Self Loathing Lurks In Strange Places: A very personal essay

If you have ever painted your own house or even a single room than you know that just the act of painting can free up the mind to wander. It’s pretty therapeutic actually. While the hands stay highly focused, guided by the eyes, the mind is free to go off in whatever direction it chooses. At least that has been my experience.  To my surprise I was visited by a part of myself – a very ugly part of myself – while painting. Like a cascading waterfall – images from a past chapter of my life- a time I am not proud of came back to me like a slide show. While painting my mind had started wandering and thinking about by distain for Hillary and just like that I realized that although some of my distain for her is reality based and a reaction to her actions, much much more is that she reminds me of a me I once was and never want to be again…. a me I tried to bury and forget and in the process stopped being a whole person


Part One: Prelude to a Downfall

It seems like forever ago that I was a corporate executive. In reality it’s been about 12 years since I left that world. I admit I was very lucky. I worked for years as a senior executive for two of the most powerful cable companies. Then as an SVP of Marketing, I was part of the team that launched E! Entertainment Channel.   After 5 years there the Internet bug bit me. I left E! to join an advertising agency who, with my E! Experience was able to land US West (the phone Company) as a client. At that time (1996) they were readying to launch an interactive TV network about entertainment and were looking for an agency with ‘entertainment news’ experience to build it.  This was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Little did I know that it would lead to the end of an otherwise highly successful career. I was also highly unaware that a career filled with only success had left me vulnerable to all that can happen to a person when faced with not only failure but also an intensely public failure.

There was a team of really dedicated and talent people within the agency assigned to work on the US West Project – writers, graphic designers putting their talents to test on both interactive content and the Internet for the first time in their lives – it was a dial up world after all and content was but words on a page. Because US West moved at a snail’s pace this group had a lot of downtime. That was about to change.

One night two of the men on the team went into chat rooms pretending to be 20 something girls. They had created names for themselves and full back-stories before they went in. These men/girls became very popular in these rooms, so much so that when they floated their idea to the their followers of having a website to chronicle their lives as roommates living at a beach house in Los Angeles, the response was huge. “DO IT” everyone wrote. And so they started to.

All of this was kept a secret amongst the group of now 5 people who were conducting this effort. On their own they fleshed out the concept for the Internet’s first episodic fictional content website and named it THE SPOT.

They worked mainly at night when everyone had left the agency and used the agency’s capabilities to create as robust soap opera with a cast of over 10 characters. The theme was similar to MTV’s REAL WORLD. These characters were well developed. The device used for telling their stories was that of diary entries.  Each character living in this communal house kept a journal. Every day a different journal was put on line  – complete with pictures of the various personas.

The Spot took off like wildfire.
 By the time the team approached the owners of the agency (the people that had hired me) The Spot was receiving more hits than just about any website in cyberspace. They came asking for money to expand the project. Approval was granted. In fact there was no basis for giving that approval as this agency was owned by a much larger agency – one of the biggest in the world – and my boss was giving this team their profit to play with.  Part of me was filled with envy. The other part – the sleeping nasty giant  – lay in wait for I knew it was but a matter of time until my help was going to be asked for. Let’s go back further in time to examine these two parts of me that were setting the stage for my own public downfall.

I am about 12 years old – just about the time when girls turn into young women. I was a rage filled teenager who kept it bottled in so tight nothing could have pried it out of me. I grew up in a very talented family. 3 generations of opera singers and classical pianists. Somehow the gene passed me. But that didn’t mean I was not creative. In fact as the years would prove I was highly creative. But not in a way that was easily understood or held real value to my family – all of whom were consumed with music 24/7. I wanted to talk film – directors I loved – thoughts of films I wanted to make. Such conversations lasted for a minute maybe 5 and then back to Bach we went. By the time I was 15 I could recite every word of La Boheme in Italian though I could not sing two words on key. I felt a great sense of being misunderstood. Not appreciated. After I won a student Academy Award for a documentary film I made in college – there was no celebration. By then my elder sister had just graduated Julliard and was singing to audiences in New York with the Philharmonic behind her.

It was then I made my first decision borne completely from anger. I had been accepted to USC film school for Graduate studies. I hadn’t even told my family I applied. I denied myself my own dream and instead took a job with an advertising agency in New York making commercials. Why? Because I could begin accumulating the one thing my family lacked – M-O-N-E-Y. BTW – in case you are wondering both my sister and I went to college on scholarships. By the time I was 23 I was making well over 6 figures. The tide turned. Now I was becoming deeply appreciated by my family. Musicians as a rule do not make a lot of money. I had finally found a way to their hearts. And so all dreams of self-fulfillment through a creative life were stored away and breathingstill – superstar executive was born.

