Brave new world? I think I preferred the old one

After John Harris quit as editor of a music magazine, he wondered if he too could join the ranks of Internet millionaires, but prospective employers merely promised him no sleep, nervous breakdowns and 'horizontal management'. Where were those lucrative share options?
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The Independent Online

When I announced my resignation from the editor's job at Select, the music and lifestyle monthly, a job opportunity in what we now call "New Media" hadn't crossed my mind. I had begun a run of very pleasant meetings with literary agents, newspaper editors and other representatives of the media's stone-age corners, and print and paper looked set to define my next few years. Then, one morning, my computer did the "you have new mail" bleep, and I found myself reading a message from a recruitment consultant.

When I announced my resignation from the editor's job at Select, the music and lifestyle monthly, a job opportunity in what we now call "New Media" hadn't crossed my mind. I had begun a run of very pleasant meetings with literary agents, newspaper editors and other representatives of the media's stone-age corners, and print and paper looked set to define my next few years. Then, one morning, my computer did the "you have new mail" bleep, and I found myself reading a message from a recruitment consultant.

The next day, the same thing happened. So it was, that I fatalistically trudged off to the requisite interviews, mildly curious as to what web-life was all about. As homework, I bought a copy of NetSlaves - a newly published American book that is subtitled True tales of working on the Web. Worryingly, the book's authors, Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin, portrayed a world characterised by lack of sleep, inhuman workloads and regular breakdowns.

According to every zealous web-head: "Content is king". They might have a point - but Lessard and Baldwin led me to the conclusion that stuffing websites with the appropriate delights often represents capitulation to a pretty vicious kind of tyranny. There was also the small matter of stock options: the carrot with which most web companies lure workers into the land of weekend working and midnight call-outs. Like a fool, I found myself ignoring the book's warnings and allowing pound signs to appear before my eyes. So I applied for a job purely on the off-chance that I might become a millionaire.

Two weeks later, such day dreams have evaporated. Three encounters with the Web's would-be viscounts has convinced me that penury in the traditional media is an altogether preferable option than the chance of riches in cyber country.

My first glimpse of Netland, at an established radio company in Central London, doesn't exactly suggest a gleaming world of limitless opportunity. In a half-empty upstairs office, there are a handful of makeshift workstations and not much else. The man in charge of the whole operation has his name scrawled on a Post-it note, hanging from a nearby wall. Worse still, he is apparently too busy to see me.

Instead, I meet the enviably well-heeled editorial director (we'll call him Piers) and one of his sidekicks. And so, within minutes, to "The Big Idea". They aim, they tell me, to establish "the UK's leading music and lifestyle brand".

Quite how such a potentially sprawling range of subject matter will be delivered is all down to their emphasis on "personalisation": the rapid identification of consumers' needs and wants, and the resultant tailoring of online services.

They seem to have such faith in the power of their hardware that, one feels, building moon rockets should not be too much of a problem, I guess anything else is pretty small beer. This is a "they've-approached-me" interview, so I leave it to them to fill any pregnant silences. Piers reaches his conversational climax with a two-minute soliloquy that ends "and, you know, content is king".

Aaaargh! My horror is only increased when I ask him about the hours. His eyes widen, as if in anticipation of positively orgasmic pleasure. "We'll work," he assures me, "very long days, and every week will be like press week." He also flinches when I mention a salary at least £5k above what's on offer and, though he might be the proud owner of stock options, they are not mentioned in reference to me. The nature of the job - a senior editorship of some description - remains unclear. All told, not exactly "Where-do-I-sign?" territory.

My second interview, at a leading online music and book retailer outside London, is an experience so scary that my first five minutes after finally exiting their HQ are spent phoning friends and colleagues, as if to reassure myself that the normal world still exists.

I arrive here after an e-mail tussle with a recruitment consultant - whereupon I am summoned with no mention of the post they're looking to fill. The company is based in two units on an industrial estate, 20 minutes from one of the capital's main-line stations - and my first meeting is with a female expert in the art of management, dressed in a fleece that advertises the company. She asks the usual career resume questions, before flying into an extremely seductive "you'll have no life if you work here" patter.

