Web culture circa 1995 – some first thoughts on the history of HotWired and Suck.com

On: August 31, 2010
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


“Early histories of ‘the digital content revolution’ will center around one area, San Francisco’s South Park.” (Justin Hall talking about San Francisco’s multimedia gulch)

I’m in the bay area researching HotWired – Wired’s ambitious website created in 1994 – feeling like I’ve stumbled on a fairly pivotal event in the transition from cyberpunk-and-VR-driven cyberculture to something recognizable as today’s web culture. Here are a couple of observations from the field:

  • HotWired brought together a few key visions of web culture in 1994, and really foreshadowed some of the debates we’re having today. There was the new media publisher’s dream, which Louis Rossetto hoped to enact, in which the web would upend the media industry and make it possible for any independent to quickly rise to the top (much like Wired itself did in the print world the year before). Rossetto was obviously inspired by some of the great gurus of digital culture – especially McLuhan and Toffler – but it seems he was equally indebted to the model provided by a previous generation of independent publishers like Jann Wenner.
  • And there was the shared authorship / public sphere model that Jonathan Steuer (who headed the online division) and executive editor Howard Rheingold put forward. Somewhat infamously, Steuer, Rheingold and others would leave HotWired following fiery debates with Rossetto about the site – Rossetto was anything but enthusiastic about the idea that users would have an editorial voice as well. One of things I’m looking at is how this vision – which Rheingold called a “global jam session” – was given shape when the web was so new. What features would the turn the virtual community into a new form of publishing?
  • Most of the arguments between the different HotWired actors were couched in terms of what the Web really was (in addition to what Wired stood for) – this is the ‘web-native’ argument, which one can definitely trace from HotWired to the rise of blogging and probably to any number of discussions today about things like Twitter, 4chan and Wikipedia.
  • I’ve interviewed Gary Wolf, whose book has been an essential starting point for all of this, Justin Hall and Howard Rheingold. All three were really nice, and really unique personalities. Gary is very analytical and makes a point of thinking through the more dramatic parts of the HotWired story from multiple perspectives. Justin talks as fast as you would expect after reading Scott Rosenberg’s descriptions. Also, Justin’s pages on HotWired from the time have been really useful too – when I spoke with him he wondered if he’d written himself into this particular web history, a interesting question to go along with a bunch of others on historiography and archives.
  • There were of course other principles guiding HotWired’s creation. In early 1996 plans were made to take Wired public, and a series of moves were made less out of editorial concerns and more to boost traffic, including the acquisition of HotBot. Wired caught the wrong end of two waves in the dot.com years and never went public – instead Rossetto had to sell, which led to HotWired’s demise under its new owner Lycos and Wired magazine belonging to Conde Nast.
  • Last Saturday was the 15th anniversary of the birth of Suck.com. Suck was created anonymously by HotWired staff Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff and, after two months in which it became wildly successful, was sold ‘back’ to HotWired. Suck is central to this research, because it was so influential not only in terms of web publishing and design (prefiguring blogging’s pace and minimalism), but also in terms of web cultural tone or attitude. It’s interesting that both Gary and Justin talked about how ‘true’ Suck was, and it did hold up a kind of mirror to the web and the people who built it. But it did so in a particular way – its ironic style and media cynicism echoed some influential zines, but was also unique. One of its main devices was to take a key element of web culture – say, the ‘business model’ of selling your startup before actually generating revenue – and to deconstruct it as if it were a genre with a few essential narrative and stylistic traits. (Along with clever subversions of office informational formats, this kind of parody remains pretty central to web humor, and reminds me of many funny web 2.0-themed videos and generators). At the same time that bloggers like Justin Hall were establishing a somewhat paradoxical ‘aesthetic of transparency,’ in which inner-most thoughts were mediated and widely circulated, Suck was turning this around, making sense of the outside world through the lens of media culture – so I wonder if it was this strange mix of cultural criticism and Hollywood-Insider-style that made it seem like the truth was finally being told about the web.

This hardly captures everything I’m learning here (and isn’t even a very good highlight reel), so in good web form I’ll try to make up for that with some useful links that I didn’t already point to:

HotWired article on Wikipedia – I wouldn’t link to this if it weren’t for the sad fact that it’s being considered for deletion / merging with the Wired News article.
A HotWired demo from 1995 – when many trade shows didn’t have internet connection
Remembering HotWired by Louis Rossetto
Louis’s preview of HotWired in a May 1994 New York Times article (HotWired was originally called @Wired).
Sketches of HotWired by Howard Rheingold
HotWired design over the years from Jeffrey Veen, who worked with Barbara Kuhr on the site’s art direction.
A WELL conference with Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly about Gary’s book
The Big Fish. A history of Suck.com written for the site’s 10th anniversary – really good stuff.
A Wired feature on Carl and Joey from Suck, written by Suck’s competitor (I can’t explain it any better than the article does.)
A Suck parody from November 1995, in reaction to the news that Suck had been sold to HotWired.

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