Saturday, April 01, 2006

Para-sites.

Googlespawn; A minibubble is forming in the Google ad revenue stream.

Victoria Murphy Barret
1052 words
10 April 2006
Forbes
Volume 177 Issue 7
English
(c) 2006 Forbes Inc.

No one is trying to sell pet food online, yet. But a minibubble is forming in the Google ad revenue stream

Two years ago Ted W.N. Rheingold was riding out the tech slump doing Web design jobs from home. He and his wife wanted a dog, but his landlord said no. So the Rheingolds lived the dog life vicariously by browsing photos on dog rescue sites. This was his inspiration for Dogster and Catster, two sites he runs for pet fanciers to share photos and stories. Like Friendster, it's a social networking site--but with fur--and 211,000 member animals.

Before you crack jokes (What's next? Hamsterster?), know this: Rheingold's firm is profitable, growing quickly and on track to hit $1 million in sales this year. Rheingold spends $2,000 a month to rent servers in Virginia and $1,000 a month for a few rooms in a San Francisco warehouse that once housed a soap factory. He has eight employees. So far Dogster fans are doing the selling on Dogster's behalf by sending Dogster invitations to friends with dogs.

"I wanted to cover my rent. That was the business plan," says Rheingold.

Rheingold has done a bit better than that by following a strategy now consuming Silicon Valley: Throw up a site using cheap hardware and open-source software and get users to do all the work. The new Web breed repackages what's already there--photos, news, music, searches, blogs--and makes its money by suction-cupping, like remora fish, to the back of Google's AdSense program, which distributes ads to sites willing to split the revenue earned each time someone clicks on a paid link. AdSense is now generating $2.7 billion a year, roughly 80% of it distributed to partner sites.

Rheingold now has enough traffic to attract his own advertisers, including Walt Disney Co. and Dad's, a premium pet product company. Only a sliver of revenue now comes from Google ads.

Silicon Valley is abuzz again with firms such as Kaboodle, Kosmix, Become.com, Wink, Digg and Browster. These goofily named Web newbies are being nourished by Google, often compete with Google and, given how similar their business plans are to a half-dozen other startups in the Valley, hope for a quick buck by selling themselves to Google (or Yahoo, IAC or News Corp.).

"Google created a marketplace that allows new sites like us to get started," says Michael Tanne, founder of the Web search service Wink. He doesn't have to pay salesmen and instead can use the cash to improve his search technology.

"The motto of the bubble was get big fast. The rule today is get big cheap," says David Cowan of Bessemer Ventures. "What tickles my checkbook is the success of capital-efficient startups where the users themselves often contribute the feature road map, software and marketing."

The two-year-old browser technology outfit Browster raised $5.8 million in venture capital in November. Browster founder Scott Milener owes it to Google: "We could show our venture investors what we were worth. They could extrapolate our growth and profits from what we're doing just with Google."

Digg creates zero content of its own, instead linking to news stories and blogs its members have marked as interesting. It gets the majority of its revenue from Google ads and broke even last year, raising $2.8 million from Greylock Partners and others, far less than it was offered.

Everything is happening so much more quickly than a few years ago, says Michael Yang, who sold MySimon.com to CNET for $700 million in 2000. It took MySimon months to generate revenue, but his new online shopping search venture, Become.com, tapped Google ads for instant sales. Yang has raised $18.7 million in venture funding. "There is a lot of capital out there and a lot of innovation. But a lot of firms are technology features, not real companies."

In the past two years David Sze, a partner at venture firm Greylock, has seen a fivefold increase in the number of pitches from consumer-targeted outfits. "Are there lots of companies being created because it is easier and cheaper than ever? Yes. Do lots of them have silly names? Yes. But these entrepreneurs are just responding to the market," says Sze.

The new breed of entrepreneurs aren't so foolish as to think they are the next Google. Digg founder Jay Adelson knows that frugal operations and Google ads can take him only so far. "If you get enough customers, you need to invest in server farms and expertise. Lots of these companies will simply get lost in the noise."

The best the remoras can hope for is to make a quick buck selling out to one of the Web giants. In the past year Yahoo purchased photo-sharing site Flickr for an estimated $35 million and tagging pioneer Del.icio.us for an estimated $20 million. News Corp. bought social networking star MySpace for $580 million and is rumored to be buying a news site called NewRoo that has yet to launch.

Kaboodle, a repository for online research, turned down two $350,000 checks from venture firms. Some vcs told its founder, Manish Chandra, he needs to raise $9 million. "Once you take that much capital, you suddenly feel the need to ramp up to 40 people. But that might not be smart. You're still not sure where the business should go," he says.

Dogster's Rheingold met with Benchmark, the venerable investment firm behind Ebay and Juniper Networks, but no offer was made, and Rheingold isn't pushing. "Venture funding felt risky to us. We think we have a good idea. We're not sure how big it is. And for now the company is getting by just fine."

If the last bubble taught Valley denizens anything, it may be the wisdom to take the money and run--even if it's only a million or so. Slaving it out for the big bucks is very 20th century.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Googleconomy.