"The hours are long and hard," she tells me, "and it's a very high-pressure environment". There is a pause, as if she's expecting me to leap from my chair and kiss her. I also mention alcohol in the answer to one of her queries, and she flashes back a look of puritanical disapproval. At the interview's end, I ask, with a smile, if the branded fleeces are compulsory. "Oh no," she half-laughs. "It's just it's cold today."

Ten minutes later, I am shaking hands with interviewer number two. He is also wearing one. This bloke is far less austere and reassuringly self-deprecating: the sort who probably gets into trouble for an occasional lack of zeal. My time with him passes fairly uneventfully, and I am soon introduced to a genial American, whom I'll call Greg. Greg has a fleece on too. He seems to care little for interview formalities, preferring to digress wildly (during one tangential interlude, I remark that "context is king" - he finds this quite funny). When I ask him about stock options, he tells me that they provide an admirable top-up to one's salary, and if you're really lucky, they can mean you never have to work again. This, apparently, has been the joyous experience of some people he met at a wedding recently - though I doubt they worked here.

Outside, there is a huge call centre-type space in which people are working elbow-to-elbow. In a nearby toilet, an A3 notice has been stuck to the wall. "Christmas is here," it reads. "The queues are getting FAT. We need your help to bring these queues down and ensure that our customers remain ecstatic!!!" It then outlines an incentive scheme with a distinctly Orwellian tone. "You are given three out of five days - Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Your three days can be any from these five and in this period you need to gain at least 300 points if you have been here less than three months - 420 points if you have been here longer."

And so it goes on. You get a point for every e-mail you "lock" and 1.3 points if you do so on a weekend. The memo continues with all the brio that comes from happily destroying your workforce's social lives. "The highest locker above each threshold will receive a £100 bonus. As if that wasn't enough of an incentive, everyone who makes the threshold will get £10! So if you are an overall winner you will be getting £110!!!"

Thankfully, I think I am being interviewed for a more editorial-type job, but any burgeoning superiority complex is smashed by a chance meeting at the station with an employee of the company. "I shouldn't tell you this," he says, "but a lot of people they call editorial end up doing lots of coding, which is pretty boring. They give you the training."

My final port of call, and the only job for which I've purposefully applied (the words "stock options" were in big letters on the advert), is a "start-up" next to a dental practice, east London. The company is based in the very heart of "start-up" culture - in east London, but just a stone's throw from the cyber-centre that is Hoxton Square, N1. Unfortunately, the office is some distance from completion. There is a strong smell of sawdust, and I pick my way upstairs through a series of halfassembled fittings.

I'm rather put in mind of the kind of flats that contain one table lamp and an Ikea bed still in its box, while the landlord claims everything will be ready "in a week". I am faced by two interviewers. One is a rather posh fellow who seems to be the brains behind the operation; the other looks like Marcus the animal rights activist from Brookside and says absolutely nothing.

I hear about "proprietary content" (which may or may not be "king") and "offline activities", a workforce of 60, and "full backing from the city". Aside from the fact that their venture is in the youth lifestyle area, precise details remain under wraps; the whole thing feels a little like appearing on Give us a Clue, except that you are not allowed past the bit where you shout "film!".

They are noticeably cheesed off about my salary demands, but assure me that the gap will easily be bridged: "Stock can provide the answer to that," I am assured. And the posh bloke proselytises about his devolving, non-hierarchical, "horizontal" style of management before grilling me about my professional reputation and seemingly doing his best to make me feel two-foot tall. We bid farewell awkwardly, but Marcus gives me a nice smile and a painfully firm handshake.

On the Tube, I delve into NetSlaves, seeking some kind of explanation for one of my stranger weeks of recent memory. "People are nuts no matter what profession they're in," goes its introduction, "but people forced to work like dogs with the carrot of stock options and untold wealth dangling under their noses are especially nuts."

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