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Excerpt from Chapter 5: Webzines Find Their Voice

What follows is an excerpt from the latest chapter an ongoing series I’ve been writing for the last few months at CSS Tricks, the full thing is a bit long to include all at once. It’s about webzines, a part of web’s history I find myself returning to frequently. They were responsible for the tone of the early web. And the later web too. You can read (or listen to) the rest of the chapter on CSS Tricks (I hope you will). Chapter 6 out soon.

Previously in web history…

Mosaic is the first browser to feature inline images, a capability that demonstrates the visual potential of the web. The first websites are experiments, created by larger teams and independent individuals alike. As hundreds of sites turns into thousands and tens of thousands, search directories like Yahoo!, and search engines like InfoSeek and AltaVista, direct traffic to the most popular websites. The right placement could lift a site from obscurity to ubiquity. Before long, publishers went to war to get themselves a top slot…

Not long after HotWired launched on the web in 1994, Josh Quittner wrote an article entitled “Way New Journalism” for the publication. He was enthusiastic about the birth of a new medium.

I’m talking about a sea change in journalism itself, in the way we do the work of reporting and presenting information. The change that’s coming will be more significant than anything we’ve seen since the birth of New Journalism; it may be even more revolutionary than that. It has to be: Look at all the new tools we’re getting.

The title and the quote was a nod to the last major revolution in journalism, what writer Tom Wolfe would often refer to as “New Journalism” in the 1960s and 1970s. Wolfe believed that journalism was shifting in the second half of the 20th century. Writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion incorporated the methods and techniques of fiction into nonfiction storytelling to derive more personal narrative stories.

Quittner believed that the web was bringing us a change no less bold. “Way New Journalism” would use the tools of the web — intertextual links, concise narratives, interactive media — to find a new voice. Quittner believed that the voice that writers used on the web would become more authentic and direct. “Voice becomes more intimate and immediate online. You expect your reporter (or your newspaper/magazine) to be an intelligent agent, a voice you recognize and trust.”

Revolutions, as it were, do not happen overnight, and they don’t happen predictably. Quittner would not be the last to forecast, as he describes it, the sea-change in publishing that followed the birth of the web. Some of his predictions never fully come to fruition. But he was correct about voice. The writers of the web would come to define the voice of publishing in a truly fundamental way.

 


 

In 1993, Wired included an article in their Fall issue by fiction writer William Gibson called “Disneyland with a Death Penalty.” The now well-known article is ruthlessly critical of Singapore, what Gibson describes as a conformist government structure designed to paper over the systemic issues of the city-state that undermine its culture. It was a strong denunciation of Singaporean policy, and coincidentally, it was not well-received by its government. Wired, which had only just recently published its fourth issue, was suddenly banned from Singapore, a move that to some appeared to incriminate rather than refute the central thesis of Gibson’s column.

This would not be Wired‘s last venture into the controversial. Its creators, Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe, spent years trying to sell their countercultural take on the digital revolution — the “Rolling Stone” of the Internet age. When its first issue was released, The New York Times called it “inscrutable and nearly hostile to its readers.” Wired, and Rosetto in particular, cultivated a reputation for edgy content, radical design, and contentious drama.

In any case, the Singapore ban was little more than a temporary inconvenience for two driven citizens who lived there. They began manually converting each issue of Wired into HTML, making them available for download on a website. The first Wired website, therefore, has a unique distinction of being an unofficial, amateur project led by two people from a different country uploading copyrighted content they didn’t own to a site that lacked any of the panache, glitz, or unconventional charm that had made Wired famous. That would drive most publications mad. Not Wired. For them, it was motivation.

Wired had one eye on the web already, well aware of its influence and potential. Within a few months, they had an official website up and running, with uploaded back issues of the magazine. But even that was just a placeholder. Around the corner, they had something much more ambitious in mind.

The job of figuring out what to do with the web fell to Andrew Anker. Anker was used to occupying two worlds at once. His background was in engineering, and he spent a bit of time writing software before spending years as a banker on Wall Street. When he became the CTO of Wired, he acted to balance out Rosetto and bring a more measured strategy to the magazine. Rosetto would often lean on his experience in the finance world as much as his training in technology.