Google's hidden payroll

In developing nations, people boost their incomes by running ads by the popular search engine on their personal websites.
By Carolyn O'Hara and Travis Daub | Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON - Jayant Kumar Gandhi, a former software engineer in New Delhi, is one of hundreds of thousands around the world on Google's shadow payroll.

In his spare time, Mr. Gandhi runs a free computer help website and recently began running ads by Google on his homepage as part of Google Adsense, a program that pays website publishers for advertising space. When visitors click on the ads on Gandhi's site, Google makes a small profit from the advertiser, and in turn, pays a percentage of that profit to Gandhi.

Such clicks can translate into pennies - or dollars - a day for a Web publisher. "I had no intentions of using it for more than a week," Gandhi says. "I didn't believe the stories that Adsense paid decent money. I ignored them as a marketing gimmick."

But Gandhi's Adsense profits have exceeded his wildest dreams. He now earns about $1,000 a month from the program, the same salary he previously earned as a software engineer. His new income has allowed him to leave his job and return to school. "Today I am able to sponsor my higher studies because of Adsense," he says.

Since its launch in 2003, the Google Adsense program has revolutionized Web publishing, turning blogs and personal websites into potentially lucrative ventures.

It is easy to join. A Web publisher or blogger simply completes an online Adsense form. Google then places ads on the site, similar to those that appear next to search results on Google. The ads are contextually matched to content on the host site, so a blog post about having a headache might attract ads for pain-relief medicine.

Anyone with a site is eligible, and Web forums are awash in success stories of small online entrepreneurs placing ads on their sites, sitting back, and watching checks from Google roll in.

But it is Web entrepreneurs in the developing world who are reaping the greatest benefit from the program.

Because Adsense earnings can vary widely depending on a site's traffic or subject matter, many Web publishers in the developed world don't bother participating. Whereas a $25 monthly payout may not be worth the trouble to a blogger in Manhattan, it can mean the world to a blogger in Manila.

Andrew de la Serna runs a small search engine in Davao City, Philippines, and derives about 40 percent of his monthly income from Adsense. "It's great to do what you love to do and earn money from it at the same time," he says.

His earnings have allowed him to purchase a cellphone, develop new websites, and build up his savings account.

Dr. Rodolfo Rafael, who owns a small medical clinic in San Fabian, Philippines, says the Adsense earnings from his medical website allow him to "dream big" and reinvest in his medical practice.

Their experiences are shared across the developing world. In Cairo, Mohamed Sallam was grounded for health reasons from his job as an airline steward, and he now spends time maintaining a Web forum devoted to discussions of Islam. He earns most of his income, about $500 a month, from Adsense.

"The low cost of living here allows us to live comfortably on that income," he says. "My two sons want to try their luck. We have a high unemployment rate here and making money from Adsense would be the perfect solution for them."

Deepesh Agarwal, who runs a small cybercafe in Rajasthan state, India, draws about 90 percent of his income, or $1,500 a month, from his Adsense earnings. It is a princely sum in a state where the average income is just $300 a year.

"Adsense has changed my life," Mr. Agarwal says. "I can afford things that I was not able to before. I am planning to buy a new car. I can save for my future."

The program is a big revenue generator for Google, too. The company earned some $2.7 billion in Adsense revenues last year. Google refuses to disclose the exact percentage it pays out to Adsense member sites, but recent news reports have put that figure as high as 78.5 cents on the dollar.

"We do not disclose [the revenue share] for different reasons," says Brian Axe, an Adsense group product manager at Google. "But it is more than fair. [These success stories] bring a smile to our faces."

Still, many hurdles remain for Adsense users in the developing world, not the least being access to the Internet.

Payment checks from Google can be difficult to receive due to inefficient or non-existent national postal systems, and they can be even more difficult and costly to cash.

There are also legitimate concerns about people attempting to defraud the system, causing many to wonder whether the program has real sustainability. Some website owners try to increase their earnings by clicking on their own ads, and some create automated sites that exist solely to make money from Adsense.

"Google is actively looking for those kinds of sites," and removes ads from them, explains Eric Giguère, author of "Make Money with Google: Using the Adsense Advertising Program."

Google has a clear interest in protecting the program that last year accounted for nearly half of its advertising revenues, and is quick to play down the threat of fraud. "Many times [the fraud] gets blown out of proportion," said Google's Mr. Axe. "I don't think it's an issue that would unravel the business."

For the time being, that "business" offers a rare opportunity to Web users in developing countries to participate on a level playing field with other websites all over the world.

Thanks to Adsense, a blogger in New Delhi can earn the same 5 cents for an ad-click as a blogger in Detroit. For many Adsense users in the developing world, that opportunity has become perhaps the most unintentional - and most successful - development program to spring from the online revolution.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Arrested development.

Up With Grups*

He owns eleven pairs of sneakers, hasn’t worn anything but jeans in a year, and won’t shut up about the latest Death Cab for Cutie CD. But he is no kid. He is among the ascendant breed of grown-up who has redefined adulthood as we once knew it and killed off the generation gap.

