The Tragedy of Wired

[Note: The following essay applies to Wired (the magazine), not Wired Digital or any of Wired Digital’s web sites. In April of 1998 Wired (the magazine) was sold to CondeNast publications, and Wired Digital was sold to Lycos.]

Wired used to be cool.

Until recently, Wired magazine was the definitive magazine about the digital world, its culture and the technologies that made it so. Complete with an ultra-alternative page design, Wired was the vehicle of communication for the digitally elite. You were a somebody if you made it in to their pages. And a nobody if you weren’t reading it religiously.

For a magazine who persuaded Fortune 500 CEO’s to check it’s pages each month to see if their product was in the “Wired or Tired” column, Wired has calmed down quite a bit since its heyday. We’ve all heard the story about the entrepreneur named Louis Rosetto who went knocking on doors to find a publisher for his slick new magazine idea, so I won’t bother to re-hash that story.

Instead, I’ll try and explain why Wired was such a cool rag. It’s quite simple really. Wired was different. It was one of the first magazines to successfully use the large double-truck format page size. While most magazines on the rack at Borders were of standard size, Wired purposely went with a larger format to stand out from the pack. Wired also took extreme advantage of its alternative style, allowing its designers to use colors not normally found in your common business magazine. Colors like silver, gold, and pink, sometimes all together on the same page. Along with the page design that gave you headaches, Wired created some interesting and memorable covers. Remember Bill Gates in a bathing suit? I’ll bet that cover made more dartboards than both Clinton and Lewinsky combined. And the most recent issue has a lottery-like scratch patch just begging you to whip out a coin and scratch away. So, there is some hope yet.

I suppose that what made Wired so great was the coolness factor. Most of us young Internet punks (yes, I’ve been called that) found in Wired a culture and a magazine that we could relate to. It reached out and begged us to buy it. And we rewarded it with our paid-in-full subscriptions and envelope art.

Ah, but I’m afraid we’re all growing up, and Wired will never be the same. In our early days we waited in anticipation by the mailbox for the next issue to show up. It was like a drug. As soon as it arrived, we plopped onto the couch (or the floor) and read the damn thing from cover to cover. These days, we wait in anticipation for Fast Company. For Brill’s Content. And for Business 2.0. Maybe this change in reading habits is a tell-tale sign that we’re all growing up, and as the Internet matured, we matured with it. Going from the standard Wired content, we craved more and more business-oriented articles and less hype. I remember discovering Fast Company in 1996 soon after it’s premiere issue. I couldn’t believe that such a magazine existed. It was so damn good. I took my ragged copy around to everyone I knew and made them subscribe. Damn it, I was evangelizing that sucker in the best sort of way. I re-read Guy Kawasaki’s book “The Macintosh Way” and was on my way.

I remember numerous email conversations with David Searson, the webmaster at Fast Company’s web site. I learned that he was using Userland Frontier to manage their quickly growing site and offered to beta-test their new design. In my mind, Fast Company had easily replaced Wired as the magazine of choice.

I’m not ready to cancel my subscription to Wired, but I no longer read it cover to cover. Instead, I look at the envelope art, skim a few articles, and then wait until someone tells me which ones to go read online. Somehow, Wired has lost its zest and zeal. It no longer holds that special place in my heart for the things I love. Now, I see it as simply another magazine. It could be that we simply outgrew Wired.

It’s kind of sad to look back at the great times we had together, snickering in the dark as if we shared some great big secret. That secret, of course, was knowing how powerful a force technology and the Internet would become. And how cool it would be to be a part of the most amazing technological innovation of our time.

Damn it, it was Wired. And Wired was cool.

Addendum: I have feelings for another magazine now. It’s not Fast Company. It’s not Brill’s Content. It’s a little-known publication called Marketing Computers. Month after month, I consult this magazine and each time it provides me with invaluable advice about how technology marketing works. It, too has found that special place in my heart. And it is good.

Feedback: Cameron Barrett

Join the CamList for more discussion about Wired and other fascinating things.

Jason Kottke responds:

Wired blazed new trails. It had an impact. All the other kids wanted to be like the new cool kid in town. And eventually, that’s what happened. Wired’s uniqueness was diluted by scores of other computer, culture, and computer culture magazines. What once we could get only in Wired, we can now get in other magazines. The Web plays a part in this as well…there are thousands (perhaps millions) of little Wireds out there where one can get news and analysis of digital culture. Wired is boring, not because it’s worse than before, but because it’s just like everything else we see now.

“tuna is fun!”

Peter Merholz responds:


Cam, you’re only partly right.

And you’re all wrong about Fast Company.

First, Wired.