It’s easy to see in hindsight why the situation at the agency would trigger pent up emotions. The group being lauded upon had been able to shine in their creativity free from all constraints. Long cast now in life as a financial and marketing ‘genius’ my thoughts on anything creative were neither sought after nor respected. But when the company (all of them) needed a strategy for gaining new customers or increasing profit – to me they always came a calling.

So when the heads of the agency that had given permission for that talented group to continue making The Spot  came to me, it was to bail them out. The agency was three quarter of a million in the whole and The Spot was more popular than ever.

The basic problem was The Spot was not monizing itself in any way. So although it was entertaining people, every day was a mounting financial drain.  Part of me wanted to walk away. The unhealthy me wanted to play financial savior. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see which part won.

I asked for and was granted a person of my choosing to help make a business out of this experiment including writing a business plan that called for a raise of 6 million in seed financing. The plan took two weeks to write. Due to my previous jobs and connections, the plan was fully funded within 30 days by 5 blue chip companies.  Even I was surprised at so quick a success.  But in those heady days of Internet start ups every investor was looking for the next IPO. The money flowed in, everyone around me was astonished. I was Queen for a Day.  And thus my downfall began.

Part Two: The Long Hard Downfall

So I could write a business plan and raise money. Big Deal. I knew as much about running a company as HRC knows about running a country. OK, less – much less.

For starters, although I was given all of the responsibility as General Manager – even a seat on the Board – I was not given a vote on the board. What a chump I was.

The business plan called for a Network of soap operas – 6 in all – anchored to The Spot. The plan was advertising based. No sooner had my head of ad sales brought in 3 million in sponsorships from companies including VISA, Apple and Intel, the board conveyed a meeting and decided to spend what was supposed to be 3 years in funding in 90 days – in other words launch the remaining 5 soap opera all at once. The reason: GREED. All they could see was the advertising money growing by 5 times and then taking the company public. I protested. I knew that this was a very wrong decision. We had no learning curve – just luck. I knew this new plan would end in disaster. But I did not have a vote. So when everyone raised their hand and said “Aye” I sat silently knowing the end of this grand experiment was near.

I was right. 90 days and a greatly expanded and exhausted staff later – the full network known as American Cybercast launched. By then viewership to The Spot had fallen dramatically. What I knew and convinced no one of hearing was that the web was too new for anything serialized to succeed. This was to remain true for at least a decade. Even now, serialized content, mostly video, is hard to monetize. The computer is not the TV and getting people to tune in and stay current episode to episode is science unto itself.

Part Three: Resurrection Through HRC’S Campaign

Having never failed, I dug my heels in and decided I could not fail – no matter what it took. I sought the advise of the men running the agency. Some where inside of me I knew I was being further corrupted and worse – used. They had more to loose than I did – their agency. They had a lot invested in my success. So they took the time – a lot of  time – to school me in what I had yet to become – ruthless. The lessons were almost daily.

They taught me a lot of tricks. I learned how and when to cry to get what I wanted from both the board and the staff. I was taught what the ‘velvet knife’ means and how and when to use it. I was schooled in the how’s and why’s of throwing a fit  – when to deploy it. I learned how to plant rumors about what other agendas different board members had. I learned how to outright lie with a straight face.

Most importantly, I learned how to never ever admit a mistake. The transformation complete I was now a monster I did not recognize. Except for one saving grace. I truly treasured the staff I had created and the creative genius therein. Never did one person go one day without feeling appreciated – from bottom to top – all at AmCy felt unique.

None of the tricks worked. We went bankrupt in a manner of months and became the first major casualty of a content based Internet company. When I broke the news to the staff I had people crying in my arms offering to work for free. At one point the entire staff of over 100 offered to work for free. If ever a heart could be broken – mine was.

And I got what I had coming. Both of my bosses claimed to the media that the Internet business was run completely by me and me alone. And so there was my name and only my name in headline stories in the Wall Street Journal and others about how careless, even reckless, management was leading to Internet down falls. Painstakingly these articles would go into a length the folly of “my” decision to spend all the money at once. Many led with a by line that said I had been fired. In truth the only honest thing I did at the end was resign. But I was not there to spin it.

