The Internet Is Kmart Now – Trending News Buzz
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The 1990s had disappointed. A severe recession, the Middle East war, and communism’s fall began Gen X’s adulthood. Boomers took control in America, but the leader was impeached for lying about obtaining a blow job from an Oval Office intern. Grunge, clove cigarettes, and bangs were gone. For those of us who lived in the 1990s as young adults rather than as Kenny G listeners or Pokémon-card collectors, the decade also entrenched a sense that expressing that taste would be mundane, a fate that David Foster Wallace had made worse than death (I swear he was cool once, along with U2).
Computers were formed in this crucible. Not the first computers—give me credit—but the ones that haunt us. Windows 3.0, Mosaic, and Hotmail were released in 1990, 1993, and 1996, respectively. Despite your age, I’m too exhausted to finish the story.
The dot-com boom swallowed the commercial internet by 1999. Businesses went online for information, communication, shopping, and utility bills. The information superhighway, apostrophized ‘net, and others defined this time. E-business. (In a recent phone discussion with a fellow old-timer, I joked about e-business, and my interlocutor promptly dated my human origin to the early-to-mid-1970s.) We overharvested the internet’s lasting part. Pets.com, Webvan, an early Instacart-like site, and many others collapsed after the 2000 dot-com meltdown, starting a downturn that worsened by 9/11.
People, trends, companies, culture—they live and die. They leave unwillingly. Too much comfort turns into stupidity. The pillars of existence became computerized, and their service providers—Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, iPhone—grew so wealthy and powerful that they seemed permanent, unstoppable, infrastructural, heavenly. All ends. Guaranteed.
We didn’t consider this then. Because it was 1999, we partied. Daily bagels and Aeron chairs were provided. One day, sitting in front of the big, heavy cathode-ray-tube monitor where I developed websites that helped people do things in the world rather than with websites, I could have read this press release about a partnership between Bluelight.com, Kmart’s nascent e-commerce brand, and Yahoo, the biggest, baddest, coolest internet company of all time (at the time).
“‘This is an unparalleled offer,’” Bluelight.com CEO Mark H. Goldstein stated in the statement, “‘bringing together Kmart—one of the nation’s strongest retail brands—with Yahoo!, the premier Internet brand worldwide.’”
At the time, the line was corny—it was PR preening—but now it smells like digital mothballs. As you read this, imagine a collaboration more ineffective than Kmart, an inventor of big-box retail that failed spectacularly just as that format became widespread, and Yahoo, the internet company that failed to buy Google for $1 million (1998) and $3 billion (2002) but happily paid $3.6 billion for GeoCities and $1.1 billion for Tumblr, both of which it destroyed.
Kmart and Yahoo are like Werther’s Original butterscotch candies—withered husks that make it hard to remember their past glory or sorrow. These two organizations also symbolize two heydays separated by a quarter century and two endings about that long ago. Despite their banality, those reigns and ruins shaped my generation. They recorded beginnings and—more importantly—ends.
The Super 70s Sports account tweeted a handwritten sales check dated December 20, 1981, for an Atari Video Computer System and three games, which got me wondering about Kmart (Casino, Asteroids, and Space Invaders). I still build games for the 1977 Atari, and I keep leaving this document to troubleshoot my students’ assembly code. They had never seen an Atari or a cathode-ray-tube TV before this training.
But Kmart sold both—and everything else. Lego sets, Tupperware, Wrangler jeans (slim, regular, or husky), tyres, bedding, Preparation H. A full-service diner inside has Naugahyde seats for a tuna melt.
Kmart’s emergence paralleled retail consumption in the mid-20th century, but excess predated it. Big-box stores were originally general-merchandise outlets, a novelty beyond Sears (which Kmart would absorb decades later). By 1981, more than 2,000 Kmart stores were nationwide.
Kmart symbolized commercial surplus for me and my generation. The mall was primarily space, and the department store was old and for your parents (a place to be rather than to shop). Kmart has everything, a walk or bike ride from home. Kmart gave the first online spangle and sloth.
