Big ideas from the small web: HotWired’s legacies, 20 years later

On October 27th, 1994, the makers of Wired magazine doubled down on their rhetoric of digital revolution, and launched a site they believed would inaugurate a “new publishing paradigm for a new medium.” HotWired would have original content and use the medium to involve its audience (or ‘members’) in new ways. It looked like this:

Credit: Jeffrey Veen (http://www.flickr.com/photos/veen/188264269/in/photostream/)

The launch, held at midnight after speeches and champagne, felt momentous. Wired publisher Louis Rossetto was energized by the the magazine’s instant success the previous year, and had billed the site as what Wired “was meant to be” from the beginning. The intern and early net-celebrity Justin Hall collected predictions and wrote a short post about the launch from HotWired’s offices on Third St. in San Francisco.

Although HotWired was reasonably successful at attracting advertisers and an audience, it came at a cost. As Gary Wolf documents in his book Wired: A Romance, the site grew from 14 to almost 200 employees in three years, with rising costs eventually forcing Wired to try to go public. Infamously, bad timing meant Wired would fail in two IPO attempts, and Rossetto was forced to sell to Condé Nast.

How ironic was that? The website that was supposed to cement Wired’s reputation as a digital-age media company put the magazine squarely in the hands of an old publishing giant. In the deal, HotWired was sold to Lycos, and from there faded quickly into obscurity.

Today, the site is mostly remembered for displaying the web’s first banner ad:

This was in 1994, well before successful IPOs by Netscape and Yahoo! signaled the web’s commercial promise, so an advertising banner — all 468x60 pixels of it—was certainly a big deal.

However, there is plenty more about HotWired that deserves commemoration. For one thing, as Jeff Veen wrote a few years back, HotWired experimented often with web design and was home to a number of innovations. Perhaps the most significant of many redesigns was the fifth iteration of the site’s ‘front door,’ one that continually changed as new content was added. The redesign debuted in May, 1996, and, as Rudolf Ammann notes, inspired blogging pioneer Dave Winer to incorporate a similar focus on dynamic content in his web publishing suite, NewsPage.

Credit: Jeffrey Veen. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/veen/188263609/in/photostream/)

This focus on ‘fresh content’ had in turn been inspired by Suck, another great story from HotWired’s brief but eventful existence. Suck was created anonymously by two HotWired employees, Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff, in August, 1995. Their daily essays parodied the emerging web culture, from online diaries to various manifestations of the internet goldrush.

Within months, Suck had created enough buzz for Steadman and Anuff to cash in themselves by selling to HotWired. The announcement took the form of a helpful guide on how to profit the web’s transition “from promising social experiment to bleak corporate welfare state.” “Friends,” they wrote, “you can’t bank on net cred. Sell. Sell early and often.”

Echoes of Suck’s style can easily been sensed today in the snarky, cynical humor that attends nearly every new web hype, from Web 2.0 to MOOCs and Ello.

Ultimately, HotWired was what could be called (following Fred Turner’s work) a key ‘network forum’ in the rise of web culture. It provided a space for thinking and talking about the web’s nature and how it differed from mass media. As I’ve written elsewhere, one important debate took place in the months leading up to the launch, and centered on how audience participation would figure into the new medium. HotWired was not only where big ideas about the web’s promise were hatched, but also where they could be put into practice—with varying levels of success.


For more on HotWired’s history, be sure to check out my article in New Media & Society. It’s behind a paywall, so if you can’t access it feel free to contact me at michael [at] webcultures [dot] org.