Few twenty-year-olds can call themselves "old-timers" in any industry, except, of course, the online industry, and Michelle Finocchi, CC '02, already a two year veteran of the Internet business world, is living proof of this. This summer, Finocchi serves as an associate producer at the popular teen community website bolt.com. With over 2.85 million members, Bolt is the largest community site for teenagers in the world. "The site consists of member-generated content and community tools that our members use to communicate with each other," explained Finocchi.
As an associate producer, Finocchi "works on the content side." She elaborated that some of her responsibilities include "taking members' ideas and formatting them into features with html."
Unlike some other sites, however, neither Bolt nor Finocchi were overnight success stories. The Randolph, New Jersey native revealed not only her changing status within Bolt, but Bolt's own evolution: "I started out just as an intern in September of 1998. At first, working at Bolt was just your average college job, but eventually I got more and more interested in the possibilities the Internet offered. They treated me really well, so I gave them my loyalty. I only went once a week, but it was still amazing to watch Bolt's growth--when I started there were only 300,000 members and like 30 employees; now Bolt has millions of members, over 200 employees, and has offices all over America."
Though Finocchi takes both her own and her company's triumphs in stride, she admits that "I feel really lucky to have had this experience, especially when so many Internet companies fail--it's a little overwhelming."
Despite her youth, Finocchi finds that her colleagues respect her input and accept her as an equal: "My co-workers are all a little older than me, but they still listen to me. After all, they target the site for 15 to 20 year-olds--that's me."
Like the majority of other websites who have survived for any substantial length of time, Bolt has felt the need to change its original concept in order to better cater to its users' wants. "Bolt's going through a transition period right now. Initially, the focus was on features--the site had a magazine-esque feel to it. Now what members want is a chat site, so we're becoming a global communications platform with some wireless applications; kids look to the Internet to communicate with each other, not for a magazine," said Finocchi.
A few years ago, however, the now web-savvy Finocchi could not have predicted that she would one day throw around terms like "global communications platform," as if they were drive-thru orders. Finocchi disclosed that she had initially envisioned herself getting involved in more artistically-based endeavors. "I've always been really into art. In high school, I took it for four years, and I particularly liked working with charcoals and pastels," Finocchi said.
Though the art history major claims that few of her courses at Columbia thus far directly relate to her job, she observes that her tenure at Bolt has positively affected her schoolwork. "I edit and write all day long at Bolt, and I've since noticed a real improvement in my writing skills." Bolt also offers Finocchi a therapeutic respite from the strains of school: "My job gives me a much needed break from academics; it's so great to stop reading a CC book or something and write about Limp Bizkit."
While Columbia hasn't affected Finocchi's job skills, per se, her college courses have certainly had a large impact on her first love: art. "I started out just producing it, but [after taking some art history courses], now I'm really interested in art criticism and journalism."
Her newfound angle on art and unexpectedly fruitful internship at Bolt have led her to set her career sights on merging her two interests: "I'd like to somehow combine my love of art journalism and criticism with the Internet. I've realized that the Internet is where the future of jobs is--and I feel lucky because I kind of have a one-up on it. I feel totally confident in my ability [to continue working in the Internet industry] after graduation," said Finocchi.
If Finocchi does intend on remaining in the online content business, she will certainly be ready to deal with some of its most controversial issues, having been exposed to them first-hand. Though the site gives more or less free reign to its members to pursue whatever conversation topics they raise, from "Chix with Tongue Rings--Cool or Uncool?" to "Drawstring Khakis ('Where can I get a pair?')," Finocchi admited that bolt.com "is not completely uncensored." Finocchi explained, "You can't denigrate certain races, or groups of people, etc."
However, in general, the site provides an arena in which teens can openly and unabashedly discuss the issues they face; for example, a quick logon to the Bolt Boards (bolt.com's bulletin board system) yields several messages from female members trying to support another member struggling with obesity and an eating disorder.
As for online pedophiles and stalkers, Finocchi conceded that, as an online community site, you can only do so much to prevent them; "We comply with the Online Securities Act, which prohibits anyone 13 years-old or younger from releasing personal information. In fact, we don't even allow people under 15 to register. I've seen people who have listed their age as 39, and you can't kick them off the site, but I think today's teen Internet users are savvy enough to pick out the pedophiles. In any case, it's a risk we're willing to take in order to offer freedom of communication. We haven't had any problems so far."
Whatever the young would-be artist cum-entrepeneur chooses to do, she will certainly have no trouble finding the right drawstring khakis for the occasion.