take the mystery out of things that go beep in the night” the launch announcement proclaimed). As a web designer, technology enthusiast, and adjunct instructor teaching interactive media courses, I looked forward to Monday’s “Plugged In”– even if most of The Sun’s coverage stayed true to it’s mission and focused largely on technology and gadget reviews with tips for dealing with spam, printing email, and protecting your kids from cyberporn. The debut of a local e-poetry journal didn’t make the cut.
Plugged In is a new Monday section designed to put you in touch with technology. Whether you use a computer, fax machine, VCR, telephone, pager or high-tech mixer, Plugged In will take the mystery out of things that go beep in the night.
Every week, the section will feature an in-depth cover story that focuses on how technology affects you and your family. It may be a discussion of how to protect your kids from Internet pornography, using your PC to plan your garden or how to find the right pager.
Here’s what else you’ll find:
Software and hardware reviews that help you separate the greatware from the vaporware.
Smart Surfing: This weekly package will guide you to the best and worst of the Web, and teach you how to make the Internet work for you.
Help Line: When your computer doesn’t do what you want it to do, you can find relief here.
Hot Stuff: The latest in consumer electronics for the gadget-deprived.
Your computer: Mike Himowitz’s weekly technology column moves from the Sunday Business section to the cover of Plugged In.
– “A guide to The Sunday Sun Redesign” The Sun 18 April 1998: 7A.
But elsewhere on the Web, little by little our site was getting noticed. We were vaguely aware of the e-literature community, though we felt like impostors who never really enjoyed “serious” hypertext fiction very much. We just loved creative writing, poetry, and the web, and more than anything, we were out to have fun by developing our technical skills (required for work) through some creative practice that felt personally rewarding, in ways that the client interactions over comps and mock-ups never could.
Surprisingly, a number of people reached out to us, most notably Scott Rettberg, who had recently co-founded the Electronic Literature Organization with Robert Coover and Jeff Barlowe. Scott emailed us after our second issue came out, urging us to attend an upcoming roundtable sponsored by Eastgate Systems called “Hypertext.Narrative.Image.Flash,” which was held in Boston in November of 2000. We agreed.
In the context of my personal narrative, I can now see how significant this weekend was for Poems that Go: it opened our eyes to the range of work going on in electronic literature and, by bringing together “Web designers, Flash creators, scholars, and writers in an exploration of the narrative craft,” it made room for the collaborative potential between artists, writers, and designers. Narrative was the key word here, and this was precisely what we were interested in– both in our professional capacity as web designers, and in our new creative outlet, PTG.
“The role of narrative in the Web experience is a pressing concern throughout the Web world, from entertainment to ecommerce. How can we manage the narrative experience in the presence of both interaction and animation? We hope to bring together a small group of leading writers, designers, and theoreticians to define (and extend) the state of the art in an intense weekend roundtable and workshop.”
November 11-12, 2000 Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
And this workshop didn’t shun the possibility of bringing literature, popular culture and entertainment together, a nexus in which we had located PTG. It put us in contact with a new network of people that served as important connections as we moved forward including Scott, Stuart Moulthrop, Nick Montfort, and Zahra Safavian. (Stuart and Zahra also lived in Baltimore; Nick spent a semester at the University of Baltimore a year or so later). We made both local connections and met a larger community of writers and artists experimenting with the possibilities of kinetic typography and interactive fiction. It was inspiring. And the connections spawned further opportunities: in the fall of 2001, Scott invited us to Chicago to present our work at the Electronic Literature Organization’s “Interactions Series.” We started to regularly attend ELO events. (One particularly cringe-worthy memory: at the ELO State of the Art Symposium in 2002, Robert Coover went to demo some work from our site during his keynote address— a big deal because we were decidedly more on the “popular” side of e-lit than the “serious” interactive fiction folks–but alas, our site was down because the domain name had expired. Impeccable timing! When I first registered Poemsthatgo.com I signed up for a period of 2 years, not really expecting the site to take off as it did. It was an embarrassing reminder that we were the amateur publishers in this world of big name literary stars. Our big fail occurs around 7:38 when Coover goes to show Zahra’s wonderful work Dissolution and then reports “Poems that Go… is DOWN, the server is down.” Sorry Zahra.)
In the dozen years since we launched Poems that Go, a lot has changed in my life. I went to grad school and shifted gears, leaving the world of electronic literature in early 2005 to devote my full attention to media and cultural studies. I became interested in television, broadcast history, and the history of the commercial web. I wrote a dissertation entitled “Dot-com Design: Cultural Production of the Commercial Web in the Internet Bubble (1993-2003)”, which examines the emergence of a commercial web industry during the euphoric years of the dot-com bubble. I trace the semiotics of “professional” web aesthetics, the formal and informal rules constituting the “right” way to make a “quality” website, and I connect financing and stock market activity to the organization of interactive agencies (companies that built and marketed professional websites), the valuing and de-valuing of particular skill sets (like Flash), and the particular ways in which the web was imagined in different historical moments.
