Editor's Note: Due to a carnival of errors too egregious to detail here, the final page of this story was inadvertently deleted in the November issue. We apologize for the error. What follows is the story in its entirety.
As I write this, it is Sept. 11, 2001, a day for all time, and the problems of this industry seem small right now, the events in this article distant. Still, life goes on, as must our coverage of the Cybernet Expo, held Aug. 25-28 at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach.
Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the show was a decidedly uneven affair, reflecting the flux and flummox of an industry that either can't figure out how to grow up or hasn't the slightest interest in doing so. (Though what can you expect from so many twenty-somethings with too much money to burn?) Like the hoary hotel itself, the echo of the industry's healthier past seems to be haunting its present and obscuring its future. But the show put on a brave face - adult Webmasters are a stalwart lot - and if it accomplished nothing else, a charity auction that raised an unprecedented $100,000 to fight child pornography stood out as a proudly defining moment for everyone attending.
My flight? Delayed, but only by an hour, and I had the row to myself; so say what you will about America West, it's a cheap airline and I like it fine. We touched down after dark. The shuttle ride to the hotel was fast; a Russian with a death wish was driving.
Nice town, Miami, if a tad violent. However, the sweat pours just thinking about visiting it in August. Weather.com had predicted wall-to-wall thunderstorms, but the system had degraded in a scant 24 hours from a hurricane to a tropical storm, veering away at the last moment, and we were all spared any precipitation or humidity.
The hotel? Well, let's just say it ain't your father's Fontainbleau. My first room was unlivable, with its moist matted carpet and residual stench from 1954. In the morning, Shirley, the MOD, graciously moved me into something tolerable, where I had a balcony that allowed a peripheral view of the Atlantic and the chance to breathe; unfortunately, damage to the integrity of the show was done. Immediate word was that most of the conventioneers had about-faced on arrival and checked into either fancy boutique hotels in South Beach or closer, more upscale digs. Still, Faye Sharp, the organizer of the show, told me that in fact only six parties had moved - not exactly a horde, but still enough to accomplish the result of scattering participants throughout the city, making it more difficult to hook up at will. However, enough diehards remained at the old girl to provide hearty fodder for impromptu pool parties and incessant lobby bar chat over the next four days.
Who went? A diverse mix of Webmaster regulars, with most companies represented in one way or another, but not as many big dogs as might be expected, and the ones that were there made fleeting appearances in the hotel or on the show floor. I never did get the final attendance figures, which is probably for the best. Suffice it to say, it was not what the few exhibitors who were there were hoping for. In fact, the main residual question of this show is its continuing viability without an appreciable number of exhibitors and attendees.
Another undeniable reality you took away from Cybernet Expo - and indeed from any other show lately - is the evolving tripartite nature of the biz. You've got your newbies, your midlevel Webmasters, and your upper echelon Webmasters - and never the trine shall meet. It's almost as if one were anathema to the others, poisonous to the touch, and you can't help wondering what all the newbie-worship lip service is really all about. Indeed, the frustration of newbies who are unable to rub shoulders with the top dogs they read about on the boards, listen to on the Webmaster radio shows, and watch on the seminar panels, is as palpable as the Olympian disdain pointed right back at them. In fact, verbal utterance of that unease was articulated, perhaps unconsciously, in an early Cybernet Expo seminar, when an unnamed Webmaster mused out loud about over-saturation and the relative worth of newbies. Prevailing wisdom and diplomatic heads silenced the offender, but the idea had already been introduced into the ether. Are newbies worth all the trouble? Of course, that's like the auto industry wishing it could get rid of all the dealers, or opening up a nationwide network of their own dealerships.
The strength of Sharp's shows has always been the seminars; if not the topics or organization, then certainly the breadth of experienced panelists. I have written about this before, and it held true this time. They covered three full days and most of the relevant topics, including one or two that were new.