By Adam Sternbergh

* Also known as yupster (yuppie + hipster), yindie (yuppie + indie), and alterna-yuppie. Our preferred term, grup, is taken from an episode of Star Trek (keep reading) in which Captain Kirk et al. land on a planet of children who rule the world, with no adults in sight. The kids call Kirk and the crew “grups,” which they eventually figure out is a contraction of “grown-ups.” It turns out that all the grown-ups had died from a virus that greatly slows the aging process and kills anybody who grows up.

Let’s start with a question. A few questions, actually: When did it become normal for your average 35-year-old New Yorker to (a) walk around with an iPod plugged into his ears at all times, listening to the latest from Bloc Party; (b) regularly buy his clothes at Urban Outfitters; (c) take her toddler to a Mommy’s Happy Hour at a Brooklyn bar; (d) stay out till 4 A.M. because he just can’t miss the latest New Pornographers show, because who knows when Neko Case will decide to stop touring with them, and everyone knows she’s the heart of the band; (e) spend $250 on a pair of jeans that are artfully shredded to look like they just fell through a wheat thresher and are designed, eventually, to artfully fall totally apart; (f) decide that Sufjan Stevens is the perfect music to play for her 2-year-old, because, let’s face it, 2-year-olds have lousy taste in music, and we will not listen to the Wiggles in this house; (g) wear sneakers as a fashion statement; (h) wear the same vintage New Balance sneakers that he wore on his first day of school in the seventh grade as a fashion statement; (i) wear said sneakers to the office; (j) quit the office job because—you know what?—screw the office and screw jockeying for that promotion to VP, because isn’t promotion just another word for “slavery”?; (k) and besides, now that she’s a freelancer, working on her own projects, on her own terms, it’s that much easier to kick off in the middle of the week for a quick snowboarding trip to Sugarbush, because she’s got to have some balance, right? And she can write it off, too, because who knows? She might bump into Spike Jonze on the slopes; (l) wear a Misfits T-shirt; (m) make his 2-year-old wear a Misfits T-shirt; (n) never shave; (o) take pride in never shaving; (p) take pride in never shaving while spending $200 on a bedhead haircut and $600 on a messenger bag, because, seriously, only his grandfather or some frat-boy Wall Street flunky still carries a briefcase; or (q) all of the above?

This is an obituary for the generation gap. It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act, and dress like people who are 22 years old. It’s not about a fad but about a phenomenon that looks to be permanent. It’s about the hedge-fund guy in Park Slope with the chunky square glasses, brown rock T-shirt, slight paunch, expensive jeans, Puma sneakers, and shoulder-slung messenger bag, with two kids squirming over his lap like itchy chimps at the Tea Lounge on Sunday morning. It’s about the mom in the low-slung Sevens and ankle boots and vaguely Berlin-art-scene blouse with the $800 stroller and the TV-screen-size Olsen-twins sunglasses perched on her head walking through Bryant Park listening to Death Cab for Cutie on her Nano.


And because this phenomenon wears itself so clearly as the convergence of downtown cool and easy, abundant money, it is also, of course, about stuff—though that’s not all it’s about. It’s more interesting as evidence of the slow erosion of the long-held idea that in some fundamental way, you cross through a portal when you become an adult, a portal inscribed with the biblical imperative “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This cohort is not interested in putting away childish things. They are a generation or two of affluent, urban adults who are now happily sailing through their thirties and forties, and even fifties, clad in beat-up sneakers and cashmere hoodies, content that they can enjoy all the good parts of being a grown-up (a real paycheck, a family, the warm touch of cashmere) with none of the bad parts (Dockers, management seminars, indentured servitude at the local Gymboree). It’s about a brave new world whose citizens are radically rethinking what it means to be a grown-up and whether being a grown-up still requires, you know, actually growing up.

And it’s been a long time coming. It showed up in the early eighties as “the Peter Pan Syndrome,” then mutated to the yuppie, which, let’s face it, has had a pretty good run. Later, it took the form that David Brooks called “bourgeois bohemians,” or bobos (as in Bobos in Paradise). Over in England, they’re now calling them yindies (that’s yuppie plus indie), and here, the term yupster (you can figure that out) has been gaining some traction of late. And as this movement evolves, something pivotal is happening. This cascade of pioneering immaturity is no longer a case of a generation’s being stuck in its own youth. This generation is now, if you happen to be under 25, more interested in being stuck in your youth.

This article being what it is, I wanted to come up with my own term to describe them. But what? Dadsters? Sceniors? Dorian Graybeards? Over the course of my investigation, I started calling them Grups. It’s not the most elegant term, but it passes the field test of real-world utility. (Here a Grup, there a Grup, everywhere a Grup-Grup.) “Grups” is a nerdy reference to an old Star Trek episode in which Kirk and crew land on a planet run entirely by kids, who call grown-ups “grups.” All the adults have been killed off by a terrible virus, which also slows the natural aging process, so the kids are trapped in a state of extended prepubescence. They will never grow up. And they are running the show.

