An engrossing microcosm of the internet’s Wild West years, based on an ugly conflict between two eccentric innovators of online dating and pornography.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Kushner (Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D, 2017, etc.) delivers another digestible look at transformations spurred by unpredictable technologies, turning the dry topic of domain-name battles into a lively representation of the era’s hype, confusion, and outsized personalities. He writes about “an epic rivalry that established many of the rules that enable electronic commerce today….The war for Sex.com represents an essential, but overlooked, chapter behind one of the greatest inventions of our time: the internet.” The story revolves around two oppositional yet strangely similar figures: Gary Kremen, an unkempt computer innovator whose keen sense of what was next was embodied by his founding of the dating site Match.com, and Stephen Michael Cohen, a con artist, libertine, and tech enthusiast who developed the first sex-oriented bulletin board system in the early 1980s. Cohen was in prison in 1994, as Kremen was developing Match.com and, presciently, registering domain names based on perceiving their future profitability: “His plan was simple, to register each and every category of classified ads online.” Later, Cohen also took the Sex.com address, via forged paperwork, seeing its lucrative potential. The mercurial Kremen was astonished to discover the theft in the wake of his emotionally devastating ouster by the Match.com board. “Kremen didn’t know why or how Cohen had obtained what was rightfully his,” writes the author. This led to a complex, increasingly bitter legal battle. Kushner constructs this labyrinthine tale clearly, focusing on the experiences and outlooks of both Kremen and Cohen and chronicling his discussions with associates and early industry observers. He keeps it compelling by emphasizing the high stakes of their struggle for what the internet has since become, though the narrative sometimes meanders and finally seems anticlimactic.
An easily consumed, worthwhile addition to the literature reconstructing how the online world has become both profitable and pervasive.