Remember the poor old days? Only five years ago, the kooky cast of old-media pariahs first ditched their 9-to-5 purgatories for the mass hallucination of cyberspace. Downtown became Silicon Alley, streams turned into data, and typing became a cozy little thing called chat.
Time flies. Last week the now-old new media souls gathered at St. John the Divine uptown, not to pray for venture capital, but to discuss philanthropy. It was a gorgeous example of irrepressible digerati optimism. So what if only a few vets are pocketing cold cash from their monster IPOs? The best way to feel wealthy is to act like you’ve got money to give away.
Of course, the most successful e-preneurs are the ones who’ve been walking the walk from the start. They quickly learned that they didn’t need to make a profit to become rich; they only had to convince a venture capitalist that there was money down the line. They only had to give good PowerPoint and remain festive at all costs. (When I was working at a start-up Web site a few years ago, we had a $3000 grilled lobster lunch when the CFO quit.)
The occasion last week was the second annual Rising Tide Summit: a Big Think, Big Feel soiree sponsored by the Silicon Alley Reporter, the neighborhood’s family zine. SAR has evolved right along with the territory it covers. In 1996, it was a 16-page monochrome xerox; now it’s a 168-page color glossy with a sister publication, the Digital Coast Reporter, in L.A.
SAR editor-publisher Jason McCabe Calacanis’s mission has been as much about the human as the digital network. Unlike his other conferences, though, RTS2 (like Richard Saul Wurman’s mind-meld TED conferences, which pioneered the cross-discipline power conference over the last 10 years) had a loftier pretext. The 600 attendees—CEOs, content providers, and PR hounds—were to talk about the larger things in life: the environment, homelessness, education.
“Today isn’t about pitching,” Calacanis explained rapid-fire, while taking a break from serving sushi to the guests. “Everyone thinks we’re only about money and greed, but the people here were involved long before the industry was sexy. We’re not elitist.”
For detractors, this might be hard to stomach over a tray full of unagi, harder still after hearing that the next RTS might be held on a tropical island. But truth is, the digerati are less hypocritical than they are suffering elephantiasis of the adrenal gland. Try pitching yourself and an unprofitable service day and night. After you say the word “revolutionary” a few hundred times, your face pretty much molds in a smile.
The sweltering heat eventually put a damper on the confab’s feel-good vibe. And the heavy, heady speeches (Harvard law prof Roberto Unger on “The High-Tech Elite in American Society”; Nancy Barry, president of Women’s World Banking, on “Empowering the Unempowered”) didn’t lighten the load. After hearing about info-tech warfare and global warming, so-called “pods” of small discussion groups sought refuge on the lawn outside, where they extrapolated near Mylar colored peacocks.
Many of the attendees did sincerely want to talk about how they could not just buy the world, but save it. And, in fact, some are already devoting themselves to socially conscious acronyms like MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education) and HEAVEN (Helping Educate, Activate, Volunteer, and Empower via the Net).
Others, though, thought such activities seemed a bit premature. “Sometimes I feel like I’m too young to do social good,” one buck confessed. “I want to first be successful and make money.” He wasn’t the only one. When pods split, everyone descended on the veggie baguettes downstairs and began networking. Business cards were flying at such a velocity that a few people were almost rushed to the hospital with third-degree paper cuts. And if you were part of the media, you had to flip your laminated dog tag or die cornered in terrible, humid meat-space.
If the frenzy seemed contradictory to the theme, it was just a matter of priorities, said one attendee. “Everyone’s bottom line here is dollars,” he explained. “We don’t wake up in the morning and want to be nice.”
Then again, maybe everyone’s just confused. Maybe in the rush to resolve the feelings about money—the power, responsibility, sacrifice, lust, and guilt—some necessary patience has been lost. Why attempt to cram years’ worth of metaphysical change into one afternoon? It took the hippies over a decade to become yuppies. There’s still time.