Wired acquired

Lycos gobbles up the pieces of Wired's online empire. Is the revolution over?


Janelle Brown
October 7, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

The name Wired has always evoked strong feelings -- disgust, admiration, hatred, even awe -- anything but apathy. Wired popularized the notion of a digital culture and spawned a million imitators. It was at times egotistical and narrow-minded; it was also enormously influential.

"Was," of course, is the operative word. It's difficult not to feel that writing a story about Wired right now is like writing an obituary. With the sale of the magazine to Condi Nast six months ago and Tuesday's acquisition of the remaining Wired Digital properties by Lycos, the cultural entity we once knew as Wired no longer exists.

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The people left at Wired Digital have been quick to call today's sale a wild success: A "thrilled" president Beth Vanderslice, in a release on HotBot, said Wired Digital is "excited to be part of one of the fastest growing and most successful Web companies around." But from a numbers point of view, the sale of the various Wired assets is hardly an unqualified success story. Lycos bought Wired Digital for $83 million in stock; Wired magazine was sold for around $90 million. That's a total of about $173 million for a company that valued itself at $450 million during its IPO preparations of June 1996; even the more humble IPO it prepared in October of the same year put its valuation at $272 million.

Then again, Wired isn't the same beast it used to be. In June 1996, Wired offered a full stable of 12 growing, albeit unprofitable, Web sites, a search engine, a successful magazine, a fledgling TV venture and an upstart books division. The Wired Ventures that Lycos bought Tuesday consisted of simply a search engine and four Web sites (Wired News, Webmonkey, RGB Gallery and Suck).

It's a humbling end for the company that outspoken founder Louis Rossetto once envisioned as spearheading a media revolution. As he wrote, infamously, in Wired magazine's first issue, "The Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon -- while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button." Ironically, it was an unabashedly mainstream media company that ended up purchasing the magazine, and a mundane portal that picked up the remains of HotWired's Web empire.

When I first started working at HotWired in August 1995 as a lowly editorial assistant, I truly felt that we were at the forefront of a revolution. It was hard not to feel that way -- not only was Wired arguably the first magazine to promulgate digital culture, but HotWired had been the first commercial magazine-style Web site. We were growing at astonishing speed, had no shortage of ambitious ideas and drew some of the most talented people in the business. Over at HotWired we were happy to work 14-hour days and weekends, because Wired Ventures was our company, and we were going to be big.

This myth persisted for nearly two years, even as many of our ambitious projects were killed. When the IPO failed once, then twice, we realized the revolution wasn't happening as planned; but it wasn't until the layoffs began, in late 1996, that this really sunk in.

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So what happened? The reasons have all been hashed out again and again by a hundred technology-media pundits. It wasn't a lack of good ideas -- the archives of HotWired are a treasury of innovative projects, many of which would later be pursued by other sites. Ask a hundred former employees and you'll get a hundred answers: Few of these projects were given more than a year to prove themselves, and many were killed before they had a chance to succeed. There wasn't enough money to spend on marketing. Wired Digital tried to do too much too fast and therefore didn't execute any one thing really well. Perhaps, as many have speculated, it was a combination of bad management and hubris. Perhaps it was all of the above. Perhaps it was just bad luck.

Not everyone is lamenting the sale of Wired Ventures. The founders and the current top executives will make out quite well; and Vanderslice, president of Wired Digital, will likely be comfortable at Lycos, since Lycos CEO Bob Davis is an old friend (Rossetto will not be part of the new company). But according to high-level former employees, most of Wired's stock was held tightly by a few founders, and much of the rest was given to the investors who bailed Wired out after the IPO failure. So the odds are that those who toiled behind the scenes to push the Wired revolution -- the producers, the writers, the engineers, the people who worked those 14-hour days -- won't be faring nearly as well as the top executives. Wired Digital spokesman Andrew de Vries says that exact packages haven't been worked out yet, but that shareholders will be compensated with Lycos stock.

Of course, it's not really over yet: Wired Digital isn't going anywhere soon. As part of the newly launched Lycos Network, the Wired Digital properties will keep their URLs and site structure, although they will add the new Lycos Network toolbar. Webmonkey's site-building tools will also be integrated into the Tripod.com home page site, and Wired News stories will be featured in the news section of Lycos; HotBot will continue to stand alone as a unique search engine with its own audience of "tech-savvy Web veterans."

As Bo Peabody, vice president of network strategy for Lycos, explains, "We're going to allow [Wired Digital] to grow them, and as long as they're growing, we'll let them do what they're doing. Right now, they're all growing very nicely, so we don't see a reason to change them. In fact ,we'll help them grow by integrating them into Lycos, without destroying their very individual identities and brand equity."

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So "Wired" may still exist, both online and in print. But now that everyone knows that the pieces of Wired have been sold off to the highest bidders, the name is likely to lose its power to arouse people's emotions.

Still, even if Wired the company doesn't exist anymore, Wired the influencer certainly does. Hundreds of writers, designers and engineers used Wired as their technology training ground. The staff that left has peppered the new media and publishing world with innumerable Wired-inspired ideas. Wired magazine is still going strong, and its impact is visible in new competitors like the Industry Standard and Business 2.0 (both staffed, in fact, by former Wired editors).

The tale of Wired's rise, failure and eventual dispersal is perhaps most disappointing to the hundreds of employees who thought they might change the world and make some money in the process. On a mailing list of former Wired employees, jokingly called Tired, a number of members still trade bitter anecdotes about tight budgets, bad business plans and overly ambitious expectations. There's a certain ennui on Tired about Wired's future: The news of the sale of Wired magazine and Wired Digital both brought merely weary questions about the value of stock options. Yet the sheer existence of a mailing list of hundreds of ex-employees speaks to just how influential Wired has been in so many people's lives.

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Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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