I’ve read Wired since 1.1. I still have 1.1 somewhere. I’ve been working at Wired Digital, and no one there even has 1.1. It’s a collectors item. Some day, I’ll sell it on EBay and buy an island.

Anyway, I loved Wired 1.1 to, oh, about 2.3 or 2.4. It was about people and technology and the social influence on technology, and there was journalism, interesting stories, not necessarily ideologies, and I read it cover to cover.

And then two things happened:

1. Libertarianism began to rule the magazine. They got mired in Cyber Rights Now! pieces. In “The Netizen.”

2. The cover became the CEO-of-the-month club. Hardly the same as the first two issues, 1.1 featuring Bruce Sterling, 1.2 with the Cypherpunks. (Quiz: How many recognizable women (i.e., not simply models used to illustrate an idea) have appeared on the cover of Wired? Answer at the end.) And it was clear that CEOs were the target audience for the magazine.

But then, about a year ago, something else happened. The design calmed down, and got smarter. Wired grew up, yes, but frankly it was about time. Louis got phased out as Editor, and was replaced by someone who wasn’t a megalomaniacal tyrant spewing libertarian garbage. The started writing articles on society and technology again. They started being readable. Po Bronson’s pieces over the last year have often been brilliant.

Wired has once again become worthwhile.

Now, Fast Company, that magazine is a dungheap. I’m surprised anyone could be suckered by it’s flash and manifesto-driven copy into thinking that it was actually saying something. Fast Company is a nearly content-free magazine. It reports and reveals nothing. Every issue is a carbon copy. It’s an ego-stroker for “cool” “young” “professionals” who seek confirmation. It’s a pathetic and hollow shell.

Not to say I don’t read it. Well, I don’t, but I flip through every issue (as they’re easy to come by in most any new media office). It’s important to know what your peers are reading, even if it’s mindless namby-pamby dreck.

Business 2.0 is no better. Probably the best business magazine is Business Week. For internet coverage, its the Industry Standard.

Answer: 2. Laurie Anderson and Esther Dyson. And 55 recognizable men. Ahem.

Jon Katz responds:

Loved the piece on Wired. Of course, I have an odd perspective, as a Contributing Editor there for five years. Wired was a shock to the media system. It was everything media isn’t — crammed with ideas and arguments, clunky rhetoric, weird futuristic visions, stories on Burning Men, Sexbots.

I loved it. Louis Rosetto was a bona fide anarchist/capitalist. He loved the flow of ideas from the bottom up. As the easternmost branch of the Wired empire for years — New York — I couldn’t begin to relate how much people on the East Coast hated the magazine. Louis broke all of the rules. The graphics were a jumble, kids read it as if it were the Koran, and he broke all the contemporary design rules — long articles, dense text, small type.

If you notice, few magazines permit discussions of ideas, and they hate arguments and essays. Mostly what the slicks do is go after the highest possible demographic, celebrating money and power to do it.

The new Wired is about that, it’s about drawing the high-demographic people who run technology industries. It’s professional, smart and sophisticated. But the antithesis of Louis’s hell-raising, sometimes bizarre mix of writing, technology, imagination and Stalinist rhetoric.

Most ideas and arguments have been purged. I did stories for Louis I could never have done for any other magazine — imagining Thomas Paine on the Net, The Rights Of Children. I have to say that when Conde Nast bought the magazine, I quit as Contributing Editor, returned to Rolling Stone and then went on to write for Slashdot — it reminds me a lot of the early Wired and Hotwired (smart, raucous and interesting). But that was just a formality. None of the new editors would even speak to me. If I hadn’t left, I’m sure they would have chucked me.

Wired was the most striking media creation of my generation, as Cam’s note very eloquently describes. It was electric, and original. It grasped that the Net wasn’t just about money and start-ups, but a new kind of culture, a new kind of interactivity. Louis believed that the Net would spawn a new, civil, democratic society…not yet. But he really believed in that idea, which gave the magazine a kind of power. I get e-mail every day which reminds of Cam’s piece from people who were just getting into the Net and the Web, sometimes quite young, who would eagerly await the magazine and devour every word. Then they’d jump into the many arguments that seemed to spark off of the stories.

Wired was far from perfect, of course. It was often Utopian, too much of a digital cheerleader, and the writing could get pretty heavy-handed. But it was an amazing accomplishment. In the East they literally loathed it (still do loathe Louis’s version) because it was an affront to them, and their sweet-smelling notions that every magazine has to fellate the famous and powerful. Yuk. Anyway, this is a lovely piece to read. Nice job. And it’s very nice that somebody remembers what Louis did and notices that it ain’t there anymore.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at January 30, 1999 11:59 PM

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