Oh, and there’s one more thing I learned, in answer to my opening questions: If being a Grup means being 35, and having a job, and using a messenger bag instead of a briefcase, and staying out too late too often, and owning more pairs of sneakers (eleven) than suits (one), and downloading a Hot Hot Heat song from iTunes because it was on a playlist titled “Saturday Errands,” and generally being uneasy and slightly confused about just what it means to be an adult in these modern times—in short, if it means living your life in fundamentally the same way that you did when you were, say, 22—then, let’s face it, I’m a Grup. The people in the pictures accompanying this story? Grups. In fact, take a minute and look up from the magazine—if you’re in public, you’ll see them everywhere. If you’re in front of a mirror, you might see one there too.

The Grup Music, or the Brand-new Sound of Twenty Years Ago

Once upon a time, pop culture, and in particular pop music, followed a certain reliable pattern: People listened to bands, like the Doobie Brothers or Cream or Steely Dan, that their Frank Sinatra–loving parents absolutely despised. Then these people had kids, and their kids became teens, and they started listening to bands, like the Clash or Elvis Costello or Joy Division, that their Cream-loving parents absolutely despised. And, lo, the Lord looked down and saw that it was good, and on the eighth day, He created the generation gap.

And then these Clash-listening kids grew up and had kids of their own, and the next generation of kids started listening to music, like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol and Bloc Party, that you might assume their parents would absolutely despise. Except it doesn’t really work that way anymore. In part, because how can their parents hate Interpol when they sound exactly like Joy Division? And in part, because how can their parents hate Bloc Party when their parents just downloaded Bloc Party and think it’s awesome and totally better than the Bravery!

This, of course, is a seismic shift in intergenerational relationships. It means there is no fundamental generation gap anymore. This is unprecedented in human history. And it’s kind of weird.

Take the case of Andy Chase and Dominique Durand, a married couple, both well into their thirties and now with kids of their own, who play in a successful rock band called Ivy. “Most of our fans are in their twenties or even teenagers,” says Chase. “And that keeps you young. Because you’re friends with people who are much younger than you. Our keyboard player is 21 years old. And we dress the same—”

“Our interests are the same,” adds Durand. “The passion is the same. There’s a real connection.”

Andy interjects, “Well, let’s talk to the keyboard player and see if he says the same thing.”

Or take Michael Rauch, the creator of the recently canceled CBS show Love Monkey, which chronicled the life of a late-thirties single A&R guy in New York who frets openly about being a “suit” while working at the plucky indie label he joined after leaving his evil corporate record company, because for him, it was all about the music. Isn’t a guy like that—late thirties, still single, still bar-hopping, still chasing the latest hot rock band, his whole life, in fact, still defined by the word still—kind of, I don’t know, pathetic? “If this show existed ten years ago, the answer would be yes,” says Rauch. “But now, absolutely not. Now it’s less the exception than the rule. Especially in New York.” Rauch himself is 38. “I spoke to an undergrad class at NYU recently. And it was terrifying how much we had in common. I’m looking at these kids who look about 12, and we’re all going to the same movies and watching the same TV shows and listening to the same music. I don’t know if it’s scarier for them or scarier for me.”

Think of it this way: For Gen-X, just fifteen years ago, the big complaint was that boomers, with their lingering sixties-era musical attachments and smug sense of cultural centrality, refused to pass the torch and get the hell out of the way. In a 1997 sociology essay titled “Generation X: Who Are They? What Do They Want?,” one twentysomething student lamented, “We still are bombarded with ‘Classic Rock’ and moldy oldies. Bands like the Eagles, Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith need to back off so we can define our own music, lifestyle.” It’s ironic, then, that those selfsame slackers—the twentysomethings of the early nineties (and, hey, I was right there, too: Rock on, Screaming Trees)—aren’t standing in the way of the next generation. Rather, they’re joining right in at the front of the crowd at the sold-out Decemberists show. Hey, kids, you can define your own music, lifestyle—that’s our music and lifestyle, too!

“All of the really good music right now has absolutely precise parallels to the best music of the eighties, from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol to Death Cab—anything you can name,” says Michael Hirschorn, the 42-year-old executive vice-president of original programming and production at VH1. “Plus, the 20-year-olds are all listening to the Cure and New Order anyway. It’s created a kind of mass confusion. I was at the Coachella festival last year, and the groups people were most stoked about were Gang of Four and New Order.” No wonder Grups like today’s indie music: It sounds exactly like the indie music of their youth. Which, as it happens, is what kids today like, too, which is why today’s new music all sounds like it’s twenty years old. And thus the culture grinds to a halt, in a screech of guitar feedback.

As a result, says Hirschorn, “some of the older parents I know who have teenagers claim that there’s no generation gap anymore. They say they get along perfectly with their kids. They listen to the same music. To me, that seems somewhat laughable. But I do remember when I was young, trying to explain the Beatles to my dad, and he didn’t even know who they were. I don’t think that’s possible today.”