Anker assembled a small team and began drawing up plans for a Wired website. One thing was clear: a carbon copy digital version of the magazine tossed up on the web wasn’t going to work. Wired had captured a perfect moment in time, launched just before the crescendo of the digital revolution. Its voice was distinct and earned; the kind of voice that might get you banned from a country or two. Finding a new voice for the web, and writing the rules of web publishing in the process, would once again place Anker on the knife’s edge of two worlds. In the one corner, community. And in the other, control.

Pulling influence from its magazine roots, the team decided that the Wired website would be organized into content “channels,” each focusing on a different aspect of digital culture. The homepage would be a launching pad into each of these channels. Some, such as Kino (film and movies) or Signal (tech news) would be carefully organized editorial channels, with columns that reflected a Wired tone and were sourced from the magazine’s writers. Other channels, like Piazza, were scenes of chaos, including chat rooms and message boards hosted on the site, filled with comments from ordinary people on the web.

The channels would be set against a bold aesthetic that cut against the noise of the plain and simple homepages and academic sites that were little more than a bit of black text on a white background. All of this would be packaged under a new brand, one derived from Wired but very much its own thing. In October of 1994, HotWired officially launched.

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Even against a backdrop of commercial web pioneers like GNN, HotWired stood out. They published dynamic stories about the tech world that you couldn’t find anywhere else, both from outside the web and within it. It soon made them among the most popular destinations on the web.

The HotWired team — holed up in a corner of the Wired office — frenetically jumped from one challenge to another, “inventing a new medium,” as Rosetto would later declare. Some of what they faced were technical challenges, building web servers that could scale to thousands of views a day or designing user interfaces read exclusively on a screen. Others were more strategic. HotWired was among the first to build a dedicated email list, for instance. They had a lot of conversations about what to say and how often to say it.

By virtue of being among the first major publications online, HotWired paved more than a few cow paths. They are often cited as the first website to feature banner ads. Anker’s business plan included advertising revenue from the very beginning. Each ad that went up on their site was accompanied by a landing page built specifically for the advertiser by the HotWired team. In launching web commercialization, they also launched some of the first ever corporate websites. “On the same day, the first magazine, the first automobile site, the first travel site, the first commercial consumer telephone company sites all went up online, as well as the first advertising model,” HotWired marketer Jonathan Nelson would later say.

Most days, however, they would find themselves debating more philosophical questions. Rosetto had an aphorism he liked to toss around, “Wired covers the digital revolution. HotWired is the digital revolution.” And in the public eye, HotWired liked to position themselves as the heart of a pulsing new medium. But internally, there was a much larger conflict taking place.

Some of the first HotWired recruits were from inside of the storm of the so-called revolution taking place on the Internet. Among them was Howard Rheingold, who had created a massive networked community known as the WELL, along with his intern Justin Hall who, as a previous chapter discussed, was already making a name for himself for a certain brand of personal homepage. They were joined by the likes of Jonathan Steur, finishing up his academic work on Internet communities for his Ph.D at Stanford, and Brian Behelendorf who would later be one of the creators of the Apache server. This was a very specific team, with a very specific plan.

“The biggest draw for me,” Behlendorf recalls, “was the idea of community, the idea of being able to pull people together to the content, and provide context through their contributions. And to make people feel like they were empowered to actually be in control.” The group believed deeply that the voice of the web would be one of contribution. That the users of the web would come together, and converse and collaborate, and create publishing themselves. To that end, they developed features that would be forward thinking even a decade later: user generated art galleries and multi-threaded chatrooms. They dreamed big.

Rosetto preferred a more cultivated approach. His background was as a publisher and he had spent years refining the Wired style. He found user participation would muddy the waters and detract from the site’s vision. He believed that the role of writers and editors on the web was to provide a strong point of view. The web, after all, lacked clear purpose and utility. It needed a steady voice to guide it. People, in Rosetto’s view, came to the web for entertainment and fun. Web visitors did not want to contribute; they wanted to read.

