Reinhold Grether on Sat, 26 Feb 2000 10:18:37 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> How the Etoy Campaign Was Won

How the Etoy Campaign Was Won
An Agent's Report
By agent.nasdaq aka Reinhold Grether

Toywar I is over. After 81 days of heavy fighting is back with a great victory parade.
The german version of this article was published by Telepolis
on  February 9th, 2000. You should find the english Web
version soon on
Thanks to David Hudson for translating
this. The first part of the article deals with the art of etoy,
the second with campaign tactics.


Part I: Thank you for flying etoy....

Anyone who logged into the platform Toywar in early February 2000 was met
with two watery graves in the Indian Ocean in which 286
of 1,639 Toywar agents were buried in Lego-like coffins.
Victims of their own lack of participation, the warriors had
succumbed to a sheer undersupply of energy. A
project only exists as long as the nodes of the Net fill it
with life. And now, they waste away in their coffins, having
to make do with their burials as mere artistic artifacts. They
won't even end up on the art market.

They deserve our veneration not because they're dead,
but for what they've done. How often I've observed a
magazine article placed at the top of a Web page while
the bubbling of ideas goes on in the bowels of online
forums below. There, the email addresses of eToys'
employees and sit-in scripts were passed around, people
met and got to know each other, then built a protest site
together, and a collective brainstorming session poured
forth a cornucopia of proposals, more than any professional
campaign organization could process. Despite all the
naysaying, the Net is offering individuals new opportunities
to take action and giving ideas a better shot at taking hold.
It allows and even encourages cooperation in virtual groups,
and in the best of situations, a self-organizing countermatrix
as well that can make short work of a highly organized and
powerful corporation.

Both etoy and eToys exist only on the Web but on different
levels of virtuality. eToys runs
<>,  making hundreds of thousands
of playthings available to millions of children. The Web site
is a turntable spinning real objects into the world. If it was
still possible in the 1980s for Toys'R'Us to present the
universe of toys through a network of giant brick-and-mortar
stores, by the late '90s, this universe was being represented
by eToys on a network of computer terminals as a purely
virtual system of signs. Different means of distribution for
the same real objects. Etoy, the artistic third, upped the
level of abstraction to that of a purely virtual existence on
the Net. Etoy's toys are completely encoded as data sets
and the group's only art product for sale is stock,
etoy.SHARES, first circulated in galleries and later via the
Toywar platform. Whoever obtains these shares, either by
buying them, doing some recruiting or performing some
other service, becomes part of an art universe that exists
only on the Net.

Art is capital, as Joseph Beuys knew, and in his
Schaffhauser installation "Das Kapital" he placed
apparatuses and artifacts of media communication together
that force the observer into perceive them in action, to see
his or her own productivity as capital and himself or herself
as an artist. This model of one's own participation in art
gains the dimension of "social sculpture" only in so far as
the imaginative interrogation of the relics of anthropological
media communication infers the history of the interaction
encapsulated within them, thereby opening up spaces for
opportunities for participation in the future. Following Beuys,
who, it should be noted, used all the media available in his
day for the creation of social sculptures, etoy, with its
shares concept and the Toywar platform, develops new
formats for participation in art which, making full use of the
networking potential of the Internet, enliven a virtual space
for information, communication and transaction, an ensemble
of tools for action for "interventions in the symbolic
reproduction process of society" (Frank Hartmann)
and an institutionalizing self-articulation organ for virtuality.
So etoy's efforts seem aimed at carrying the concept
of the social sculpture over to a digital format.

For artistic reasons, etoy could not accept the takeover
offer from eToys, which after all, amounted to a million
German marks at the time. The story would have worked,
of course, since "unfriendly takeovers" are now a common
part of doing business. For the first time, would have
brought a newsworthy price and nomadic artists obtain
their domains from various contemporary subversion zones
anyway. But without the claim on, the project of
the social sculpture would have been out of reach. It
borders on insult and suggests a bad memory when etoy
is now accused of "selling out." They already passed up
their considerable chance to do so.