To say I took it hard is an understatement. To say I had a nervous break down would be accurate. Everything I had based my self worth on was up for public ridicule. Reading quotes  about me by prominent people like “she was just a salesman after all – not up to the task” had me running for cover. I went into complete isolation from which it would take until recently to recover. I turned down all job offers. Left the corporate world never to return. I did not return phone calls for weeks, months. Los Angeles being a small town – it became obvious to many people that I was taking this too hard and self-destructing.  Board members called me. I did not return their calls. Instead I moved, changed my phone number and had it unlisted.

I do not know how he found it, but one day I got a call from the one board member I truly liked. He invited me to lunch and I accepted. At the end, as we were both waiting for our cars from the Valet, he turned to me and said something that got me on the road towards self-forgiveness. He said:

There is no shame is being the first to attempt to create a new paradigm. Many will come after you and likewise will not succeed. That is because the medium, the Internet has years to go before your concept can succeed. But that day will come and there will be people like me and probably a couple of hundred who will know who the original pioneer was – you.  So be proud and live your life in happiness knowing that you have succeeded in what most people would not even attempt. And for god’s sake don’t try to prove your worth anymore. You have done enough for a lifetime.

It took this Presidential Campaign for those words to finally sink in

Cut to the present. I find myself getting increasingly annoyed by HRC’S antics. Irrationally so. I am ranting and raving at the TV set. I am getting migraines. And then it dawns on me one day while I am painting a room in my house. All of the tricks her campaign has employed remind me of that me from so long ago. The constant barrage of media coverage opened up a scar I thought was healed only to discover it wasn’t.  For several days on end I cried. “What happened to me?” I asked no one. “Where did I go wrong?” I screamed into the pillow at night.  “Why was there no one to help me?”  It was this last question that stopped me cold as I realized I was 12 again looking for a parent to love me.

Well now, I had the sense to tell myself – if you had the strength to survive a near fatal car accident – certainly you alone are strong enough to face this

I immersed my self in clips of HRC on the Internet for days. And I found we are nothing at all alike. For one, I was half her age when I made those mistakes and I have not, would not, make them again. Our motifs were entirely different. I was running away from my real self out of fear of rejection. She was and in fact is, being her authentic self.

Other differences began to show up.  I am competent. . A leader that inspires the very best in people. I have become a mentor to young creative women over the past years and with me they feel safe to express the deepest creative thoughts and even their fears.  I have helped nearly a dozen realize their dreams.

I am and have always been an inventor, a pioneer. The days of keeping that part of me cowering and hidden are over.

Over the past few days I feel the scars healing. Writing this diary, sharing my shame at having abandoned the best parts of me if only to recently reclaim them has been hugely important and I thank each and every one of you for listening. I am even grateful to Hillary for her campaigns enormous blunders as it pried open that door so deeply shut and allowed the fresh clean air in and the healing to begin.

Over the past 10 years I have lived in fear of doing a Goggle search on American Cybercast or The Spot. I did so last night and read the article at the end of this diary and cried happy happy tears. Bless all.

American Cybercast

[Flashback] The Spot – lonelygirl15’s beach party ancestors

Submitted by Tom Kephart on February 21, 2008 – 7:02pm.

New Tech Heroes flashbackIn late 2006, when the fuss over lonelygirl15’s real identity and the fact that her YouTube videos had been scripted was at its peak, I had a sense of deja vu. I remembered The Spot.

Although YouTube didn’t exist in 1995 and broadband connections were rare outside of the workplace, Flinders’ “thrillingly uncharted creative landscape” had been tried before, and had produced the same reaction from the much smaller number of regular Internet users at that time. The Spot, or “Melrose-Place-On-The-Web,” as Wired called it in June 1996, was produced by American Cybercast and was the first website to feature episodic fiction in the style later used by Flinders with lonelygirl15. It also had banner ad sponsors, which made the site a pioneer in online advertising, and won one of the original Webby Awards.

Without video, the site made clever use of photo galleries and online diaries to create interest in the lives of the Spotmates, a group of attractive young men and women in their early twenties. The Spotmates were portrayed “on camera” by models from the Los Angeles area, and their “diaries,” which predated the term but were similar in tone to a personal blog, were written by creator Scott Zakaran and a team of writers. Fans (“Spotfans”) were encouraged to comment on the diaries and give advice to the Spotmates, sometimes affecting the plot line with their suggestions.