One early conflict perfectly illustrates the tension between the two camps. Rosetto wanted the site to add registration, so that users would need to create a profile to read the content. This would give HotWired further control over their user experience, and open up the possibility of content personalization tailored to each reader’s preferences. Rheingold and his team were adamantly against the idea. The web was open by design and registration as a requirement flew in the face of that. The idea was scrapped, though not necessarily on ideological grounds. Registration meant less eyeballs and less eyeballs meant less revenue from advertising.

The ongoing tension yielded something new in the form of compromise. Anker, at the helm, made the final decision. HotWired would ultimately function as a magazine — Anker understood better than most that the language of editorial direction was one advertisers understood — but it would allow community driven elements.

Rheingold and several others left the project soon after it launched, but not before leaving an impression on the site. The unique blend of Wired’s point of view and a community-driven ethos would give way to a new style on the website. The Wired tone was adopted to a more conversational style. Readers were invited in to be part of discussions on the site through comments and emails. Humor became an important tool to cut through a staid medium. And a new voice on the web was born.

The web would soon see experiments from two sides. From above, from the largest media conglomerates, and from below, writers working out of basements and garages and one-bedroom apartments. But it would all branch off from HotWired.

 


 

A few months before HotWired launched, Rosetto was at the National Magazine Awards. Wired had garnered a lot of attention, and was the recipient of the award for General Excellence at the event. While he was there, he struck up a conversation with Walter Isaacson, then New Media Editor for Time magazine. Isaacson was already an accomplished author and biographer — his 900 page tome Kissinger was a critical and commercial success — and journalist. At Time, he cultivated a reputation for exceptional journalism and business acumen, a rare combination in the media world.

Isaacson had become something of a legend at Time, a towering personality with an accomplished record and the ear of the highest levels of the magazine. He had been placed on the fast track to the top of the ranks and given enough freedom to try his hand at something having to do with cyberspace. Inside of the organization, Isaacson and marketing executive Bruce Judson had formed the Online Steering Committee, a collection of editors, marketers, and outside consultants tasked with making a few well-placed bets on the future of publishing.

The committee had a Gopher site and something do with Telnet in the works, not to mention a partnership with AOL that had begun to go sour. At the award ceremony, Isaacson was eager to talk to Rosetto a bit about how far Time Warner had managed to go. He was likely one of the few people in the room who might understand the scope of the work, and the promise of the Internet for the media world.

During their conversation, Isaacson asked what part of the Internet had Rosetto, who had already begun work on HotWired, excited him most. His response was simple: the web.

Isaacson shifted focus at Time Warner. He wanted to talk to people who knew the web, few in number as they were. He brought in some people from the outside. But inside of Time Warner there was really only one person trying his hand at the web. His name was Chan Suh, and he had managed to create a website for the hip-hop and R&B magazine Vibe, hiding out in plain sight.

Suh was not the rising star that Isaacson was. Just a few years out of college and very early in his career, he was flying under the radar. Suh had a knack for prescient predictions, and saw early on how publishing could fit with the web. He would impact the web’s trajectory in a number of ways, but he became known for the way in which he brought others up alongside him. His future business partner Kyle Shannon was a theater actor when Suh pulled him in to create one of the first digital agencies, Agency.com. He brought Omar Wasow — the future creator of social network Black Planet — into the Vibe web operation.

At Vibe, Suh had a bit of a shell game going. Shannon would later recall how it all worked. Suh would talk to the magazine’s advertisers, and say “‘For an extra ten grand I’ll give you an advertisement deal on the website,’ and they’re like, ‘That’s great, but we don’t have a website to put there,’ and he said, ‘Well, we could build it for you.’ So he built a couple of websites that became content for Vibe Online.” Through clever sleight of hand, Suh learned how to build websites on his advertisers’ dimes, and used each success to leverage his next deal.

By the time Isaacson found Suh, he was already out the door with a business plan and financial backers. Before he left, he agreed to consult while Isaacson gathered together a team and figured out how he was going to bring Time to the web.

Suh’s work had answered two open questions. Number one, it had proven that advertising worked as a business model on the web, at least until they could start charging online subscribers for content. Number two, web readers were ready for content written by established publications.

