Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why didn't Wired become Boing Boing?

There's a fascinating discussion going on over at Boing Boing Gadgets, where current and former Wired staffers debate What Went Wrong. True, Wired is very much still around, in print and online (at one point in the discussion, the current editor, Chris Anderson, claims the magazine just had a record year for ad revenues, and other sales metrics are equally robust). But there's no question that Wired missed its moment, and financially, it's struggling (as is everyone else).

For me, what's interesting about this is that Wired should have been perfectly positioned to capitalize on the emergence of web culture: it's been covering the geek beat since 1993, and had the circulation, history and street cred to serve as the tribune of the Newest Age. I spent the first dot com boom in my Chicago high school's computer lab, so I don't really know if Wired was considered essential by those involved at the time, though I suspect it was (at least, it was more essential than it is now).

So the fact that Wired has faded into near-irrelevance during an explosion of geek culture so unimaginably huge that even the most Kool-aid-intoxicated Wired editorial of 1995 could never have predicted it is rather ironic. But why did it happen? Why did it miss its moment so utterly?

From reading the above thread, one reason might be the split between the print and online divisions, with a "Berlin Hall" running between them. Is it better to split the two groups, since writing for the web and writing for print are entirely different activities? Or would it be better to unify the two and benefit from a shared editorial voice, and a shared level of access to new and exciting information (not to mention a shared set of resources for the poor pixel-stained bloggers to take advantage of)?

A lot of blame also apparently goes to Conde Nast (unsurprisingly), for still failing to appreciate the value of online ad impressions, saddling the site with an ancient CMS and a baroque subscription process.

But neither of these explanations feel satisfactory to me. The split that some of the online folks are complaining about might not be ideal, but far better for an emerging media group to have the freedom to experiment and try new things, than to constantly have to apply for permission from an organization that doesn't understand it. And a bigger budget is always nice, but many of the online success stories about which Wired writes have zero budget and are run by volunteers. DailyKos didn't get to be so big by paying its writers hefty sums or laying out a ton of money for fancy graphic design.

Ultimately, I wonder if a big part of the reason has nothing to do with Wired at all. The early web is dominated by fads, and even a site like Slashdot that really did get it and really was essential for a while didn't last forever (it, like Wired, is still around but its influence is a pale shadow of what it once was). The internet is simply fickle, and not much that was popular a decade ago online is so today.

Part of why this might be so can be seen in the headlines of any random tech blog on any particular day (which probably attracts Wired's core audience). Internet culture has become a relentless pursuit of the new, with every new service being heralded as the "killer" of a preexisting one, and with every new fad needing to be digested, exploited and run into the ground as soon as possible, until the source of those fads becomes so rife with reporters seeking story ideas for the newest meme that there's no room left for the people who made that place so interesting in the first place.

EDIT: The NYT tries to get it right: Memo to staff on the hiring of a "social media editor".

2 comments:

David F. Smydra Jr. said...

I subscribed to Wired in 2005-2006. During that time, they had a stretch of covers featuring a Keanu Reeves movie and Peter Jackson's King Kong. It was at that moment that I think they jumped the shark -- they were clearly ignoring their techie base and catering almost exclusively to mainstream readers with a passing interest in technology. "Enough," I said. When my subscription expired, I did not renew. (Though I did apply for their internship a year later. Hey, what's a young-ish, then-unemployed media-type to do?)

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