I’ve never been much of a soap opera fan. When I was in college, the peak of the Luke and Laura wedding hysteria meant General Hospital was “destination television” for many girls in my dorm, as well as a lot of the guys (though they probably won’t admit it now). But The Spot was fascinating to me, especially in the beginning when, like lonelygirl15, it wasn’t clear whether it was real or not. Keep in mind that there weren’t dozens of blogs coordinating to figure out the truth about The Spot in the way lonelygirl15 was finally outed in 2006, so individual web surfers were mostly left on their own to decide.

The conflicts between the Spotmates as they shifted alliances between each other, moved in and out of the house and dished the dirt on each other was enough to keep me coming back for more, but there was one “event” that happened at The Spot that was particularly memorable. While photos of the Spotmates on the beach had always been a big part of the appeal of the website, the legendary Spotmate Lingerie Party provided hours of clicking fun (especially on a dial-up connection). Sadly, I can find no leftover images from the site anymore other than the few archived on The Wayback Machine. They were tame compared to the terabytes of pr0n available on the web today, anyway, I suppose, which probably accounts for my nostalgia for The Spot and the Spotmates.

The Spot fizzled out in 1997 when American Cybercast went bankrupt, but at its peak it had over 100,000 hits a day, the equivalent of millions of hits today. The Spot was revived in 2004 for a couple years, but it wasn’t the same. It was truly one of the defining moments of the early Internet for me, and I still remember it fondly. Anyone else have Spotmate memories?


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    • OPOL on March 17, 2008 at 03:03

    though it can seem a lot like one.  The fact that you were ever in place to take such a wild ride speaks volumes of your abilities.  Nothing to be ashamed of here.

    Thanks for a most interesting diary.

  1. You need a recommend button, though.

  2. …having been in the technology industry for 20 years, I think your conclusions are dead on.  It is you, and who you want to be, who you can be in the context of one’s current efforts, that counts — the rest is just experience.  At least six million dollars of other people’s money have gone into my education :}  I hope like hell I use it well, when I’m trying to realize someone’s dream.  

    Recognizing one’s mistakes and learning from them is not something that’s an acceptable part of the american business narrative.  It comes in asides, rare moments of humanity like you describe with your board member.  The whole public narrative is success, success, success…the illusion of invincible alpha boys and girls.

    No spotmate memories…I was trying to launch another early ‘net type product, for another huge company, at the time, in the canyons of manhattan. Which I miss terribly.  I could tell some similar stories…but am still a dev wage slave, and can’t afford to link my politics with my professional life, at this point.   But anyway…a great diary.  

  3. I wish you`d started painting a long time ago. Very interesting essay & with such a good ending.

    I hope you`re beaming about how much someone, unknown to you, appreciated  your work so long ago.

    Do you wish you`d read that a while back, or que serra serra?

  4. My scientific career failed before it even got started. After grad school and a few post docs, I moved to the Bay Area in ’96.  I thought I would get a job in biotech but that wasn’t working out.  My training wasn’t suited to the industry – which is just as well.  I ended up getting hired at an Internet company during the boom with virtually no tech experience at all.   I was their online technical writer.  It was great – really heady times.  I loved being on the cutting edge.  Everyone at our company was really tight and the future was bright – so I can imagine how it was with The Spot.  When the bottom started to fall out in 99 and 2000 there was a huge psychological shift.  You couldn’t help but feel betrayed.  But I stuck with it and ended up in a fantastic position in IT. I also found my husband online, but I’ll save that story for another day.

    breathingstill – I think your story played out many times over during that period in the industry. You were in the right place at the right time and the wrong place at the wrong time.    I’m just sorry you ended up being scapegoated for it.   Good for you for moving on!

    All that aside, the point of this comment was going to be that I don’t remember The Spot, but I was curious enough to look it up on the Wayback machine.    Here is a snippet from the cast page.  I adore Spotnik!  Did he write content too?

  5. thank you for your story.

    As an aside, so many paths converge, then part direction again. I’ve been in high tech for twenty years or so; stuck here still, dreaming dreams and going nowhere. Mine has been a quiet, simmering failure, the result of internal galaxy collision – family issues, kid issues, divorce, divorce, no money, no money, no money. Plenty of talent and brains, but going nowhere.

    Couldn’t write a business plan if you guaranteed me immortality. Sigh.

    I admire very much the wide arc of your life and wish you well as you head forward. Marvelous story.

    A final aside, perhaps you’ll find this little self-indulgence of mine amusing, given the intro to your post:

    Watching Paint Dry


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