The web, at the time, was all promise and potential, and Time Warner could have had any kind of website. Yet, inside the organization, total dominance — control of the web’s audience — became the articulated goal. Rather than focus on developing each publication individually, the steering committee decided to roll up all of Time Warner’s properties into a single destination on the web. In October of 1994, Pathfinder launched, a site with each major magazine split up and spit out into separate feeds.

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A press release announcing the move to a single destination for multiple magazines, published on an early 1995 version of the Pathfinder website (Credit: The Pathfinder.com Museum)

At launch, Pathfinderpieced together a vibrant collection. Organized into discrete channels were articles from Sports Illustrated, People, Fortune, Time, and others. They were streamed together in a package that, though not as striking as HotWired or GNN, was at the very least clear and attractive. In their first week, they had 200,00 visitors. There were only a few million people using the web at this point. It wouldn’t be long before they were the most popular site on the web.

As Pathfinder’s success hung in the air, it appeared as if their bet had paid off. The grown-ups had finally arrived to button up the rowdy web and make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Within a year, they’d have 14 million visitors to their site every week. Content was refreshed, and was often up to date with publications, and they were experimenting with new formats. Lucrative advertising deals marked, though not quite profitability, at the very least steady revenue. Their moment of glory would not last long.

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The Pathfinder homepage was a portal to many established magazine publications.

There were problems even in the beginning, of course. Negotiating publication schedules among editors and publishers at nationally syndicated magazines proved difficult. There were some executives who had a not unfounded fear that their digital play would cannibalize their print business. Content on the web for free which required a subscription in print did not feel responsible or sustainable. And many believed — rightfully so — that the web was little more than a passing fad. As a result, content wasn’t always available and the website was treated as an afterthought, a chore to be checked off the list once the real work had been complete.

In the end, however, their failure would boil down to doing too much while doing too little at the same time. Attempting to assert control over an untested medium — and the web was still wary of outsiders — led to a strategy of consolidation. But Pathfinder was not a brand that anybody knew. Sports Illustrated was. People was. Time was. On their own, each of these sites may have had some success adapting to the web. When they were combined, all of these vibrant publications were made faceless and faded into obscurity.

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An experimental Pathfinder redesign from 1996 (Credit: The Pathfinder.com Museum)

Pathfinder was never able to find a dedicated audience. Isaacson left the project to become editor at Time, and his vacancy was never fully filled. Pathfinder was left to die on the vine. It continued publishing regularly, but other, more niche publications began to fill the space. During that time, Time Warner was spending a rumored fifteen million dollars a year on the venture. They had always planned to eventually charge subscribers for access. But as Wired learned, web users did not want that. Public sentiment turned. A successful gamble started to look like an overplayed hand.

“It began being used by the industry as an example of how not to do it. People pointed to Pathfinder and said it hadn’t taken off,” research analyst Melissa Bane noted when the site closed its doors in April of 1999, “It’s kind of been an albatross around Time Warner’s neck.” Pathfinder properties got split up among a few different websites and unceremoniously shut down, buried under the rubble of history as little more than rounding error on Time Warner’s balance sheet for a few years.

Throughout Pathfinder’s lifespan it had one original outlet, a place that published regular, exclusively online content. It was called Netly News, founded by Noah Robischon and Josh Quittner — the same Josh Quittner who wrote the “Way New Journalism” article for HotWired when it launched. Netly News dealt in short, concise pieces and commentary rather than editorially driven magazine content. They were a webzine, hidden behind a corporate veneer. And the second half of the decade would come to be defined by webzines.

 


 

Reading back through the data of web use in the mid-90’s reveals a simple conclusion. People didn’t use it all that much. Even early adopters. The average web user at the time surfed for less than 30 minutes a day. And when they were online, most stuck to a handful of central portals, like AOL or Yahoo!. You’d log on, check your email, read a few headlines, and log off.

There was, however, a second group of statistical outliers. They spent hours on the web every day, pouring over their favorite sites, collecting links into buckets of lists to share with friends. They cruised on the long tail of the web, venturing far deeper than what could be found on the front-page of Yahoo!. They read content on websites all day — tiny text on low-res screens — until their eyes hurt. These were a special group of individuals. These were the webzine readers.