And it’s not just music that’s collapsed on itself in this way. During Hirschorn’s tenure at VH1, the channel was cunningly transformed from the frumpy, easy-listening older sibling of MTV to a retro-culture-celebrating mother ship for Grups. Trademark shows such as I Love the 80s feature a parade of thirtysomething comedians making funny comments about music and fashions and TV shows that were popular back when they were teens. The canny success of this concept rests on the fact that it appeals both to the thirtysomethings who lived through Mr. T and Kajagoogoo the first time around and twentysomethings who are fascinated with semi-ironically recycling cultural trends. In a prescient essay in 1994 titled “The Nostalgia Gap,” Tom Vanderbilt jokingly predicted that thanks to an ever-quickening cultural churn, we’d soon see manufactured nostalgia for trends of two weeks ago. He was off by a week. VH1’s Best Week Ever consists of comedians looking back with fond, ironic eyes on the events of the last seven days.

“The embarrassing thing for me,” says Hirschorn, “is seeing the actual culture of my youth recycled as a kind of ironic hipster kitsch. What’s my access point into that? If I still have the clothes from the first time around, does that mean I get to wear them again?” In other words, if you’re 35 and wearing the same Converse All-Stars to work that you wore to junior high, are you an old guy sadly aping the Strokes? Or are the young guys simply copying you? Wait, how old are the Strokes, anyway?

The Grup Look, or I Swear These Jeans Were Here a Minute Ago

My father did not wear T-shirts. He did not own sneakers. He may have had one pair of jeans, crisp and stiff and store-bought blue, to wear on the weekends when we’d do things like go apple-picking. At all other times, he wore suits.

So I wonder what he would make of the offices of Rogan, a very hot, very hip fashion label that operates out of the third floor of a building just off Broadway, north of Canal. The office is cluttered with large cardboard boxes and long tables, where twentysomething staffers fulfill orders by hand, among rolling racks of carefully crafted vintage-style shirts and down ski vests. Paper patterns for future clothes hang from a bar overhead like thought bubbles suspended in midair.

Rogan is run by Rogan Gregory, a 33-year-old designer who, when I meet him, is wearing a faded pink vintage surf-shop T-shirt, dirty white Vans slip-ons with seagull silhouettes, and a pair of his famous jeans. Famous, at least, within certain circles: namely, denim hounds who will pay $450 for a pair of jeans that are so distressed—so tattered, so frayed, so worked over and beaten down—that they will likely fall apart within two years.

Rogan is tall and slim, with a trim beard and jaw-length hair that’s tucked back behind one ear. He specializes in clothes that are handcrafted to look like you exhumed them from a rack at the back of a dusty vintage store when, in fact, you bought them at Barneys for several hundred dollars each. He understands that this market did not always exist. “I’ve been wearing the same thing my entire life,” he says. “But ten years ago, people gave me a hard time. If I was checking into a hotel, they wouldn’t believe that I was actually staying there. Now it’s accepted that just because that dude doesn’t look like some fancy-pants—well, you never know.”

Rogan sees this as a good thing, and not just for the obvious business reasons. It used to be, he explains, that each stage of life had its uniform, from kid to teenager to fancy-pants. Now, though, that fashion progression has flattened out, and everyone just wears the uniform of his choice. “It’s absolutely not a hierarchical thing,” he says. “It’s a look thing. They’re all spending about the same amount of money on their wardrobes. It’s just about how you like to be perceived.”

A number of trends have nudged us in this direction, from the increasingly casual dress codes at work to the persistent marketing of counterculture “rebellion” as an easily attainable, catchall symbol for cool. During the dot-com boom, businesses not only allowed people to come to work in clothes they might usually wear to clean out the attic but encouraged this as a celebration of youthful vivacity and an upheaval of the fusty corporate order. Suits were thought to be the provenance of, well, suits. The dot-com bubble burst, but the aesthetic remained, as part of the ongoing rock star–ification of America. Three-day stubble and shredded jeans are the now-familiar symbols of the most desirable kind of affluence and freedom. So why would anyone dress up anymore? A suit says, My mother made me wear this to go to a bar mitzvah. The Grup outfit says, I’m so cool, and so damned good at what I do, I can wear whatever the hell I want. At least when I go out to brunch.

So now, for many people—many grown-up people—the uniform of choice is rock tees and sneakers and artfully destroyed denim. Of course, when you’re 40, with a regular paycheck, yet still want to resemble a rock star who resembles a garage mechanic, well, what’s a guy to do? Status symbols still have their uses, especially in the world of clothes. And this is where the $200 ripped jeans come in. Or $450. Or $600. You want the tattered jeans, but you also want the world to know, I can afford the very best in tattered jeans.

“One thing happened that I thought was funny,” says Rogan. “I made a run of a hundred jeans, and I made them as perfectly as I could. Which for me means essentially destroying the fabric, to the point where if you wear them for a month, they’ll disintegrate. And I literally sold them out in a week. And they’ll completely disintegrate. You wear them for a couple of weeks and go out one night and there’ll be a giant tear. I mean, it’s embarrassing. I was surprised that people would pay that amount of money for something that literally falls apart.”

