Friday, January 6, 2012

The Steampunk Facebook

January has come in like a lamb in central Wisconsin, stirring thoughts of Toy Fair sooner than usual.

For a time at the conclusion of the Handful O’Landfill era, Toy Fair was the highlight of my year. The show was held in February, in two quite separate buildings in New York, and I loved everything about it – seeing old friends, seeing new toys, doing good work, being immersed in a world where I truly belonged, eating the bagels in the press room, and schlepping from one end to another of the greatest city on earth until my feet bled.

The fair part of Toy Fair was held at the Javits Center, hard to the left-hand middle of Manhattan. Most of the rest of the show took place in the International Toy Building, a nondescript pile on the ugly end of Broadway filled with man-eating staircases, harsh fluorescent lights, artificial flowers, carnie-prize teddy bears, and cheerless people, fat importers and pale novelty-makers who smelled of cigars and tandoori takeaway.

“This is about toys, right?” I remember yelling down a dead-end hallway on the 14th floor. “Where are the kids? Where are the smiles? Where is the fun?”

“Can I light this thing?” was the response from a pot-bellied 60-year-old who proceeded to torch a black cheroot as big as your arm.

The thing I liked best about Toy Fair – and I use the term “best” in an atypical sense – was its death-of-a-salesman aspect. Many of the smaller exhibitors were literally betting the farm on Toy Fair, on their geegaw catching the eye of a floorwalking Mattel exec or, best of all, the Wal-Mart buyer. Their lives were hinging on the vague promise of an informal chat with someone who knew the stateside rep for an offshore manufacturer who private-labeled stuff for Toys ‘R’ Us, the alternative was a career in video-store management, and God, I rooted for them. I hoped against hope their brass ring would turn up gold, but most times there wasn’t even a ring.

I remember two Canadian sisters who had a booth next to the booth of APBA, a respected sports-simulation game maker that had engaged me to create products, boost collectability and engage in general whoop-de-do. The sisters had created a game called Spellcast that they hoped would be their ticket off the prairies and on to – I don’t know; Edmonton, maybe. The game was worthy; less playable games have made it to the back corner at Target. We gave them all the free help we could over the back fence, but it didn’t do much good. They got the usual vague lies from buyers and were robbed at the World Trade Center during their night on the town. By the next year the sisters had split up, the game was scuffling and the WTC was on the ground. Their story wasn't par for the course, but it was a solid double-bogey.

There was a fin-de-siècle feeling to my last trip to Toy Fair. I knew it was going to be my last trip; I had a real paying job that took me reluctantly as far away from Toy Fair as a working stiff can get. The properties that had paid the bills were extinct, on life support or in remission – Gundam Wing, Digimon, Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, OverPower, even Magic: The Gathering. 9/11 had trashed my business. The Pokémon magazine had folded. APBA had called it a day. The International Toy Building was being sold and all the 60-year-old cigar-chompers were being kicked down the neverending stairs.

I wandered the aisles and chomped the bagels with a greater sense of purpose that year. I was having my own Willy Loman moment; if I didn’t find a match somewhere at the show I was dooming myself to a life of – all right; I’ll say it – dental insurance.

That’s when I stumbled across PeopleCards.

When I saw PeopleCards I thought, "These are the most communist cards ever!" Really. From their workers-walking-side-by-side-into-a-brave-new-world logo to their San Francisco address, PeopleCards couldn't be redder if they featured I.W.W. slogans and lyrics to Joe Hill songs printed on Bolshevik board.

PeopleCards are all that their name implies, and nothing more or less. They're pictures of people on cardboard. The people are just people – your friends and neighbors, assuming you hail from the freakier parts of Greater California – and the pictures range from Uncle-Harry-in-the-backyard Instamatic shots to church-directory portraits.

In keeping with PeopleCards’ DIY aesthetic, the people featured on the card fronts write the card backs, and stray as far from the usual “Mickey hit .268 in the Sally League” prose of trading cards as they can get.

Consider these entries from the Big Book O’People Cards:

Richard Ravine, aka: Big Rich, Motto: Do not do it today!

John Ponsford, aka: Clark Kent, Favorite Book: Other people's diaries

Bob Bukin, Occupation: High Voltage Lineman, Favorite Animal: Poodle

Tamara Moreno, Occupation: Sex Instructor, Motto: If it feels good, do it!

David Chmiel, Ancestry: Polish, Idea of Perfect Happiness: Never being married

Randy Davis, aka Rhino, Most pronounced habit: Being naked at all times possible

(And yes, someone lists Independence Day as their favorite movie ever.)

