Business Week Gets Hip to the Net Scene

There is no necessary connection between hipness and the Internet. In fact, if you think about the origins of the Internet and the players who were instrumental in its development, you might very well think that there is no possible connection between hipness and the Internet. But the Net has come a long way from its roots in geekdom and, almost inadvertently, has become a key vehicle, and a key signifier, of that elusive thing called “youth culture” and of all the qualities that go along with it, including hipness. In part, that’s because young people were the heaviest initial users of the Net, and in part it’s because the Internet economy offered young entrepreneurs opportunities they would have never gotten at General Motors or Exxon. And then, after all, the Internet is associated with “the new” because it is new.

One unfortunate consequence of all this is that institutions that were once content to be representatives of order and of established ways of doing things now feel a desperate need to prove their street cred. (Another unfortunate consequence is the deluge of pseudo-clever dot-com advertising that drowned us last night.) But while it’s a good thing that businesses like Merrill Lynch and GM and P&G are incorporating the Net into their everyday businesses, and that magazines like Time and Business Week are trying to understand exactly what’s going on, it’s not a good thing when these institutions rush wildly into the embrace of “attitude” in an ill-conceived attempt to demonstrate that they really do get it.

For an especially egregious example of this headlong rush, check out this week’s Business Week, which includes the magazine’s supplement, (The title alone suggests something’s dreadfully wrong.) The supplement features a lead article on Christos Cotsakos, founder of E*Trade, that brands him the “E*Rebel” and tags him and his company as “edgy [and] a bit bizarre.” (Can we just admit that using the word “edgy” is proof that you’re not?) An article on Europe and the Net opens with a scene inside Brussels’ CyberTheater, where the crowd is “young and hip.” A column on dot-com advertising centers on WebEx’s ad featuring RuPaul, who apparently has gone from fame to anonymity and back to fame in the blink of an eye. And a column on privacy appears to have leapt from the pages of Mademoiselle, with the writer explaining that what she loves about Christmas is the moment when she gets to “really check out my loot and try to figure out which skirt goes with which sweater.” Loot. Now there’s a word you hear people using a lot.

The most appalling piece of the bunch, though, is a column on the need for Net companies to pay attention to the growing number of African-Americans online. The opening sentence is, I kid you not, “Silas Myers is a typical new millennium brother.” The closing sentence is: “So put a little soul into your site.” Where’s Pam Grier when you need her? The article’s author, Roger Crockett, explains that spreading the word about a good Web site will be easy, since viral marketing online is simply the equivalent of “what black folks call the grapevine.” As opposed, I guess, to what everyone else calls it. Crockett also quotes a young black man on how much he loves to shop online, and then writes, “No, homey, you’re not crazy. Millions of African Americans are livin’ large online. … And they’re not tiptoeing onto the Net. They’re flat rocking the joint.”

“Homey,” “brother,” “livin’ large,” “soul”: The article reads like a writing exercise from the 1985 revision of the original 1972 edition of How To Be Down With the Soul Brothers, as written by the editors of Reader’s Digest. It’s not just that the style of the piece embodies some highly dubious assumptions about what it means to be black. It’s also that, even if you accept the idea that writing an article like this in a hip “black” voice was a good idea (which it wasn’t), the voice here is so off, so far away from what anyone (and I mean anyone, anywhere) really sounds like, that it’s like listening to that record where Leonard Nimoy sings “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

The thing of it is, of course, that Business Week doesn’t need to do this. No one reads Business Week to get mainlined with hipness. We read it for information, not style. Delivering information is a good thing to do, and Business Week does it well. So it should stick to that, and just leave the hipsters and skate punks and homies alone.