2 Aug 2010 9:42 pm   //   Filed under: Hard times

Remember 2008?

There was a point when everything looked like hell. Banks were collapsing, threatening to take New York City down with them. Newspapers and magazines were folding all over the place. We lost Circuit City, the Virgin Megastore, and a lot of small businesses. Food supplies even got scarce enough to drive prices up. I remember talking to someone about the possibility that we might soon walk into a supermarket and find no bread on the shelves. This was only 2 years ago!

Today, the Dow closed up 2%, New York feels like its booming, and Newsweek magazine actually found a buyer. Even Blockbuster is still kicking.

Why were we all so scared two years ago? Why was I so scared?

And make no mistake: I was scared. In November 2008 (shortly after I reported on the demise of Digital Railroad) I wrote a post called “Web 2.0 Death Pool,” in which I asked readers of this blog to predict which of the following companies would go out of business within a year: Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and Hulu. Looking back, I regret writing such a ghoulish post, and I’ve deleted it from my site. But here’s another one, not as dire, in which I predicted the financial crisis would lead to more downtime at free web sites. Again, this did not play out.

I wasn’t the only one making badly wrong, negative predictions. In a now-notorious March 2009 post, the web site 24/7 Wall Street listed “The Ten Major Newspapers That Will Fold Or Go Digital Next.” A year and a half later, all of the newspapers on the list are still in print.

Part of my panic was personal. I am instinctively a nervous person who plans for the worst case scenario—even when I’m trying to appear calm and positive. In 2008 I was working for a company that was laying people off. As part of my job, I was talking to a lot of photographers who thought their business was collapsing. At home, I was getting the Wall Street Journal dropped on my stoop ever morning (since cancelled), which meant bad news was the first thing I saw each day with my coffee.

What I lacked was perspective. My entire adult life, the stock market always went up. Cities sprawled and real estate appreciated. The smartest move you could make was to take out a mortgage and buy a home. Once those happy rules for a life of leisurely middle class comfort began to seem flexible, well, all bets were off. The machine seemed out of control and good people were getting screwed. Everyone paying attention to the housing crisis felt bad, fearful, and irrational.

I hope I’ve learned from that. Whenever I find myself predicting the failure of a person or business, I stop and reevaluate why I feel that way. I’ve been wrong about this too many times. Despite what the numbers on paper say, people, and the institutions we build, are surprisingly resilient.