Let's just get this out of the way. I'm going to explore the darker side of the dot-com party scene, but it might not be the one you are hoping to read about. It's not sex, or drugs, or any other vices you expected to find here. Sorry.
No, this about the economic and cultural implications of the parade of after-work gatherings that have become required fare for Internet companies. Sociologist Gina Neff has studied them, and far from being frivolous outlets for blowing off steam, the parties tell us quite a bit about the way work and risk have changed, she argues.
In her research, Neff found that attending parties has become a necessary method of self-preservation in an industry and era where job security is close to zero. It's part of a larger trend in which companies have shifted employment risk away from themselves and on to individuals who are told success is theirs if they just work hard and network enough.
Think of it like this. Once, workers had unions. Now, they have parties.
Neff writes: Dot-com workers "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."
The examination of dot-com parties comes in Neff's recently released book, "Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries." Neff is an associate professor of communication
Which, in a way, brings her full circle. Neff was in college in New York in the mid-90s when the dot-com scene began to emerge. The rise and fall of the so-called Silicon Alley became the focus of the study that lies at the hear of "Venture Labor."
Silicon Alley? In 1999? OK, that might feel about as far away and as relevant as a study of Roman orgies. But trust me, the same dynamics Neff describes in Silicon Alley existed in Silicon Valley's own dot-com bubble economy. And with the Web industry resurgent, the parallels and lessons remain striking.
I caught up with Neff this week while she in town to give a talk at the Berkeley Center for New Media. Neff said she fell into the study in some ways because her roommate was an event planner for many of the earliest dot-com events for a New York group called the "World Wide Web Artists Consortium" or "WWWAC." ("Pronounced 'wack,' slang for cool," Neff helpfully points out to her academic audience.)
Living the study was not as glamorous as you might think.
"I always felt like a poser at the parties," Neff said. "In the ivory tower, nobody believes me. But they were hard to go to. Every single field note starts with, 'I don't want to be here.'"
But those in the industry felt they had little choice. One woman Neff interviewed laments that her inability to attend parties after she got pregnant hurt her career: "That's what derailed my rise. Because a lot of this is about going out and networking a lot and I just stopped."
That's one of several ways the parties, which many in the industry see as a way to build community, actually created new divisions. Older people with kids found it hard to keep up. Cliques developed, with the beautiful people thriving over the socially awkward. People felt the pressure of constantly needing to be "on" and perform as the line between work and leisure blurred.
"And the parties were pretty charged environments," Neff said. "People were marketing their companies. But they were also looking for dates. So, if you weren't comfortable in boozy night clubs, you were really at a disadvantage."
This is particularly true for the Web industry, though it is increasingly true for other industries as well, Neff says. Companies have done a masterful job of absolving themselves for any responsibility for our careers, in part by convincing everyone that if they are just willing to take enough risk, be entrepreneurial enough, nurture their networks, then it won't matter if they are constantly being laid off.
"Any blame for not having a job, for losing a job, for having out-of-date skills comes back onto the self," Neff writes.
Indeed, many of the people Neff interviewed responded to that in a positive way. In an era of less employment security, the new Internet industry promised a measure of power and control over their careers. They believed their future was firmly within their grasp.
Which was all fine, until the entire industry collapsed.
"We thought we might lose our job," one person told Neff. "We never thought we'd lose all the jobs."
When that happened, the dot-com employees found their party-driven networks useless. Those networks lacked diversity because everyone was in the same industry and out of work.
Those times Neff writes about are more than a decade behind us, but the issues remain the same. It still often seems that if you want to get ahead in the Internet industry, you have to keep partying like its 1999.