But no where in my dissertation do I mention electronic literature or my background with Poems that Go. It seemed “beyond the boundaries of this project,” as we like to say.
But then, in searching out how my own personal history intersects with the narrative of my book, I came across this photo from the archives of the Hypertext.Narrative.Image.Flash site (through the Wayback Machine). It’s a shot from one of the breakout sessions during the conference, but the composition of the photo centers firmly on a van of the short-lived Internet grocer company, HomeRuns.com. (It shut down in July 2001). It was a major reminder of the complicated intersections between art and commerce, internet start-ups and electronic poetry. The two scenes overlap in significant and complicated ways.
Scott has offered his own personal account of the creation of the ELO and its very conception narrative is inseparable from the dot-com bubble, both affectively and financially.
In “Experiments in Irrational Exuberance: The Present and Future of Electronic Literature or How I Became E-Literate,” a talk presented at the Computers & Writing Conference in May of 2002, Rettberg describes the frustration of watching the Mining Company, which he worked for, turn into About.com. The company was originally founded to host collections of links to specialized resources (Scott was the “Authors” guide) curated by autonomous hosts with some expertise in their subject. What was once a great experience developing a top link portal and book review repository turned into “a pop-up-ad-driven nightmare, featuring little bits of knowledge layered into an offensive barrage of banal commerce,” he writes. He sold his shares of About.com to support himself while building the ELO.
In “Developing an Identity for the Field of Electronic Literature: Reflections on the Electronic Literature Organization Archives,” he traces the history of the ELO and provides early sketches, notes, and drafts of the organization’s evolution. He notes that from the very beginning of the ELO, “there was a tension between different constituencies with different goals, even with different paradigms of conceptualizing both electronic literature and the community we were in the process of constituting. Because the ELO was bringing together so many different interest groups, core questions of our collective identity were not immediately resolved. Would the ELO become a publisher? an advocacy organization? an academic organization? a bridge between the publishing or technology industry and writers?”
These muddy waters between commercial interests, the arts, and the desire for creative expression and experimentation comes across strongly in Scott’s personal narrative. In describing “The Power of Fun” (p. 6), he delivers one of my favorite details:
We were the barbarians
at the gate, and unfortunately noted
hypertext theorist Jay David Bolter was
staying in the suite next to our own. I
recall one of the gathered literary lions
referring to our work in a funerary tone as
“that MTV garbage.”
I left e-lit because I was more interested in taking “that MTV garbage” seriously– and this, after all, is the province of media and cultural studies scholars who in the 1980s argued that television, that ultimate “low form” of popular culture, was as worthy of academic attention as the “high art” of film (itself once considered too popular for academia). But I never really realized how conflicted the e-literature movement was from the beginning. “Serious” hypertext (this was the tagline of Eastgate systems, whose publishing model preserved the semblance of authority by selling hyperfiction on CD-ROMs) was pitted against hypertext for fun, wild hypertext that didn’t take itself too seriously. Eastgate didn’t publish just anybody. But that’s what the web allowed– anybody with a little bit of money (or a friend with a server) and some DIY web know-how could make their own e-literature. And they could buy domain names, publish the work of some amazing artists as well as virtual nobodys, and refuse advertising not just on principle, but because it was ugly.
I now feel that my two investments at the height of the bubble are more connected than I once thought. I believe that in order to understand the history of the commercial web, we need to look more closely at web art, e-literature, and experimental commercial-free projects that represent “the power of fun.” The critiques of Flash that became deafening in the fall-out of the dot-com crash emphasized how “unusable” Flash sites were, how user-unfriendly, and how self absorbed Flash designers had become. Yet, we embraced it because it helped us create different kinds of narratives on the web, different from the narratives of both hypertext fiction and e-commerce.
From the inside of the e-literature world, it was pretty clear that serious artists wrote their own code. Flash was a corporate product, a proprietary commercial software package– how could art come of that? (I remember trying to have a conversation with a noted e-literature figure who literally turned around and walked away when I uttered the word “Flash.” Oops.) These lines in the sand between open and closed– so often used to talk about free and open source software versus proprietary applications– can be redrawn on many levels. Similarly, to understand the history of e-literature, we need to investigate these overlapping power struggles: not just between tech companies who provided initial financing and artists and literary types who wanted to create, but also those struggles between insiders and outsiders, experts and amateurs, “open” systems and “closed” systems– the layers of power that infused these relationships between people, technologies, creativity, and business.
Sometime in 2005 I got an email from Nick Montfort, explaining that the ELO was publishing a volume of Electronic Literature on the web and CD-ROM and asked if I’d be interested in submitting something from Poems that Go. I sent him Cruising, a collaborative work between Ingrid and me. Housed within the ELO collection, Cruising has now achieved a kind of stature that wouldn’t have been possible if it only existed on PTG. In a way, we made it into the “canon”– a feat that I believe wouldn’t have been possible if the internet speculative bubble only impacted technology companies.