At one point, I spoke to a 39-year-old musician who had lived briefly in Park Slope and then fled, largely because of the prevalence of exactly the kind of person who would buy jeans designed to fall apart in a month. This musician is old school in his fashion tastes—which is to say, one day he came to a point where he pulled that old concert T-shirt from his dresser and thought, Yeah, I just can’t pull this off anymore. (For me, this moment came with a thrift-store T-shirt with QUALITY PLASTIC SUPPLIES decaled across the chest.) These days, though, especially in New York, there just aren’t many people saying I just can’t pull this off anymore.

“If really hard-pressed, I would admit that I actually own a Clash T-shirt that I got from that last Clash tour,” the musician told me. “But I don’t wear it! And I’m certainly not going to wear it under an Armani black blazer. I even remember meeting this guy who was around my age, who was wearing an expensive blazer, and on the lapel was a London Calling button. Who the fuck wears that? That’s what I wore when I was 18 in art school! And you’re the same age as me? And you’re wearing it again?” He pauses, then adds, “And you know what? Giving your kid a mohawk is fucked up, too.”

The Grup Children, or Daddy, Please Turn That Music Down

Here’s the bad news about kids: They’re not cool. Especially little kids. Like, 2-year-olds? Forget it. Left to their own devices, they don’t dress well, they have no sense of style, and frankly, their musical taste sucks.

Here’s the good news about kids: They’re defenseless. So if you want to put a Ramones T-shirt on your 2-year-old, you don’t need his permission. All you need is for someone to have the great idea to make a 2-year-old-size Ramones T-shirt. (And trust me—someone’s had that idea.) And if you want to play the Strokes for your 4-year-old son, what’s he going to do? I’ll tell you what—he’s going to learn to love the Strokes.

“My son seems to like the Hives a lot,” says Neal Pollack, the author of the forthcoming memoir Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America, of his 3-year-old son, Elijah, and the raucous Swedish fivesome the Hives. “I mean, he doesn’t know who they are. He calls it ‘thunder music’ when I put it on. He gets very excited by that. That makes me sort of proud.”

See, Grups aren’t afraid of parenting. Grups don’t avoid having kids. Grups love kids. In part, though, this is because Grups find kids to be perfect little Mr. Potato Head versions of themselves. Of course, there’s more to Grup parenting than simply molding your kid’s tastes. You must be vigilant that you don’t grow up and become uncool yourself. “I recognize that changes and sacrifices are necessary. I do occasionally wake up before nine these days,” says Pollack of parenthood. “But I didn’t want to lose touch with the world’s cultural progress. I didn’t want to freeze myself in time.” So instead of playdates, Pollack invites other cool dads and their kids over for playing (kids), beers (dads), and sampling new CDs (everyone). Or he packs up his toddler for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Though that plan didn’t work so well. “It was really hot and crowded,” he says. “And the music sucked.” His son apparently concurred.

Pollack’s philosophy, when you hear him talk about it, makes a lot of sense, at least at first. “Mainstream American adulthood is so narrowly defined, it’s only natural that people who have time and leisure to think about it are going to rebel against it.” Yes, of course, why not? “We want to be good parents. We want to love our kid and raise our kid up properly, with decent values.” Right on! “But we don’t want our lives to become nothing but Mommy & Me classes.” Who would? Fuck Mommy & Me!

“You have to have a little bit of Dora the Explorer in your life,” he says. “But you can do what you can to mute its influence.” Okay. “And there’s no shame, when your kid’s watching a show, and you don’t like it, in telling him it sucks.” Yeah! There’s no—wait. What? “If you start telling him it sucks, maybe he might develop an aesthetic.” Sorry, son. No more Thomas the Tank Engine for you. Thomas sucks. Stop crying. Daddy’s helping you develop an aesthetic. Now Daddy’s going to go put on some thunder music.

But isn’t there something unsavory in the idea of your kid as a kind of tabula rasa for you to overwrite with your tastes? Less a child than a malleable Mini-Me?

“It’s hard to say right now, because most of these kids are between the age of zero and 5,” says Pollack. “So they’re still . . . I don’t want to say accessories, but they’re still moldable. You can still sort of play with them.” Although, if you’re planning to take this parental approach, you’d better make damn sure you’ve got good taste. “I find myself arguing with dads about the music their kids like,” he says. “One guy was telling me his son was really into Wilco. And I was telling him that’s lame. Because Wilco is so over.”

I don’t mean to be so hard on Pollack, who does seem genuinely interested in exploring a new kind of parenting—a kind that doesn’t involve totally losing any sense of who you were ten minutes before your baby was born. In fact, I got a much saner version of more or less the same philosophy from Adam Levite and Francine Hermelin, a couple in their thirties (he’s 38, she’s 36) with three (yes, three) kids: Asa, 6; Dora, 3; and Ester, 0.5. Levite directs music videos for artists like Beck and Interpol, and Hermelin spends most of her time with the kids while also organizing events like Downtown for Democracy’s mock election, in which 8-year-olds ran for president. Levite wears cool little geometric glasses and Hermelin wears slightly thinner cool little geometric glasses. The family lives in a large white envy-inducing loft apartment in Tribeca that looks like a design-magazine photo shoot. As you enter, you’ll find Levite’s guitar collection propped against the wall, right next to which you’ll find similar, miniature versions of the same guitars for his son, Asa. “From a very young age, we’ve always decided to try not to, you know, vanilla the kids in the things that we present to them,” says Levite. A-ha! Here we go—thunder music. “We’ve been listening to the Beatles since the moment they were born. They’re classic pop songs, but not full of anger and angst. And we still listen to some kids’ music. Music for Aardvarks is really great.”

