Wired Magazine – No Longer Cool

I wrote a chapter of my dissertation about the first five years Wired magazine. As I revise this chapter to turn it into an article for publication, I am struck by how much Wired has changed over the years. Unfortunately, these changes have not been good.

The founders and first editors of Wired, namely Louis Rossetto and John Plunkett, argued that the magazine arose as a response to a cultural revolution created by digital technology. In the opening pages of the first issue, Rossetto argues “The digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon – while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button. And because the computer ‘press’ is too busy churning out the latest PCInfoComputingCorporateWorld iteration of its ad sales formula cum parts catalog to discuss the meaning or context of social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire” (10). In other words, Wired was going to report on the biggest change in human culture. While the claim that the web is bigger than fire may be overstated, a claim that the web is as big as the printing press may not be.

Since it’s inception, Wired has undergone some big changes in how its published. In the early days, John Plunkett’s designs won awards for their Wired Coverinnovation. The magazine purposely pushed the boundaries of traditional magazine creation with its design and content. Plunkett rejected the traditional black print on a white page, three column design favored by magazines like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, or even Vogue. Instead, the pages of Wired used non-linear designs, bleeding-edge to bleeding-edge color, and relied on graphics for story-telling as much as prose. The magazine was a different shape, used different paper, used a new kind of digital printing method. ’ In Greenwald’s twenty-year retrospective, Rossetto argues that in publishing Wired ‘The whole experience had to convey what it was like to be in this revolution. These were revolutionary times; this was a revolutionary publication. It had to look as jangly and electric as the times.’

The early covers of Wired featured a Who’s Who of the new wave of early adopters and voices of digital technology. John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor, Stewart Brand, Esther Dyson, and a host of other important figures at the rise of web culture contributed to the early pages of WiredWired reflected the libertarian-leaning and optimistic hopes of its creators and editors. In his dissertation, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: How Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us Wired Magazine,” Frederick C. Turner (2002) argues that Wired embodied the optimistic sensibilities of futurists, libertarianism, and the hippies: “Wired framed these captains of industry and politics [George Gilder, Newt Gingrich, Alvin Toffler, and Bill Gates] as the revolutionaries in a countercultural mode … Wired was explicitly designed to model the multi-media possibilities of the digitally convergent future. But its Day-Glo color scheme and collage sensibility also echoed the multi-media happenings of the 1960s” (257). In other words, Wired reflected the unabashed optimism of a larger digital technology community who believed computers and new media could revolutionize and improve the world. The content, the design, the contributors all worked together to make a unique magazine that changed publishing.

However, twenty or so years later, Wired has been reduced to a lifestyle magazine. Once Condé Nast bought the magazine back in 1998, the revolutionary fire died.  Since then, it has slowly become more like its Nast-y siblings, Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair. The flimsy standard sized magazine found on newstands today is almost unrecognizable. Only the cool logo remains, a testament.

Prosuming News

prosumerAs we start reading Wikinomics, I find the news full of stories about collaboration and prosuming.  In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” to describe the type of work new technologies would enable us to do.  Prosumers produce and consume the information marketplace. Or, that they actively participate in the creation new idea, products, and entertainment.

While this idea was radical in the 80s, prosuming is commonplace today. Entertainment franchises like The Matrix and Supernatural use consumer input to create storylines, build their worlds, and generate support for their shows. T-shirt shop Threadless asks consumers to rate and sometimes submit designs.

What’s more, is that more and more of our news comes from prosumers. In “How YouTube Changed Journalism,” Atlantic writer Matt Schiavenza suggests that YouTube is direct conduit between people who create/experience news and consumers. Some people claim that more direct involvement will democratize the news. If we can all participate in the message, somehow we may find more accurate and unbiased news.

However, as Schiavenza points out, this idealism maybe too simple. He cites Evgeny Morozov who warns against believing in cyber-utopias or the power of the internet to democratize the world.  I feel like I should note that I cited Morozov in my dissertation and I am sympathetic to his claims. Capturing a video does not mean justice will prevail. In fact, organizations like ISIS use YouTube and other video sites to share their extreme message and show violence.

In other words, maybe we need to be cautious about claims that being a prosumer means democratizing our information. Or, that collaborative creation always means more accurate stories and reporting.