Elsewhere a loud pop precedes a burst of mock screams as another bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne is uncorked, and the evening's festivities, a launch party for a family entertainment portal, resume their steady, thumping pace. As Wren steers her all-female entourage of dapper party-crashers around a table of handsome marketing reps noshing on carpaccio and baby asparagus spears, the portal's vice president takes the microphone to deliver a meandering tribute to the Internet.
"We are the dreamers and the builders," blurts out the clearly intoxicated executive, before pausing for several beats to conclude. "We are the sans-culottes of the Digital Revolution."
As the booming Internet industry enters its second year in the financial spotlight, parties such as this one have become a nightly affair in San Francisco, the mecca of e-commerce. The city's bars, clubs, and even high-end retail stores have been hosting launch parties and IPO celebrations nonstop for nearly two years now. But according to journalists and industry insiders, the atmosphere at recent dot-com events has begun to turn increasingly surreal and even downright ugly.
"These events used to be part rave, part office party, and part political rally," remarks a tech industry journalist who considers himself more a chronicler than a reporter. "But the ethos has undergone a transformation -- it's more of a wake than Woodstock now, a charade for shareholders more than a display of hubris."
Indeed, just as publications such as the Industry Standard and the Wall Street Journal are beginning to devote column space to the dot-com circuit parties, revelers in the know say that the scene behind the scene is deader than drkoop.com.
"I used to go to these things Monday through Saturday," asserts a stylish young man wearing dark sunglasses and large headphones, "but it got to be too much of a downer. I mean, some of these parties are downright creepy."
Describing a different launch soiree at San Francisco's tony W Hotel, a Robertson Stephenson analyst claims he saw staffers surreptitiously passing around recreational Ritalin "to improve the vibe." Requesting that his name be withheld, he remarked, "With an uncertain or even gloomy future ahead for these me-too start-ups, many of these galas are scraping the bottom of the barrel just to simulate excitement."
Few at tonight's affair believe they will make millions from their stake in the consumer-oriented Web site that plans to make money delivering entertainment on demand to children and their parents. In fact, many of the employees in attendance were informed only a few hours earlier that four months from now the company's coffers won't contain enough cash to cover payroll. Admits the CEO, "If investor diffidence doesn't kill us, the high price we paid for our AOL content deal will."
And yet the casual observer would believe this is a company that thinks it can't possibly lose. Smart-looking, bespectacled young producers are tossing back frozen tequila drinks topped off with cherry Pop Rocks that the bartenders are calling "interactive margaritas." A young software developer propositions attractive women with a lewd sock puppet routine. A Chinese chef dressed in a rented samurai costume kills live tuna on a stage and tosses sashimi slices to adventurous bons vivants.
"Most of the people here have no connection to the company sponsoring the party," confides Wren, the professional partygoer who owns and operates a Web site devoted to promoting and reviewing the e-party scene. "Their PR firm paid to have this event 'leaked' on sfgirl.com because it's more important to look successful than to be successful. I'd bet 70 percent of the crowd are people who came looking for the free food and booze."
South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.