“It’s really important for us to be whole people, and not feel like our kids have . . . look, we love our kids,” says Hermelin. “The point isn’t to raise cool kids. We want passionate kids. And I think that by us doing the things that we love to do, that models that passion for our kids.”

Later, when I talk to Andy Chase, the dad–slash–rock star, he says almost the exact same thing. “How great for a child to see their parents loving what they’re doing? It’s a delicate balance to strike, but when you maintain that balance, its a great thing to teach your children—that they can look forward to doing something they love doing.”

“Of course, there have to be some priorities,” says Levite. “Even if you come home and you just bought a great new CD, and you really want to listen to it with your kids, sometimes it’s their bedtime. You just learn. You can’t always play guitar with them.” I wonder, though, what will happen when Asa becomes a teenager. Will he still want to jam with Dad on matching guitars? Or will he find his own way to grow up? The last time teenagers weren’t expected to rebel, it was because they were heading off to work in the coal mines at age 13. Can we really expect to be cool parents and also raise cool kids? Is this youth big enough for the both of us?

Or perhaps we can look forward—at least if Family Ties can be trusted—to a new generation of buttoned-down, high-strung Alex P. Keaton–type conservative teenagers. This is something the Grups have considered. When I asked Hermelin her worst fear, she laughed and said, “Our kids are going to become Republicans.”

In college, I remember a friend of mine playing Public Enemy at high volume at his mother’s house, at which point she sputtered into paroxysms of clichéd parental dismay, saying, quite unironically, “Turn that off! It’s nothing but noise!” Later, we tried to imagine what kind of high-decibel air-raid-siren music our teens might one day listen to, causing us to react the same way. It’s a concept that Pollack, for one, seems literally incapable of processing. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen with this generation,” he says. Besides, he explains, the alternadad’s worst nightmare isn’t that his kid will grow up to be something he doesn’t want him to be. “The worst nightmare for a quote-unquote alternadad,’ ” he says, “is that he’ll grow up to be something he doesn’t want to be.”

We might consider, then, the case of Chad Ruble. At age 32, with a wife who was four months pregnant with their first child, Ruble had a bright idea—he decided to take up skateboarding. “I had never noticed that there’s a half-pipe at Chelsea Piers,” he said. “I thought, Too bad I’m too old to do that. Then I thought,I’m not too old!” So he went to Paragon Sports in Union Square to buy some skateboarding gear (avoiding the hard-core East Village skate shops, because he found them too intimidating). “I was heartened because there was another older guy there getting a whole setup, too. I was like, Oh, cool. I’m not the only one,” he said. “Turns out he was getting it for his kid.”

Ruble need not have worried, though—once he hit the Chelsea Piers half-pipe, there were lots of thirtysomething guys skateboarding there, along with the usual kids. So he mounted his board and set out on the pipe. He hadn’t skateboarded since he was 12, but it turns out he still remembered most of the moves. Until his fourth try that is, when he wiped out and dislocated his shoulder. “But I was having the time of my life,” he said. “Those four times were really fun.”

His tale conjures an uneasy vision of an all-too-possible future: of a young boy, maybe 12, in a tiny suit, standing in a hospital room where his dad lies in traction after a gnarly kickflip-and-nosegrind combination gone horribly wrong. The boy comforts his father, perhaps fluffs his pillow, perhaps delivers to him a freshly laundered Cramps T-shirt brought from home. Then he replaces the earbuds of an iPod that’s playing Burl Ives, straightens his bow tie, and heads out to grab the bus home.

The Grup Career, or Take This Job and Allow Me to Do It From Home, With Occasional Snowboarding Trips
Matt Peccini is a tall, slim, 34-year-old guy with a shaved head and a dry sense of humor. He becomes immediately more interesting to me when he reveals that he once played Boo-Boo, Yogi Bear’s sidekick, in an episode of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. He earned that cameo in the Cartoon Network’s cult hit during his successful career in television, first at TNT—“working my way through titles and responsibility levels”—and then as a creative director at the AMC channel in New York. “It was a big bump in pay and a big bump in responsibility and in title. I had a staff. On paper, it was a great job,” he says. So after two and a half years, he did what any self-respecting Grup would do—he quit.

This is where the Grup diverges from the bobo, the yuppie, even the yupster. The Grup does not want a corner office. The Grup does not yearn for a fancy title. The Grup does not want—oh, please, do not ask the Grup to manage—a staff. “I just wanted to make fun stuff that went on TV,” says Peccini. “Then all of a sudden I’m doing performance appraisals and going to management seminars.”