And so, two representations on the Web stood opposed
to one another. eToys, the parasite-like one, organizing the
circulation of already existing real objects, and etoy, the
autochtonous one, using Web-based tools to pressure
virtual as well as real social processes to reveal and
change themselves. Two models of participation were
also opposed, one noting the changing valuations of stocks,
and the other honoring participation with shares in the project.
In the same way, it was a conflict between two lifestyles, 
one consumerist, giving absolute priority to acquisition, in
this case, a domain, and the other artistic, declaring the
exhibition of complex social practices, rather than art
objects, the object of art. And not least of all, of course,
the future of the Web was also at stake. Should it be reduced
to a transaction platform for ecommerce -- or should the
possibilities inherent in it for spontaneous networking,
"social information processing" (MichaelGiesecke)
culture jamming, interweaving and penetration and
personal globalization be further developed?

Therein lies the art of etoy, to have expounded upon these
polarities in complete clarity and to have forced the Net
population to make a decision. And although Toywar didn't
go up on the Net until a month after the first court order,
Netizens understood the question and answered it in their
own unique way. John Perry Barlow is right when he says,1367,33159,00.html
we should all be grateful to etoy. But it's not only
the posing of these questions and the development of
Toywar that needs to be recognized, but also the finessing,
invisible to the public, of the juridical problems. What had
to be borne out and built upon in terms of pressures and
counterattacks, threats and intentionally misleading moves
is known only to those who were immediately involved.
The legal result, at any rate, is as excellent as the exposition
of the decision-making problem.

Is everything, then, not art after all? Art is a term of
attribution that's constantly changing its rules. The
Renaissance, Romanticism and Modernism all developed
countless concepts throwing off aesthetic sparks from the
overlapping of life and art. Etoy stands firmly in this tradition.
Has Duchamp already done it all? Duchamp's readymades
retain the character of objects for the most part; etoy forces
the character of readymades onto social processes, in
particular, the making and marketing of virtuality. What
eToys and Network Solutions do -- these are the
readymades of the '00s. Didn't Beuys completely and
utterly exhaust the theme of the social sculpture? Wrong --
Beuys developed social sculptures in the medium of
anthropological psychism; only the first explorations are now
being conducted in the medium of transanthropic virtualism,
e.g., Luther Blissett and
Toywar <>.

Warhol drove the recontextualization of everyday icons with
great style, Koons exposed the pornography of surfaces
and the Business Art of the '80s recast corporate identity
to the hilt, so what's left for etoy? Etoy's perversion lies in
upping, measure by measure, the development of the value of a
single icon, their own name, virtually cast as
<>, in the spiraling attention of the
economic, political, social and artistic, thus reflecting the
process of the creation of value in the financial markets in
the excess of self-exaggeration. So it's not enough to merely
simulate an airline, as Ingold Airlines does; you
have to chase the take-off and landing slots away from
Lauda Air with the
"fucking plugins" from agent.jeff.

Part II: Bringing IT to YOU.

When, back in November 1999, eToys management
unveiled its coup and Judge Shook pored over the files
and etoy developed the concept for the Toywar platform,
I had just completed my several-month-long study of the
evolution of stock prices on the "Neue Markt"
Germany's vague equivalent of the US technology index
NASDAQ. The bulk of these stocks for the most part rose
dramatically after their initial public offering and then more
or less zigged and zagged along a plateau before plunging
downwards, opening out onto a bland wallowing around
the initial offering price. As they say, these valuations are
rather drab. Since these new companies are just now
creating the markets within which they move, the valuations
excuse the most miserable data as long as the story allows
expectations for greater future valuations.

The actual dynamic lies in the story, the fantasy of the market
which, like Switzerland's warm wind, keeps things stirring
as long as there's enough hot air feeding it. If, over time, the
story loses some of its plausibility, the smart investor grabs
his profits, borrowing the same paper for a limited time,
selling high, and if the stock falls, buys it back and gives it
back. Those who anticipate a change in the market profit
whether it goes up or down. The sovereign speculator is
the one with his hand on the course of the story.

