21st: Let's Get This Straight

But don't get out your handkerchiefs for "content."

By Scott Rosenberg

Published March 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Word, a pioneer in the field of Web zine publishing, shut down last week -- the latest casualty in the electronic publishing world's demolition derby. Web sites come and go at a dizzying rate, of course, but Word had been around since June 1995, which made it a veritable Methuselah of the Web zine world.

One of the first major original-content sites to emerge from New York rather than the San Francisco Bay Area, Word won an early and appreciative following for its adventurous design sense. This was a Web site under no illusion that it had any relationship to the world of paper pages. It was the perfect site to show to ink-stained wretches who feared for the future of "old media" -- they'd run in horror. Articles splayed in unexpected ways across your browser window, and animation and multimedia were de rigueur -- never mind the slow downloads. As Web technology advanced, Word scrambled to keep up with the latest innovations, requiring frequent visits to the plug-in bin.

As a result, actually reading articles in Word was often a challenge. The magazine's name always seemed ironic to me: Words were definitely low on the totem pole there. And the editorial focus on personal tales from the lives of 20-somethings meant that Word was sometimes fun to read but rarely a "must-read."

Word fell off my bookmark list sometime in early 1996; I could never remember how to navigate the site or figure out what was new (during one period Word's table of contents was unreadable unless you had a giant monitor). And I'd grown tired of waiting for its cryptic icons, with non-helpful labels like "Habit," "GIGO" and "Machine," to load over my modem.

That's why it's difficult to draw any wider conclusions about the future of Web publishing from Word's demise. This was a publication that innovatively pointed to a multimedia future -- but failed to come to terms with the limited-bandwidth Net access most of today's readers have. And though the Web is a superb medium for the sharing of personal stories, such material probably belongs on non-commercial sites -- it's never going to make a good centerpiece for a magazine that hopes to make money.

Maybe Word's owner, a provider of Internet services called IconCMT that recently went public, simply got tired of funding a money-losing venture that was not part of its "core businesses." (Icon also shut down its "extreme sports" site, Charged.) Or maybe -- as former Word staffers have charged -- a technology company like Icon never had a clue about how to make a media property profitable.

Still, whatever the unique circumstances surrounding Word's closure, the event does come amid a welter of other shutdowns and revamps of older Web publishers. Another recent Web R.I.P. goes to Total New York: the offbeat city-guide magazine was shut down by its owner of little more than a year, America Online's Digital Cities.

This is hardly the first time we've seen a wave of Web-site mortality. There's a big graveyard out there, from Spiv and Stim to NetGuide and Web Review and Urban Desires. (Some of these sites have been reborn or are on artificial life support; none has managed to recapture its initially ambitious scope.)

Last week, the consortium of newspapers behind the New Century Network pulled the plug on that superfluous venture. Last month, Time Warner's Netly News, facing the loss of a key editor, nearly shut down -- though founder Josh Quittner now says Netly will instead revamp, with more short, punchy items and a tighter focus on the new-media business in New York. And last November, Wired Digital's Suck went through a much-publicized near-death experience, though the company ultimately decided to keep Suck alive. Meanwhile, Wired's seminal site, HotWired, has become a shadow of its former self: Where once you could find a provocative ferment of ideas, today there's just a million how-to articles for Web designers -- and a thousand columns by the prolific Jon Katz, who single-handedly fills HotWired's Synapse department, offering the site's only non-Web-design-related material.

This die-back of Web flora takes place against the backdrop of Microsoft's retrenchment in the "content" business -- as the company finally realizes how boneheaded it was to attempt to transform the Microsoft Network into a TV-style network of "shows." Put this all together and you know we're in for a spate of articles in coming weeks asking, "Is content dead on the Web?"

That question entirely misses the point. There's more "content" than ever on the Web. That growth shows no sign of abating. But something has indeed died: the dream of many early Web zine publishers that they could use the new medium to create ultra-hip, underground-style publications -- and then use those ventures to make tons of money.

It was always a dubious idea. There's no question that the Web is an ideal place to publish articles with titles like "My Dead Grandmother as a Work of Performance Art." It's a wonderful thing that this new medium allows writers and artists to go in any direction they please and still potentially reach a decent-sized audience without spending a lot of money up front. The cruelty of the "new media" dream lay in its promise that fringe experimentation could also make you a good living, or even make you rich.

That seductive but false promise -- not "content" itself -- is what's now dead. The Web remains an open commons; anyone can still put up a site. But the Web doesn't suspend the rules of business (pace promoters of the "New Economy"), and if you expect to make money on "content" you'd better take aim at a deep or wide audience -- rather than simply follow your muse.

That this wasn't obvious to Web publishers from the start is simply a sign of how intoxicated many of them were by the bubbly rhetoric of new-media hype. What we're seeing today is just a long-overdue hangover.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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