TGP2, for instance, had its own time slot, moderated by an enthusiastic Forest ("It's about us coming together to do something for the betterment of all."), a passionate Taz ("I really believe in this!"), and a somewhat mute Ulfie. It attracted a lot of interest and even more probing questions from the audience. At the time, it was just a four-week-old idea that would voluntarily restrict TGPs to five or so thumbs and no money shots. Whether or not a program that will succeed only if everyone signs on has any chance, and whether or not it's a desperate and doomed stopgap measure in the first place, it was at least nice to see so much enthusiasm and creativity at work. Dragon King and Hooper from Conversion Cash supplied the TGP2 breakfast.
There was a panel called something like "Where the Industry Is?" I thought it was in Miami, but they had something deeper in mind. Usual suspects were on the panel and gave their take, but really it's not easy providing a consensus when everything is in transition. There were, of course, lots of valuable nuggets dropped, but they had to be separated from the fool's gold, and that isn't always easy for the poor newbies.
Then there was the e-commerce seminar, with reps from most of the billing companies speaking. The message was singular and solid: customer service. The payoff for customer service is retention, which has become what signups, now in the toilet, once were. Keep them horny, or happy, or both, is the mantra. How is the question.
The legal seminar, paneled by a few regulars and a few newcomers, was, sorry to say, a little lackluster. Informative, yes, but maybe its focus was not narrow enough. Until, that is, J.D. Obenberger took - or rather grabbed - the floor. The guy had to be running for office. I thought he was going to bust a gut, stalking the audience, railing about how proud he was to be there addressing the most courageous people on the planet, people single-handedly protecting the Constitution of the United States from dissolution at the hands of Ashcroft and his ilk. I only slightly exaggerate. The fact is Mr. Obenberger himself has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the legal seminar experience.
Traffic was the subject of another seminar, and what can I say - if you haven't sat in on a Traffic Dude seminar, you haven't lived. The guy is too informative and way too articulate for this industry. He ought to be at the United Nations or something, instructing the world. What he's doing in a room full of newbies is beyond me, but everyone who was there should be glad that he was. By the powers invested in me, I promote him from Dude to Lord. As far as fine points go, you'll have to go to Internext, where I'm tapping him for a day-long workshop.
There were three other seminars slated for Monday: an AVS panel, a gay and lesbian panel, and a "Marketing Niche Sites" panel. I missed the first one because of my age, and caught the last two. They were scantily attended, so the panelists said to hell with the stage and everyone pulled chairs up around a few tables. All the speakers were great, but my personal favorite was Lisa from Badpuppy, who brings an authoritative calm to whatever she does.
Newbie Boot Camp
An all-star cast of well-traveled mid-level Webmasters (Vegas Lee, Raw Alex, Snoops, Mike Fold, Dragon King, Sharky, etc.) led the efforts and didn't disappoint. There was a wealth of information to be gleaned, but it also proved that too much experience on a panel can be a detriment if the day's objectives are not very specific and organized. In lieu of such organization, the gems of knowledge are contingent upon the quality of the questions. If the newbies don't know what to ask, the ship founders.
It was a funny and generous night of giving at the Eden Roc Hotel, during which $100,000 was raised for the national Foundation for the Prevention of Child Abuse. Patty Cake, Sharp, and Dave Gould should be deeply proud of themselves, as should JoeE and the Sweets and Aly Drummond and Silver Cash and everyone else who gave and gave. And enough cannot be said about YNOT Bob's skills as master of ceremonies for this event. As the evening proceeded, his energy grew, as did his single-minded resolve to squeeze another dollar from the bidders.
"They told me this couldn't be done," said Patty Cake. "Was this done, or what?"
There were parties every night. Some I made it to, some I didn't. There were nightly kwikmed/Herturn.org-sponsored pool parties at the Fontainbleau, as well as two nights at Solid Gold, where the beauty of the women hurts your eyeballs and the lap dances hurt your wallet. JoeE invited friends to his home, (I didn't make the cut); and I spent a rather ecstatic night following XPays' Evan and friends around the city.
Really, a Cybernet Expo isn't about organized events and hectic schedules. Rather, it's about an opportunity to hook up with peeps in private, hanging till the sun rises shimmering on the ocean surface, reflecting off the fins of the sharks as they begin another day of trolling for limbs.