Consumerist gluttony applied to information around a decade later. Since the Carter administration, BBSes and dial-up services like Prodigy and CompuServe allowed personal computers to go online. The internet was quantitatively and qualitatively different. A BBS was local—some of the computer-nerd maladroits in your town—and a dial-up service was a walled garden made of whatever the service provider deemed worthy. The internet was a network of networks, all connected. That thought now appears mundane, but it was once novel.
In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web (WWW) was the greatest way to use the internet. Email, newsgroups, and others had been around for a long time, but they never became generally recognised shorthand (one was Gopher, a text-based protocol that the web suffocated).
I can’t explain the information shortage. Like all historical change, nobody observed what they couldn’t imagine. Kmart shelves formed desires and needs, not online recommendations. Where could one find information solutions? The library, bookshop, museum, or other archive—if you understood enough about the information you sought to know where to seek.
We waste our time sifting through bad or erroneous information or mistaking it for gold. Things were simpler then. In 1994, I was able to steer Gopher through telnet from my own computer through the burrows of song-lyrics annals, a mysterious lair that’s now become, like everything else, mundane. I shared the lyrics for Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter”—famous for Eddie Vedder’s mumbling—to my friends, many of whom were not online. I was like the child with an Atari, but I was showing off my information.
Yahoo organised information first. Directories organised websites by category, such as movies and politics, and subcategorized them. Jerry Yang and David Filo, two Stanford engineering students, built the site at the same time I mined Gopher for Pearl Jam lyrics. I vividly recall the first time I loaded Yahoo from Stanford’s server onto a university computer lab’s costly Sun workstation.
Voilà. Yahoo, like Kmart, established expectations and desires. “Art,” “Business,” “Events,” and “Science” were familiar categories that represented human life and interests. However, what people were doing online with those passions was new. In 1994, Yahoo had as many entries for “Art > Erotica” as “Art > Architecture,” hinting that the WWW would be more horny than spatial (yup). “People,” “Religion,” and related categories comprised “Society” and “Culture.” Though they should have, no one inquired why computer engineers categorised human knowledge.
Yahoo and Kmart divorced. Bluelight.com, named after the retailer’s iconic blue-siren in-store discounts, was intended to host its e-commerce company. Bluelight.com supplied free internet connection to its users by financing Spinway.com’s private-labeled product. Kmart sold Bluelight.com-preloaded PCs and AOL-style CD-ROMs with software to access the service. To attract retail customers online, it must first get them online.
However, Kmart perceived the internet for a shopping platform rather than a source of information. That’s why Goldstein’s line about the strongest retail brand and the top online brand was justified about 25 years ago. “Yahoo was cool!” Goldstein told me when I called him, and he’s right. Yahoo had conquered the information world, as Kmart had conquered retail. It was sensible.
Bluelight.com planned to start in mid-2000, but the market plummeted and the dot-com era ended. Over the next year, Bluelight.com had to buy some of Spinway.com’s assets to keep its in-house ISP operational. As the economy tanked, it started charging for the service. Goldstein left mid-2001, and Kmart filed for bankruptcy three months later. Three Kmart locations remain in the contiguous US. Want to know how? I read it on Yahoo, which has basically become a strange content website that sometimes appears in Google searches.
Kmart was everywhere, Goldstein, a health-care venture capitalist, knew. The ideas at work were valid but early and deployed under unfavourable conditions, including Kmart’s inevitable demise. Bluelight.com promoted “sticky bricks,” a buy online, pick up in-store strategy that wouldn’t become popular until the coronavirus pandemic 20 years later.
A major tech or retail company’s bankruptcy is unfathomable nowadays. Look at the pearl-clutching over Twitter’s recent shambles: Its decline or death is unthinkable to the people. Instead of eternal arrogance, the 1990s internet’s cosmic emotion was death. Its authors had learnt that sentiment during the Cold War, playing Atari games about the apocalypse while waiting for it. Kmart and Yahoo both died. What may have happened? Goldstein stated, “We’ll all be assimilated and consolidated.” “We just want to be a button that survives.”
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