Back in early 1997, I got email from some guy who said he worked for The Mining Company, and was recruiting people to join their company. Based solely on the strength of my snazzy interactive fiction pages, they wanted me to work for them.
I was skeptical. A web company I'd never heard of wanted to pay me to write about interactive fiction? It sounded like it might be barely one step up from the Nigerian scam.
The concept intrigued me, though. The Mining Company was hiring people to be guides on given topics. The Guides would both create an annotated list of links for their topics and write weekly articles. Search engines in the time before Google were very much a hit-or-miss proposition. Libraries have librarians to help you find what you need; why shouldn't the web have something similar?
Eventually I decided to sign on. Why not? At the time there weren't any comprehensive web sites for interactive fiction. I thought I could fill that niche and in the process create a site that would be useful and interesting. In addition, the contract explicitly stated that I'd own the copyright to all of the articles I wrote; only the annotations for the library of links would be work for hire.
Prospective guides for The Mining Company went through several weeks of preparatory work, during which they built their link library and wrote articles. The date on the first article I wrote was April 14th, 1997. I wrote about the upcoming Third Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. The next week I talked about why I thought full-motion video did more harm than good in commercial adventure games. The week after that, my site went live.
I was part of the second wave of MiningCo Guides. The Mining Company had launched in February of 1997 with a small group of guides. Things were very much up in the air for that first year. Sometimes things worked; oftentimes they didn't. Each site was assigned a small icon, and I spent time asking the designers why my site's icon was an illustration of a CD being put in a CD-ROM drive. Our sites went through a number of different template designs, some of which you can see courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Be sure to take a look at the site design circa October, 1999, and marvel at the sickly mustard color.
The company grew tremendously. In late 1999 The Mining Company morphed into About.com, spurred on by the dot.com craze and an IPO. When I joined there were around fifty sites; by then there were eight hundred sites. About began appearing in the Media Metrix list of top-visited domains, helped in part by acquisition after acquisition.
As the company grew, so did some of the strictures on Guides. Originally our library of links were merely HTML files we uploaded via FTP. They became databases of links entered into online forms, and employed a proprietary form of XML instead of HTML. Plans were made to have us create all of our pages, including articles, using XML-based online tools.
Things really began heading south for me in early 2001. Primedia, Inc., the people who brought you Guns & Ammo and Channel One, bought About. About had never capitalized on the promise of selling advertising targeted to our narrowly-focused sites, so when the general ad market tanked, About was in dire straits. Primedia wasn't faring much better.
The relationship between Guides and management, which once had been quite good, soured. Scott Kurnit, CEO and the man who had created About, publically referred to Guides as the "pieceworkers of the 21st century." Pay was slashed, and slashed again. In spring of 2001 management began quietly getting rid of guides, ostensibly for creating sub-par content.
It wasn't enough. On September 25th, 2001, About got rid of over 300 of their sites, including mine. They were moving from a content-oriented company to an e-commerce company.
Remember me mentioning that I own copyright to everything I wrote for About? That's why I've been able to move all of my content to this new site. I expect to keep adding to it for a while yet.
And that, Gentle Readers, is the history of how Brass Lantern came to be. I hope the new site will be as interesting as the old one.