As the story turns, so turns the market. The stock falls
because a majority of investors believe they'll earn more
if it falls than if it rises. Rather nasty for those who banking
on high valuations. Long-term investors wait for the next
upward trend, others take their losses and validate the
downward trend, while the truly sorry ones are those
forbidden to deal by the rules of the exchange. These
are the founding investors and the company management
for the duration of the six months following the initial public
offering. Looking at the toys market, the general trend on
the exchange and overall economic development, literary
critics and economists would not be alone in risking
argumentatively sound statements on the future of the
story and the stock exchange.

If two entities are fighting over the same thing, e.g., the
domain, the one who wins will be the one
who can convince the other that the object of desire is not
as desirable as it appears. The etoy domain was an object
of desire, for EToys, because they were losing 20,000 of
300,000 hits a day to, for etoy, because the
domain name was the point of reference of their artistic
existence. And the fight was particular heated because the
opponents followed different sets of logic; the economic,
on the one hand, which has to do with numbers and payments,
and the artistic on the other, where it has to do with anything
but. The art group was in possession of a double advantage:
for one, the domain was theirs, and for another, far more
important one, the exhibition of the bizarre practices of the
financial world was nothing less than their artistic project.
While etoy could always put both sets of logic into play,
eToys was never able to put the logic of economics to use
against its opponent by, for example, burying the opponent
in an avalanche of legal fees, nor could it use a third logic,
for example, the criminal prosecution of Net activists. No
one could hold it against eToys that they couldn't follow 
the logic of art.

When I developed, without knowing any of the participants,
the core of what became the RTMark campaign with my "a new toy
for you" (all of which is documented at
<>), the point was to set
up an undeniable mirror which would make the moves by
etoy.arts and etoy.politics appear as losses in the market value
of eToys. This mirror was the NASDAQ notation of eToys
from which I was able to determine that the company had
exhausted the hot air puffing up their story and that the
market was looming on the verge of introducing a
downward trend. The idea of focusing the campaign on
the destruction of eToys's market valuation was an act of
speculating on speculation, a metastory, telling once again
the parallel story already autonomously programmed for a
fall. As etoy.arts used the similarity of the domains as a value
effect, so did etoy.politics use the fall in the stock price as a
battle effect. "To hype out the hype," as Ricardo Dominguez
and I coined the tactic in The Thing's BBS chat.

It wasn't a betting game. It was a thought through calculation:
The stock was introduced on May 20, and starting on
November 20, the insiders flooded the market. The valuation
reflected the anticipation of expectations for the Christmas
shopping season and was already moving downward. All
etailers found themselves under pressure because the
traditional companies had found their electronic footing.
And the campaign would arouse so much brouhaha that
the majority of new investors would be betting on the slide.

Conceptually and legally, etoy.arts was set up brilliantly.
Etoy.politics followed a few days afterwards. The judge's
ink was barely dry when the first attacks hit the eToys Web
site. The spontaneous self-activation of hundreds and the sheer
speed of the flow of information were the trump cards. A
respectable batch of unmoderated mailing lists such as Rhizome
<>, where my "urgently needed"
<>, sent 36 minutes after
I received the news to Nettime and four minutes later to 
Rhizome - had long since met with a wave of positive
resonance, when Nettime moderator Ted Byfield (who, by
the way, did a great job in the background) let me know
that "we don't send out stuff like this." Even though the point
was to attack eToys immediately, to hit them senseless with
attacks just when they were already overworked with their
monumental Christmas business. The media and scene subscribed to
Rhizome understood immediately, and shortly after "a new toy,"
I found myself hijacked by the art group RTMark to the working group
furiously toiling away.

When the forms on the Web site, and then the mailboxes of the
management were plastered with protests with the help of Richard
Zach's estimable Feedbackpage
eToys was pulled into a press frenzy, and they must have
realized in no uncertain terms that they were facing a powerful
opponent with a talent for grand politics. Etoy made this clear
on a legal level, RTMark on the political, the NASDAQ valuation
on the financial and the virtual sit-in on the infrastructural level.

