The Breakfast Table

The Internet As Food Fight

Dear Kara,

Should we, too, agree to disagree? Oh, I suppose. It’s unsatisfying, but you’re probably right that we’re not going to change each other’s mind. Debating the Internet has become a lot like debating politics in America: Nobody talks to each other; they talk past each other. They’re not trying to persuade; they’re just trying to stake out claims. (You and I, of course, are the rare exception.) “Stock Hucksters Thrive on the Web,” said the front page of the New York Times yesterday. No doubt the author of that dispatch received 200 e-mail flames in response.

I’ve been involved in a few spats with the Motley Fools over the years, writing stories that I thought were models of judicious balance, only to have all manner of insult hurled upon me, so I guess I’m particularly sensitized to the food-fight aspect of the Internet. (To give them their due, they are firmly convinced that I’m out to get them. Sigh.) Still and all, I concede that it’s amazing that people can have such heated and passionate feelings about this technology. Was there the same debate over the telephone? Over the automobile? I’m just wondering.

It is also possible that my general grouchiness on the subject of the Internet has to do with the fact that I’ve expended a lot of energy these past few years claiming that the valuations of Internet stocks make no sense, and that, in general, what I’ve come to think of as the Internet stock market–people using the Internet to “learn” about Internet stocks, when they then trade via an Internet site–is insane. To me, it’s the latest sign that the end is near, or at least the end of the bull market. There is a new book out that catalogues all sorts of financial manias over the years; you can’t read it without seeing the obvious parallels to the Internet mania. But of course, every time I say that out loud, the stocks keep going up, and I look like an idiot. And the Internet crowd has a grand old time mocking me. Yesterday, you may have noticed, the market rose close to 200 points. Yahoo was up over 7 points etc., etc. It’s tough to be an old fashioned market guy in this age.

Oops–gotta run to a lunch date with my boss. Before I go, I want to draw your attention to the big Bill Gates cover package in Newsweek. He’s giving away another $6 billion or so; reveling in being a father; feeling victimized by the Feds; and worried about the threat posed by AOL. Hmmm? … Perhaps a subject for this afternoon?