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Leaving Reality Behind

Leaving Reality BehindOrder this bookStory: eToys.com was one of those great success stories of the late ’90s internet boom, a company whose IPO made almost everyone working there instantly rich – and then it faltered and crashed, taking that value with it. But was it the work of a group of art students from Europe – known collectively as etoy – who refused to admit defeat when eToys.com’s lawyers demanded that they surrender their internet presence for fear of hurting the online toy store’s trademarked name?

Review: This is a fairly well-written book, with lots of documented material to back it up. But “Leaving Reality Behind” quickly became a somewhat difficult read when I discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to root for Toby Lenk and eToys.com or his nemeses, referred to frequently in the book as the “etoy boys.” So much of what’s at the heart of this story is pure vanity and arrogance that it’s nigh-impossible to pick out an actual protagonist. I suppose the authors are to be commended for portraying both sides with all of their respective warts, and yet it seems clear that the authorial tone of the book favors the disharmonious group of self-styled artists from Germany and other countries, over the equally troubled would-be e-commerce giant.

I suppose I have to admit to some bias myself (theLogBook.com was, at the height of eToys.com’s rise, an eToys affiliate), but the authors’ desire to paint the “etoy boys” as the defenseless little guys being stepped on by a corporate giant is tainted by the little guys’ tactics. According to the book, after a series of failures to make an international name for themselves, the artists at etoy were actually ready to call it quits when the first e-mail arrived from eToys.com inquiring about their domain name, and at this point, etoy’s leader decided to try to make a buck off the deal. Again, according to the book, when his demands weren’t met by eToys.com and its legal team, his defiance of their wishes became bolder, until going up against eToys became etoy’s whole reason to exist.

At least going by the facts in this book, it’s hard to sympathize with that. But it’s also hard to sympathize with Toby Lenk’s seemingly bone-headed attempts to force the global economy to change to suit eToys.com rather than the other way around. Reading the accounts of Lenk’s decision to move eToys.com’s headquarters into high-rent L.A. office space redecorated to resemble a giant board game reminded me of the similar accounts of Steve Jobs’ lavish NExT offices in “Steve Jobs and the NExT Big Thing” – and it’s a powerful object lesson in why the internet sector suffered the fall from Wall Street grace like it did.

And yet, for all of his overconfident stunts, Lenk and his team were just trying to protect their family-friendly identity from an upstart site whose front page at one point declared “Get the f***ing Flash plug-in!” Which makes their authors’ frequent inferences that the “etoy boys” were the downtrodden youths being hounded by Corporate America a little harder to swallow. Then again – and I’ll admit up-front that this might be a less than politically correct sentiment – it’s unlikely that a BBC reporter and an arts reporter from Zurich are going to write a book that gives the American business-building dream, or someone who’s haphazardly trying to be the embodiment of it, a fair shake. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for that perspective, but the authors seem biased toward etoy in their reporting.

My own ambivalence there should give you a taste of what you can expect if you read this book yourself. Make no mistake, it’s incredibly well-researched, and the authors make sure that the reader understands what’s at stake at every turn; the origins of the web, the domain name system, search engines and commerce on the internet are all explored in small tangents where it connects to the main story. The personalities on both sides are larger-than-life and are vividly portrayed as such, even if you can’t quite bring yourself to root for any one of them.

If nothing else, “Leaving Reality Behind” (a slogan which, incidentally, is still used by etoy.com – a site which also sports a disclaimer that it has no connection to the revitalized, post-KB-Toy eToys.com) is a snapshot of a moment in time that seems to encapsulate the staggering amount of hubris at work in this tale from the dot-com gold rush of the late ’90s. And in that regard, maybe we’re not supposed to wind up sympathizing with anyone here.

Year: 2003
Authors: Adam Wishart, Regula Bochsler
Publisher: Ecco
Pages: 324 pages

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