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[Nettime-bold] TELEPOLIS: Web Dreams Deferred

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 Web Dreams Deferred
 David Hudson 13.06.2001 
 Publications on the Web dwindle. So do publications about it 
  You know the old curse. May you live in interesting times. Well, for 
anyone working in what was supposed to have been the new economy, these 
are pretty damn interesting times.  
 For Owen Thomas, for example, the guy behind the daily must-read 
Ditherati [0], wherein "the digerati dither, daily," you could say 
that last week was very, very interesting indeed. Particularly 
Thursday. That afternoon, Time Inc. announced that the magazine Thomas 
writes for, eCompany Now [1], would "subsume" Business 2.0 [2], as an report [3] put it, and take on its title. Then, Thursday 
evening, he found himself talking to Suck [4] editor Tim Cavanaugh 
about the demise of Automatic Media [5], the company formed by Suck, 
where Thomas once worked [6] as a copy editor, Feed [7] and 
Altculture [8]. 
 For countless Web veterans, the loss of Suck and Feed, both founded in 
mid-1995, isn't just the story of the week; if symbols were dollars, 
Feed being put on ice [9] and Suck going on vacation [10] would be 
the story of the year. 
 But symbols aren't dollars, and money-wise, the merger of the two 
magazines is the bigger story, so let's knock out those numbers and 
have done with it. Time Inc., a subsidiary of the largest media 
conglomerate in the world, AOL Time Warner, is essentially forking over 
$68 million for a circulation list and a brand name [11]. Even so, 
that's just under a fifth of what Gruner + Jahr USA paid to acquire 
Fast Company and, perhaps even more telling, about half of the price 
that had been on the table when Time first talked to Future Network 
PLC, the British owners of Business 2.0, about buying the magazine just 
half a year ago. 
 So not only is there one less "new economy magazine" on the rack, but 
the prices being paid for them as their ad revenues rapidly dwindle is 
going down. Way down and fast. The trend commented on here [12] two 
months ago continues apace. In fact, the Industry Standard [13] at 
least would really prefer you not think of it as a "new economy 
magazine" anymore. The weekly has changed [14] its tagline from "The 
Newsmagazine of the Internet Economy" to "Intelligence for the 
Information Economy". Oh, and laid off [15] 20 more employees this 
 Owen Thomas knows from new economy magazines. Before returning to San 
Francisco to join the eCompany team in time for its launch a year ago, 
he'd done a stint in New York for Time Digital, and before that, it was 
Red Herring. But it was his editor at what was then just Time Warner, 
Josh Quittner, who wrote the definitive eulogy for Suck though he 
probably didn't realize it at the time. The title of article Quittner 
wrote for Wired says it all: Web Dreams [16]. 
 Writing for the November 1996 issue of the flagship magazine for the 
company that had just bought Suck, Quittner has a lot of 
self-referential fun in the piece, but the basic story line goes like 
this: These two guys, Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff, have scored classic 
mid-90s dream jobs at Hotwired [17], but it's not enough. They've got 
their own ideas about how publishing works on the Web. Working for 
Hotwired by day, they slave away by night at their Web dream. It 
launches, the hits (as they called them back then) come in, multiply, 
and they sell out. Tellingly, at the end of the piece, Quittner takes 
the self-referentiality to its logical conclusion, turning down an 
offer for a job at Hotwired in favor of another to pursue his own Web 
dream with Time Warner backing. Netly News would come, then go. 
Quittner, though, would stick with the company that could afford such 
trials and errors and is still pulling down a salary. 
 Meanwhile, once it became a Wired property, Suck was able to expand 
its payroll. "On my resume," says Thomas, "my Suck employment dates 
from August 1996 (right before the failed Wired IPO) to March 1997 (two 
months after the disastrous private-equity deal that sealed Wired's 
fate). I never vested any of my options." 
 To cut to the chase, the Wired empire unraveled, and Suck, like the 
rest of Wired Digital, wound up a Lycos property, bought itself back 
and formed Automatic Media with Feed with financing from Lycos and 
Advance Publications. As Greg Lindsey notes on (itself 
recently merged with Steven Brill's weird empirelet, but that's another 
story), "At least for the moment, Suck and Feed will take their places 
alongside as cult sites that knew they couldn't make it on 
their own but, oddly enough, didn't hit the rocks until they hooked up 
with a supposedly more business-savvy partner." 
 There's little point here in lauding Suck and Feed for all they've 
meant to the medium. Scott Rosenberg has already done that [18] as 
admirably and succinctly as anyone could hope on the Web pages of 
another endangered title, Salon. And if it's sheer volume of ranting 
and wailing you're after, turn to Plastic [19], the community weblog 
launched by Automatic Media in January where the topic "Is Plastic 
Dead Meat?" [20] has probably chalked up more comments than any other 
story in Plastic's short history. 
 It's in that topic, actually, that Feed co-founder Steven Johnson 
shares "a few graphs" [21] from his original 8-page proposal for Feed. 
Those graphs serve as an interesting reminder that both Feed and Suck 
evolved away from their original concepts, which were polar opposites, 
and wound up meeting somewhere in the middle. Suck ended up dropping 
the "onslaught of mixed-metaphor allusions" and pained syntax Johnson 
bemoans in his justly praised book Interface Culture but also the 
link-as-editorial-comment feature that made Suck an only-online 
publishing phenomenon. Meanwhile, over six long years, Feed 
experimented less and less with odd interfaces, multimedia 
possibilities, pop-up footnotes and the like to eventually end up 
publishing shortish daily essays on pretty much the same topics Suck 
addressed once it gave up critiquing Web sites: pop culture, politics 
and, well, just about anything everybody else was already talking 
about, too. 
 By the turn of the millennium and all that, with consolidation the 
rule of the day, it seemed to make sense for Suck and Feed to join 
forces. "Automatic Media was meant to be an advertising network, first 
and foremost," says Thomas, "letting Suck and Feed share salespeople 
and tech resources. The ineluctable conclusion I draw from this is that 
online advertising -- even more than offline advertising -- is a scale 
business. Automatic Media drew a similar conclusion, but they may have 
been off by an order of magnitude or so." 
 Indeed, if there are lessons to be drawn... but wait. Perhaps 
Netslaves co-author Steve Baldwin approaches this angle best: "I'm 
frankly sick of lessons - this business sucks [22]." 
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