Tomorrow’s Internet Turns 20

John Herrman
Oct 29, 2015 · 10 min read
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“The newest key person at publishers,” says trade publication Digiday, is the “platform wrangler.” That is: “a strong voice representing their interests at a time when platforms are increasingly the way that audiences find their content and setting the rules for publishers to distribute and monetize their articles and videos.” If a large portion, or a majority, of a publication’s audience is going to be arriving through or on another company’s app or platform, someone probably ought to be paying close attention to those relationships.

This makes sense! The nature of these relationships is currently, to my knowledge, varied but tilted toward tense: platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat aren’t so much courting partners as they are selecting which ones to allow access; platforms want to make the process as easy as possible, and to get advice from their partners, but ultimately have the ability to place their needs first. Publishers fortunate enough to receive them respond to emails from Facebook all like, how high, sir, and thank you. This is a simple matter of size.

So there is a hint of self-flattery in referring to this role as a “wrangler” or a “director” or a “manager,” but I suppose that’s what job titles are for, online, in 2015, where everyone is an editor of writing, or a director of editors, or a leader of projects, of a manager of leaders. Anyway: It’s true. These are jobs that necessarily exist now, that didn’t exist a year or two ago. And they’re surely disorienting ones. This is new territory! Mostly.

Here is some worthwhile reading for our new wrangler/director/managers, and all the people whose jobs depend on their charm and savvy, from almost exactly 20 years ago, published in the Times Magazine.

“Cool” is the highest accolade in the [Ted] Leonsis lexicon, and he has conferred it on more than two dozen presentations this year. As a result, the Greenhouse — a unit of America Online that the 38-year-old Leonsis formed in summer 1994 to attract fresh ideas from nontraditional sources — has introduced an array of disparate talents. There’s a writer who bills himself as a 60-second novelist, a site for people of color, a Health Zone, an astrology service, a cyber free-for-all called Hecklers Online and, with midsummer fanfare, Surf Net. Leonsis, who is president of America Online Services Corporation and its chief programmer, promises much more. “Between January and June of 1996, we’ll launch 70 Greenhouse sites, which is equal to all the deals we signed last year,” he says. “I can’t think of a movie studio that productive.”

It’s a feature in the Times Magazine about America Online’s new content initiative, the Greenhouse. At the time, America Online was one of many internet access portals; it had about four million paying subscribers and was growing quickly. This made it the largest provider in a country that was substantially not yet online. But it had a lot of competition, in the form of other providers that were also supplying subscribers with things to read, watch or play with.

Despite its current dominance, the company is vulnerable, and not just to its direct competitors, an increasingly aggressive Compuserve, a revived Prodigy, the yet-to-be-announced News Corporation-MCI Online Ventures service and the enormously endowed Microsoft Network.

The article briefly acknowledges a sort of high-level case against the potential for AOL-exclusive content, walled off to everyone but AOL subscribers, by quoting one of these competitors:

According to conventional wisdom, the only significant destination in cyber-space is the World Wide Web; by this argument, all commercial services are doomed to be nothing more than Internet-access providers. “We see a lot of talent entering the field on the Web without the blessing of the branded services,” says Edward Bennett, president of Prodigy. “And where human attention goes, advertisers will follow.”

But counters with Leonsis’s narrative:

Some commercial services have already positioned themselves as Internet navigators. Leonsis calls them “Johnny-come-lattes” and scoffs at the conventional wisdom. “They all say, ‘Content is king,’ “ he says. “But how can you argue that when there are 200,000 Web sites? The more that’s out there, the better it will be for a service with strong programming.” In other words, with such a huge and bewildering proliferation of sites, users will want a central starting place.

His advantage, according to the piece, is that “he is the first on-line executive who can make a sizable investment in talent.” And the impetus for the project, which went on very visibly for a number of years, was the failure of a previous model.

On most networks — including America Online in pre-Greenhouse days — the economics of cyber-space are attractive to only the on-line service. Typically, these services charge customers a monthly fee that covers the first 10 hours of use. Their profit lies in signing up a great many customers, and then enticing them to stay on line for more than the basic 10 hours. For the independent creators of programming, however, the reward is minuscule: 20 percent of the revenue they generate. In the first wave of on-line growth, services tended to form alliances with established media companies (@times, the on-line version of The New York Times, for instance, has been on America Online since June 1994) and to encourage user-generated content — “chat rooms” and bulletin boards. As services began to look alike, however, it seemed that the key to growth was original programming.

This was unfolding at a point of debate: should media made for internet services be fundamentally different than what came before? And if, as seems to obviously be the case, the answer is yes, how, and with what funding? The partnerships described in the article describe an inverted platform/media relationship in with the latter held a great deal of power. NBC had partnered with Microsoft; Time supplied news for Compuserve. Both had previously worked with AOL; the following year, Newsweek would join the Times with AOL content of its own, after a stint with Prodigy, before launching a website in 1998.

This was a small and confusing world in which a medium’s obvious long-term potential overwhelmed its immediate practical limitations. Internet users are measured in the billions, now; then, a large majority of Americans didn’t have an internet connection. AOL never cracked 30 million paying subscribers; Facebook has a billion a day. Pew puts smartphone ownership at 64% among American adults. Today, each of the major platforms is significantly larger than most, and in some cases all, of its content partners, established or new.

