We don't surf, we walk the Net

New York's Flatiron district has a new name - Silicon Alley - and the first Internet walking tour, writes Tom Standage
According to the West Coast slang that dominates the language associated with the Internet, there are a number of means of travel through the virtual realm. You can surf the Net, you can speed down the superhighway, you can cruise the infobahn. There is no mention of walking.

But visit the East Coast - New York City, to be precise - and that is exactly what you can do, thanks to two business writers who have organised the first Internet walking tour through the city's Flatiron district. Extending from Greenwich Village up to the distinctive Flatiron building, the neighbourhood was abandoned by the business community earlier this century in favour of the more fashionable Midtown area. But it is now home to a sudden flowering of new media businesses attracted by low rents and unconventional spaces. It has even earned itself the distinction of a new nickname: Silicon Alley.

"We thought it would be fun to continue our research of the emerging media community by actually going in person to visit the business owners and entrepreneurs, and to bring a group with us," says Sharon McDonnell, who operates the walking tour with her partner Katherine Cavanaugh. "We also thought it would be a good way to stay on top of what was happening."

Each tour gives a group of about a dozen walkers an inside look at key sites in the Silicon Alley community, and demand has been strong since the first walk took place in July. I joined a tour on a Sunday afternoon, starting at the dx.com Internet Business Centre for an introductory session, before heading off to the new offices of Delphi, via the site where the Panix online service was founded. Next stop was Interactive Imaginations, home of the World Wide Web's "Riddler" site, and the tour finished up in one of New York City's many cybercafes.

"We approach businesses we have heard about that are recognised as being innovators," says Ms McDonnell. "We try to mix it up so that we take you to several different representative businesses in the Silicon Alley community." She evidently has no difficulty in getting the companies in question to open their doors. "Most are flattered that they've been asked," she says. Other companies that have been included on the tour are the multimedia publisher Voyager and the TV production house Curious Pictures.

The people on my tour were as much of a mixed bunch as the companies they were visiting. One young programmer had brought along his family to give them a better idea of the business he was working in. Another was looking for a job in the industry and wanted inside information on her potential employers. Others were just curious about "this Net thing" or were looking for an out-of-the-ordinary day trip.

"It's all kinds of people," says Ms McDonnell. "We get people who've never seen the Web before and know next to nothing - and we get the more technologically savvy people, too. And there are people on the tour, business founders and creators, who can answer their technical questions."

This is perhaps what was most striking about the tour - that despite the variety of the participants, there really was something in it for each of them. The introductory session at dx.com, which started with an explanation of a hypertext link, impressed even the most jaded technophiles by progressing from predictable party tricks - such as downloading samples of Socks the cat from the Whitehouse Web site - to state-of-the-art demonstrations of HotJava, CU-See-Me and QuickTime VR.

The walking element of the tour has gradually diminished as it has become clear where its true attraction lies. "It's become more of a talking thing than a walking thing," says Ms Cavanaugh, "so now there's more talk and less walk." Sometimes the weather is even so hot or cold that "we cheat and take a cab".

The name Silicon Alley was coined by Mark Stahlman of the New York New Media Association (NYNMA), which was founded in October 1994 as a support network for individuals working in new media. "The association is representative of the phenomenal growth of the Silicon Alley area," says Ms McDonnell. "Then it was just a bunch of people meeting in restaurants downtown." It now has more than 1,500 members.

So what, apart from the low rents, is bringing so many companies to Silicon Alley? "A lot of people believe New York is the place to be because of the presence of both the entertainment behemoths and the publishing companies," says Ms Cavanaugh. "Companies can tap the intellectual talent pool of writers, artists and programmers."

Lori Schwab, the NYNMA's executive director, goes even further: she believes the success of Silicon Alley represents a fundamental shift in the industry. "The focus has shifted from the technology to the content, and from the West Coast to the East Coast," she says.

Perhaps this shift will also reduce the West Coast's influence on Netspeak in favour of a more relaxed outlook. Walking is, after all, a much more familiar activity to most people than surfing, and could give rise to Netspeak that is more relevant to non-Californian users. Pottering on the net, anyone?

Silicon Alley Walking Tours: 00 1 212 726 2482.