Wired Magazine turns 20
The April 8-14 issue of AdWeek magazine had an interesting story on the founding of Wired magazine - an oral history as relayed by the magazine’s founders and earliest contributors.
“In 1988, Louis Rossetto, an adventurer, onetime novelist and avid libertarian, sensed that the encoding of information in 1s and 0s was going to change everything. Living in Amsterdam at the time, he and Jane Metcalfe, his partner in business and life, had parlayed a job at an obscure language translation service into a magazine, Electric Word. The publication, produced on a Macintosh using early desktop publishing tools, evoked a digital universe that was not about gadgetry or business aids, but a force for global transformation.”
… “The proto-prototype’s cover featured a dour-looking John Perry Barlow, who had recently co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a photo cadged from the New York Times Magazine. The table of contents included invented articles like ‘Still Dead Right: Neo-McLuhanites Face the 21st Century’ and a report on the Inslaw scandal purportedly penned by John Markoff. It offered sections entitled Electric Word, Idée’s Fortes, Street Cred as well as a fax from the future.”
“Plunkett: Almost every story idea Louis put into the table of contents was eventually published in Wired during our first year or two. And he had written most of it in 1988: What became a brand-new overnight success in 1993 had been percolating since the late 1980s.”
“Rossetto: We’d send out the “Manifesto” and business plan but, for all of our hand waving, people still couldn’t get what we were talking about. It became apparent that we needed to make a prototype that showed the editorial and advertising, the attitude that the magazine was supposed to represent. I’d been relentlessly clipping out articles that were representative of the kind of stuff I wanted to publish. Also advertisements. We mapped out the prototype section by section, down to the names of the departments. In effect, Eugene and I edited and designed a whole magazine over two weeks in December.”
… “At this point, money was running low and Wired was in dire need of capital. Among the many contacts Rossetto and Metcalfe called upon was Nicholas Negroponte. Highly regarded and well connected among the tech elite, Negroponte had founded MIT Media Lab, a fountainhead of new ideas about the networked culture Wired would cover—and he was an extraordinarily successful fundraiser. His assistant told them he was scheduled to attend Richard Saul Wurman’s TED Conference in Monterey, Calif., in February 1992. Unable to afford tickets, Rossetto and Metcalfe traded their help at the event for admission.”
“Metcalfe: We met with Nicholas at 7:30. He said, “Looking at a business plan this early is like doing a shot of bourbon for breakfast.”
“Rossetto: He methodically and silently went page by page through the prototype in that empty, darkened auditorium. When he was finished, he closed the book, looked at the two of us, and asked, “How much money are you looking for?”
“Metcalfe: Oh my god! He’s going to help us! It was the most extraordinary thing that had happened to date.”
“Nicholas Negroponte (senior columnist): My decision to invest in Wired was a moment of bravado. The rest is history.”
Wired co-founders Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto
Reading this piece makes me long for a book-length oral history/series of interviews with Wired’s founders and editors.
I can’t believe the first issue of that magazine came out 20 years ago. I remember picking that inaugural issue up off the newsstand at the University of Texas Student Union, where I was working at the time as a bartender. I’ve picked up nearly every issue since, either off the newsstand or as a subscriber. (I’m also now remembering the Austin version of Wired that I started picking up at around the same time - Fringeware Review - and the Fringeware Store that was located at 51st and Duval (long since closed).)
Though I’ve never really thought about it until now, it does strike me that Wired magazine will go down in history as one of those iconic publications, one that set or captured the tone of its times (like, say, Esquire magazine in the 1960s) or forged a new genre (like Sports Illustrated).)
(Image from http://sixand5.com/2012/01/17/25-best-magazine-covers-of-2011/)
Some of the most interesting journalism of the past 20 years has been published in the pages of Wired or on its collection of online sites.
Like, say, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s epic 1996 article on the laying of the undersea fiber-optic cable, “Mother Earth Mother Board ” - subtitled “The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth,” sub-sub-titled, “In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk; also, biographical sketches of the two long-dead Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords of global telecommunications, and other material pertaining to the business and technology of Undersea Fiber-Optic Cables, as well as an account of the laying of the longest wire on Earth, which should not be without interest to the readers of Wired.” Which has the distinction of being one of the longest magazine articles I can remember reading, but also one of the best magazine articles I can remember reading.
Image courtesy of TeleGeography Inc.
Here are some links for Wired’s own coverage of its 20th anniversary:
The Story of a Revolution: The Best of Wired 1993-2013 - http://www.wired.com/magazine/2013/04/at20/
(Here’s one issue I have with Wired — and most print magazine’s digital for-subscriber versions that I have tried to access in recent years. I’ve been a subscriber to the print magazine for years. But EVERY time I try to access the digital version of Wired, most often through my Kindle Fire, I enter my subscriber info - name, address, etc. - and receive a “Subscriber not found - Sorry. No access for you” message. This has happened with nearly every Conde Nast publication I’ve tried to access digitally - Wired and Vanity Fair are the two that come to mind. What’s up with that? Why is it so hard to identify me - who has been a subscriber for years - by my subscriber info. Ridiculous. They’re erring on the side of content security over user experience. I would love to access that Best of Wired content - and as a subscriber I should be able to (that content is advertised as “Free to subscribers!” But right now, I’m being c***-blocked by Wired/Conde Nast’s security precautions. IMO, that’s a user experience FAIL.)