A virtual sit-in is little more than a collective, simultaneous
requesting of a Web site. If one requests a Web site faster
than it can be transferred and built up on the end user's
screen, the server receives, on the one hand, a message
telling it that the first request is no longer valid, and on the
other hand, the new request. Scripts running on one's own
computer or on go-between servers automate this process,
and after a certain number of requests, the server under
attack begins to suffer under the strain. One has to
differentiate very specifically between knocking out a server
for private motives and a political action openly disrupting a
Web site for clearly formulated reasons and for a limited
time. That's when it becomes comparable to a warning
strike during wage negotiations, a means of civil disobedience signaling that
one side has the willingness and courage to fight. A virtual
sit-in risks bringing symbolic forms of action to bear in a
medium of virtuality.

In the case of eToys, great pains were taken to attack
the server for short spans of time only (six fifteen-minute
periods on ten Christmas shopping days) and to avoid
completely bringing it down at all costs. There was a
"killer bullet script" which was capable of doing just that,
but its use was unanimously opposed. One participant wrote:
"I'm not ready to trade the distributed, swarming community
of activists model for a single tactical nuke." The point was
to get across just how widespread the
protest was; it was not about a terrorist attack.

This much can be said of the effect: There were seven or
eight rotating mirrors around the world running five
different scripts. Added to this were several tools circulating
around on the Net which can be installed on personal
computers. The combination made it possible to keep
eToys's server busy performing routine tasks. The cleverest
script was probably "killertoy.html", a non-linear script that
fills cookies-based shopping carts to the brim without actually
making a purchase. For every new item, the server would
have to refigure the complete list all over again, a process
that would take longer and longer as the cart filled, and
some of the mirrors could generate a hundred thousand
or more requests a day. eToys's server was able to process
the simple request for pages on the first day without a hitch,
but the more complex scripts introduced on the second day
gave it a run for its money. Requests for particular IP
addresses were completely blocked, meaning that eToys
was taking itself out of these networks. It was the
"super_plus_version" of the shopping scripts, then, that led
to the shut-down of one of The Thing's Web sites by
backbone provider Verio. Here, too, the "hype out the hype"
strategy was at work, further virtualizing eToys's virtual
shopping carts with virtual purchases.

Just as important was the constant presence in all the
investors' forums
that had to do with eToys where breath-taking, whiplash-like
discussions were taking place. At first, the tone was set
primarily by the financial world gloating over those mourning
for the lost domain. But the vocabulary of investors can be
picked up pretty quickly, and soon, the speculators counting
on an upward trend were confronted with all sorts of
negative financial data. When the market made its irreversible
dip, the catcalls from investors betting on the slump out yelled
even those from the activists.

The financial press was as surely in eToys's hands as the
cultural press was in etoy's. But the telling difference lay in the
fact that one side publicized the story for all it was worth,
while the other side avoided every instance of publicity. So
the financial press, which could hardly ignore the dramatic
fall in the stock price, kept the impact of the "Internet
renegades" as invisible as possible. Up to the point of
eToys's first concession when ran the
complete press statement from RTMark. "It's hysterical,"
one of the founders emailed.

No personal meeting, no telephone contact. Email and
Web sites, nothing else. Mad email traffic early in the
evening, and when necessary, early in the morning. Then,
time to think it all over. Shortly after noon, mails to Rhizome
so that the early risers on the east coast were immediately
brought up to speed. Flow, when ten to twenty people were
communicating at once and sending information around the
world. Anyone can do it. You, too.

An email finish with electronic slingshots! Hundreds of
Toywar agents place the eToys management under Toywar
fire! Unconditional surrender!!!

Days later, we were confronted with 683 fresh coffins. The
coffins of those who didn't follow the first Toywar.Order,
didn't write the warning email as instructed. The false deaths
of Toywar, now revived.

I'd like to know what Mr. Weibel thinks now. At the Center for Art
and Media Technology (ZKM), he opened the exhibition net_condition
and didn't even invite etoy, winner of the .net category of Prix
Ars Electronica in 1996. Perhaps the clever man suspected
that the standard-setting exhibition of the net-condition would
be outfitted by etoy on the Net anyway.

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