But it’s probably still history worth knowing, if only to force yourself to ask specifically how things are different. Especially as Twitter both courts partners and creates its own editorial product, as Snapchat shuffles partners in and out of its Discover screen based on metrics only it can provide, as YouTube slices its service into paid and ad-supported tiers without much warning to its thousands of partners, and as Facebook negotiates approaches to publishers new and old, while simultaneously suggesting that the future of its core product is largely… video. A different type of platform collided with different types of media companies two decades ago. Some plans worked out for a while, some didn’t. Some of what did was washed away later in an industry collapse.

One of the stars of the initial piece, and of AOL’s in-house editorial operation, was Hecklers Online:

It is Hecklers Online, though, that best expresses Leonsis’ view that the ideal content provider is a party host, not a monologuist. Hecklers is a site where guests are regularly roasted and audience members are invited to ask impertinent questions. “Sean Michael and Scott Davis and I are old friends from high school who spent a lot of detention time together,” says Mike Ragsdale, one of the site’s three founders. “One night we were sitting around drinking beer and we decided to have some fun on line, so we went into a chat room and asked, ‘What is a jihad?’ Someone answered, ‘A holy war.’ We typed back, ‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ Then a bunch of us would jump into a chat room and harass the people there until we’d be the only ones in ‘Gay Cops in Houston.’”

An executive or thought-leader type could easily get away with that “party host” line today. And, god, how prescient were these guys in their horribleness? The internet: a place to invade safe-seeming places before eventually turning them into jokes!

I faintly remember some version of Hecklers, after it became a broader internet comedy operation. An article published three years later, and a few years before Hecklers and its spinoffs went quiet, explains where things went wrong:

In December, Hecklers Online, a publisher of humor and games, sent a holiday greeting card promoting the redesign of its site on America Online. The card’s punch line: ‘’All you have to do is find it.’’

This jab at the on-line service that gave Hecklers its start in the summer of 1995 was one of the milder manifestations of a growing frustration among America Online’s small content partners. They were favored children in the company’s early days, when keeping subscribers on line was the way to make money. But in the year-old era of flat pricing, advertising revenues are far more crucial to earnings than revenue from customers who linger on line.

A strategy change, and interface tweak.

In a redesign of the service last fall, America Online buried its partners’ brands under subheadings known as channels…

In addition, in the last year, Greenhouse, the division formed in 1994 to incubate services like Hecklers, or Motley Fool, the popular, irreverent site for investors, has shifted gears. Instead of creating partnership deals with start-ups and joint ventures with large media companies, America Online Studios is creating new offerings in house.

AOL had stopped charging for different levels of access and moved to a flat fee. This meant more time spent online was a cost rather than a metered gain that could easily be split between publisher and platform. Now that time had to be be monetized less directly. This would happen through commerce or through advertising. But, the article goes on: “advertising for its partners’ products proved harder to sell than advertising for its own material. As the service began to compete with its partners for ad sales, it began, not surprisingly, to give more prominence to the material it developed.”


Again, this was twenty years ago, so our new Platform Wrangler Evangelist Directors should take it with an old bag of salt. But… lol? “Now, partners are caught in a quandary: Even as the likelihood of their snaring a slice of America Online’s traffic deteriorates, they need the on-line service for its electronic publishing tools, and its audience.” And now we’re talking about time as the most important metric, again? If the people in this article could time-travel forward, look around, and go back home, I’m not sure they’d know what to do differently. Time their exits better? (I guess the real answer is “apply this invaluable future knowledge to literally anything else.”)

Back in 1995, Leonsis, who is now worth about a billion dollars and owns the Washington Capitals and a majority stake in the Wizards, sent off his profile with an oddly dire-sounding quote:

“The Microsoft launch was true to form,” he says. “The expectation their public relations machine creates is very hard to meet — this was a software upgrade, after all, not an AIDS vaccine. But it’s an awesome company, and they will figure it out. The challenge for America Online is to get as big as we can as fast as we can. That means more families, more minorities, more women coming to America Online. And it means getting ready for the backlash against the Internet, when the venture capitalists get burned and customers get lost and the magazines start running articles titled ‘Whither the Web?’ “

Not bad, for 1995. Today, Leonsis can credibly write the following paragraph in a piece for the Huffington Post in 2015:

We believed [twenty years ago] that some day people would consume media — the content they were receiving from newspapers, television programs, movies, and more — online. And we believed in community — specifically in the phrase “vox populi,” meaning “voice of the people,” and knew the Internet would be the platform that could bring the voice to the people.

Leonsis does, however, seem to feel a little burned. Here he states the the lessons he learned from AOL in an attempt at prognostication:

In the next ten years, we will see the definition of media continuing to take on a new meaning almost every day. In a way, the term “media” itself may be endangered as a concept: who is and isn’t a member of the media is harder to understand today than it was when television broadcasters and newspaper publishers were the rulers of the realm. Today, almost every person is their own “media” entity: publishing content on social media, posting videos on YouTube, streaming events via Meerkat and Periscope. Personalities, creativity and content — not distribution — are in control. We can watch what we want to watch, where we want to watch it, and how we want to watch it. Businesses built on restricting or limiting that are bound to fail.

Here, I guess, is where the comparison is both relevant and strained. Who is he accusing of “restricting or limiting?” Is it not the same companies that provide the entire context for the empowerment of the individual he describes? Maybe that’s the Big Intoxicating Idea that’s interfering with everyone’s ability to think clearly, in 2015.

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