Wired Ventures Too Far

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 February 1997

Wired Magazine and its parent company, Wired Ventures, were once the crown jewel of the Silicon Empire. The editors of this magazine earnestly believed they were the heralds of the coming digital civilization, and hundreds of corporate CEO’s took them at their word. As much concerned with hype as content, Wired’s publishers positioned themselves as the exclusive purveyors of computer culture to the rest of the world. And everyone seemed to buy it - until now.

A magazine based on the notion of a digital elite, that puts its own editors and business associates on their covers can only get away with the charade for so long.

Wired Ventures, which now include Wired Magazine, the Hotwired website, HardWired books, a TV show, and WiredNews online news service, have finally become objects of ridicule. Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and some of Wired’s own employees have begun to question the company’s real contribution to digital culture and economics.

The first great blow to the company came as a one-two punch that only fully connected two weeks ago. For the second time in as many attempts, Wired Ventures’ stock offering fell flat on its face, canceled, essentially, due to lack of interest. It was as if Wall Street had had enough of Internet speculation. Stock traders had been reading Wired for years, buying every word of hype and pricey Internet-related issue they could get their hands on. Hi-tech stocks became a fetish. Slowly but surely, most of these Internet stocks began to lose value, raising doubt about online computing’s ability to turn a buck at all.

The Wired Ventures IPO (initial price offering) was seen as just another Internet stock issue, once-removed. It gave speculators the chance to buy into the company hyping an already over-hyped market. But investors took their revenge on Wired for having seduced them into the failing hi-tech marketplace, and turned their backs on Silicon Valley’s cheerleaders.

This was bad news in more ways than one for Wired Ventures. First, it makes them look unsavvy. Wired has very close ties to the Global Business Network of futurist economic and technical advisors – many of the same folks as on the Wired masthead, actually. If the Wired people can’t even properly time their own IPO, how could they be trusted with the future of the Fortune 500?

Making matters worse, dozens of early Wired employees had been anxiously awaiting the stock sale so they could cash in on their options and make up for the low salaries and long hours they had endured since the magazine began. No such luck. Young associate editors who stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars were once again denied a piece of the action. So much for company morale.

Wired’s high-profile collaborative ventures with other media outlets, including the new Microsoft-sponsored cable channel MSNBC, have also begun to falter. By landing a deal to produce Netizen, a futuristic documentary program for MSNBC, Wired had successfully positioned itself as the partner and philosophical mouthpiece of uber-techie Bill Gates. The deal made Wired appear invincible. Now their posse would be engineering the digital revolution through the TV. But the network quickly let Wired and the rest of us in on who was really the boss: they sent the program back for a complete redesign almost immediately. Wired, which once thought of itself as the only viable hi-tech aesthetic and prognosticator, was forced to make a show to order. A hired hand.

But perhaps the most devastating attack came from within Wired itself. Literary agent John Brockman wrote a book that comes out this month from HardWired called “The Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite.” Ostensibly about the movers and shakers of the Internet, the book is really a chronicle of the exploits of Wired’s editors and a few of Brockman’s other literary clients. Yes - Wired published a book about its own personnel, calling them “the digital elite.” (Another of HardWired’s books, Wired Style, goes so far as to advise computer writers to “be elite.”)

Unable to contain himself, HotWired columnist and veteran journalist Jon Katz wrote a scathing review of The Digerati, which in turn led to more turmoil and embarrassment at Wired. Brockman was effectively panned by the same company he shamelessly promoted in his book.

The onslaught of negative publicity has finally brought Wired’s many detractors out of the woodwork. Now people in cybercafes across America are already predicting the magazine’s end.

But it would be a shame for us not to give the magazine’s humbled digerati a chance to redeem themselves. Wired had simply grown too big for its britches, and someone had to take them down. Thank goodness they did it to themselves. They got lost in their own hype, and no one could convince them that the digital civilization they were promoting was really as egalitarian as their propaganda intimated.

Wired has finally been forced to realize that they do not embody digital culture - they are simply a part of it. Hopefully they will continue to envision just as promising and compelling a future for our hi-tech society, even if they are no longer at the helm.