A human-resources executive told me recently that there’s a golden rule of HR: To motivate a baby boomer, offer him a bonus. To motivate a Generation-Xer, offer him a day off. The Grup, I think, would go for the day off, too. If the boomer’s icon of success was an empire-building maverick magnate like Ted Turner, the Grup’s model would be Spike Jonze, the 36-year-old Jackass-producing, skateboarding, awesome-indie-movie-directing free agent. Remember, the Grup of today is the slacker from 1990 who, fresh out of college, ran smack into the recession and maybe fiddled around with a riot-grrl band, then got a job at 25 for a Web-development company where she wore jeans to work and played Ping-Pong and stayed late and covered her desk in rare Japanese action figures. Now that woman is 35, a VP at a viral-marketing firm, still dressing down because everyone knows that the youth market is where it’s at, yet is scared to death she’s going to ossify into the same kind of corporate stooge she swore she’d never become. For a Grup, success isn’t about how many employees you have but how much freedom you have to walk, or boogie-board, away.

So now Peccini works as a freelancer, making TV promos and animated shorts that he sells back to the Cartoon Network. It’s been tough getting set up—“I’d gotten used to a certain lifestyle,” he says—and it hasn’t been all unfettered freedom. He’s currently alternating between animation projects and industrial films, like one about sustainability to be played for Wal-Mart employees. But for him, quitting was the best career move. As it was, too, for Nicholas Nathanson, who left his job as an Internet equity research associate at a New York investment bank in 1999—just when that field promised unlimited advancement and riches—at age 29 to start an online surfwear store called Swell. You see, it’s not that Grups don’t want to work; they just don’t want to work for you. In a recent Money magazine poll about bosses, 54 percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t want their boss’s job no matter how much money you paid them. Fifty-four percent.

“If I had spent the last six years working at that job and progressed, I would have made a lot of money,” Nathanson told me from San Juan Capistrano, California, where his surfwear company is based. “But honestly, there have been very few days in the past six years where I’ve gotten in my car to go to work and thought, Fuck, I’m going to work. When I was at the investment bank, that was happening 50 percent of the days. And now I can go snowboarding at Mammoth in the middle of the week if there’s a good storm, rather than worrying about being at work at six in the morning. And there’s another upside as well: I have a total and complete passion for this business.”

There’s that tricky word again: passion. What’s with the Grups and passion? It’s all anyone wants to talk about. Passionate parents, passionate workers, passionate listeners to the new album by Wolf Parade. Even Rogan lights up when he talks about touring Japanese textile factories to find the perfect denim for his jeans. And I start to realize: Under the skin of the iPods and the $400 ripped jeans, this is the spine of the Grup ethos: passion, and the fear of losing it.

Which brings me back to my father: the one who wore suits, not jeans; the one who, when he was my age, already had four kids; the one who logged a lifetime at exactly the kind of middle-management jobs that no one wakes up excited about going to in the morning, and who then found himself sandbagged by the late-eighties recession, laid off in what must have felt like the worst kind of double whammy. All the adult trade-offs he’d made turned out to be a brutal bait-and-switch. Is it any wonder that the Grups have looked at that brand of adulthood and said, “No thanks, you can keep your carrot and your stick.” Especially once we saw just how easily that stick can be turned around to whap your ass as you’re ushered out the door, suit and all. Just how easily a bona fide, by-the-book adult can be made to wonder where it all went wrong, and why you ever bothered to grow up in the first place.

The Happy Ending

And this, improbably, is the happy ending to our story. (And, I admit, I’d hoped for a happy ending; for all the bedhead haircuts and Hives-peddling parents, I wanted this to end well.) Being a Grup isn’t, as it turns out, all about holding on to some misguided, well-marketed idea of youth—or, at least, isn’t just about that. It’s also about rejecting a hand-me-down model of adulthood that asks, or even necessitates, that you let go of everything you ever felt passionate about. It’s about reimagining adulthood as a period defined by promise, rather than compromise. And who can’t relate to that?

Of course, that’s not a real ending—even the Grups don’t know how this will end. They know they’re making up adulthood as they go. “My dad’s worked at the same place he’s worked for 30 years,” says Peccini. “But when I left my job, he said to me, ‘If I was your age—and if I hadn’t had three kids and a mortgage—I would have done the same thing.’ ” When I ask Peccini what he sees himself doing in ten years, or at his dad’s age, he gives the typical Grup answer. “That’s a great question,” he says. “I don’t know. But I like my life.”

Even Andy and Dominique, the startlingly cool rock-star parents, aren’t quite sure where this is headed. “All I know is that the end point you give yourself keeps shifting by five years,” says Andy. “When we were in our twenties, we were like, ‘When we get in our mid-thirties, we’ll have to call it quits, because it’s too pathetic after that.’ Then we got to our mid-thirties, and the timetable became the early forties. I suppose when we get there, we’ll say, ‘Once we hit 50 . . . ’ ” Then he says, with more resolve, “On our 50th birthday, it will be official. No more touring.”