Or consider in more detail, under the heading “Thermographics”:

My name is Melissa Altman, aka Motley. I'm a Russian/Jewish art restorer from Sherman Oaks, CA. My favorite animals are little monkeys, and my motto is, "Screw them if they can't take a joke!" My favorite TV show is Iron Chef, and I love to pretend I am a pirate. My favorite drink is Orangina and my most-used expression is "Nobody puts baby in the corner!" Oh, and I like anything with BBQ sauce.

Rick [Savage], also known as “The White Shadow,” can grow a serious mustache in an hour. His idea of perfect happiness is In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Rick’s most used expressions is “Das Freaky Weak!!”, and a weird thing he does is, “I talk to my food when I eat … ‘Are you precious little chillums ready for The White Shadow?’” Rick’s most pronounced habit: “Knockin’ bootz in the back seat of my Carlo.”

Proletarian pictures of proletarian people describing their proletarian lives, and nobody puts baby in the corner when he’s knockin’ bootz in the back seat of his Carlo. Does this sound like anything to you?

No? Then consider the words of PeopleCards founder Brant Herman in introducing PeopleCards on Feb. 6, 2002:

“As the past months have shown us, it is the real people of this world that make the differences which we all value … Looking into the lives, personalities and experiences of real people, rather than artificial experiences of actors and models, is the way for our culture to realize how truly great we are …

“PeopleCards … celebrate the oddities, quirks and interests of everyday people from around the world … You can … sign up for the chance to have your own PeopleCard printed. You can also visit to experience PeopleCards' extended online community … Our website,, will revolutionize the trading-card experience by providing visitors with a myriad of ways to interact with each other – forums, homepages, galleries, email, and more.” Forums, homepages, galleries, email, and more? At this point, if you’re not thinking Facebook you’re not thinking.

PeopleCards was Facebook before there was Facebook. Brant Herman was the steam-powered Mark Zuckerberg. He was Charles Babbage to Zuckerberg’s Steve Jobs. And Herman’s takeaway from PeopleCards? Bupkis.

Just as some of the first horseless carriages came festooned with fake horses’ heads so as not to overly upset the four-hoofed status quo, PeopleCards came with some prehensile trading-card appendages, so as not to give buyers too large a chunk of the future at once. For instance, you could play games with PeopleCards. My favorite, called “Connections,” goes like this:

Each player uses one pack of PeopleCards (8 cards). The oldest player throws out the first card. Each player looks for a connection or match between one of the cards in his/her hand and the card in play. Any player may play a card with a connection. Multiple matches are allowed.

When a match is made place your card on one of the four sides of the object card. State the match to the other players. If a player disagrees with your connection he/she may challenge. At this time you plead the case for your connection. The other players may agree or disagree. Majority wins.

Any card that has at least one open side is available for match play. Matches may be made with any open card. Play continues until no other connections can be made.

It’s not exactly Farmville, but look: no single winner. Everybody wins. How positively This Land Is Your Land.

The flaw in Brant Herman’s grand design is the flaw in most dreamers’ master strokes: money. (Socialism, meet capitalism.) PeopleCards cost $2.99 a pack. Two ninety-nine for eight cards where the very best card is literally a common and there are 1:18 odds of getting a Samuel Nandi (“The quality he likes most in himself: ‘Stripped Ego Nude’”) wasn't going to make the Wal-Mart buyer do backflips down the stuffed-plush aisle.

PeopleCards had zero moneymaking potential to an even greater extent than most big ideas. Steve Jobs could come galloping down from Valhalla on the back of Thomas Edison to rescue the franchise, and nothing would change. PeopleCards would still be DOA.

The ironic thing is that if they were flipped around, if the cards were used to push the site, PeopleCards truly were the Next Big Thing. They were Facebook with a homegrown Zynga. Kept as they were, with the site pushing the cards, PeopleCards were barely a footnote.

Just for the heck of it, I tried to track down Brant Herman on LinkedIn, the online PeopleCards for business types. I found a Brant Herman in the San Francisco area. He’s a project manager. He has one connection.

I wanted to ask him if he regretted anything about PeopleCards, but at the last minute I thought better of it. I didn't want to disturb his plans for a clockwork iPad.


  1. Might have those Fleer Flair comic cards you long for. And a Pojo's Pokomon jersey, too.

  2. I have the Pojo's Pokemon jersey, too. I gave it to my son one day when he needed a jersey for hockey practice and he gave it right back. Guess he didn't care for the evil-eye logo.