What goes online

Peculiar doesn't begin to explain it.

Peculiar doesn't begin to explain it.

Some might call it perverse that throughout the second wave of the dot-com era, a magazine that was tasked with charting its sociological, economic, and moral effect on the populace couldn't truly participate in said revolution (or evolution, if you hedge). I am speaking about Wired magazine, now a part of the Condé Nast empire, which, for the past eight years, has been unable to maintain a true Web presence because someone else, Lycos, owned that right.

It was a sad fate for the Wired staff that Wired sold its Wired Digital operation to Lycos for $83 million in 1999. The buyer overpaid, but it was Wired that suffered.

Much like news outlets running stories about how RSS feeds could revolutionize how people get information (while not actually deploying these feeds for themselves), Wired's cruel irony was something acknowledged, though not really discussed.

That changed last week, as Condé Nast plunked down $25 million to buy back Wired's digital properties. The magazine could now practice what it preaches. While said news brought online diehards to their knees – Xeni Jardin, a co-founder of popular tech-focused blog Boing Boing, wrote, "I'm a contributor to both Wired News and Wired magazine, and I'm so excited to hear this I could just spontaneously combust right now" – it raises the question of whether Wired proper has what it takes to make its way online.

Wired's not having an online presence did not cause ignominy merely because the magazine had been trumpeting the online environment for more than a decade; it was most disappointing because Wired and its employees were behind some of the most innovative Web content developments before the sale.

HotWired, as Wired News was originally called, is often considered the first commercial Web magazine, from when it was created in 1994. According to a long write up in Web magazine Keepgoing.org, HotWired debuted with 10 launch sponsors, including AT&T, which debuted the first-ever banner ad on the Web site. Because acquisitions are often convoluted, HotWired morphed into a product search engine, which will still be owned by Lycos.

Additionally, HotWired employees surreptitiously created Suck.com, which was both so ahead of its time and loved by tech nerds, that it's unbelievable that it took another eight or so years for the blogging environment to gain steam. Suck.com was updated daily, worshipped snark, made outgoing links an integral part of the story, and even counted former Wonkette editor Ana Marie Cox as an executive editor. Not only that, the tone, content, and personality of those Suck.com columns make many of today's popular blogs look pedantic. Wired liked it so much, they bought it for the low price of $30,000 and some HotWired shares, according to KeepGoing.org.

Given this history (and the need for acres of online space), it is obvious why Wired would want its Web site back. But it's been a long time since the team has been in the daily publishing game.

Gawker Media's Valleywag assumed the snark mantle from Suck. Sister property Gizmodo (along with Weblogs Inc.'s Engadget) have a hard grasp on gadgets, and some tech and business writers are drawing venture capital investments for their own standalone projects.

Granted Wired's (the magazine) approach is more holistic than many of the more specifically focused outlets, but thinking that Wired's online property will immediately succeed based on brand recognition is to ignore all trends in the marketplace. Wired has its shot – a great shot – but success is by no means an obvious outcome.

As Chris Anderson, Wired editor-in-chief (and successful blogger in his own right), told me in an interview for a soon-to-be-published profile in PRWeek, blogging and magazine journalism are very different.

"Blogs are great for smaller ideas, observations, and bits of news, where it isn't all polished off and you're not saying it's the final draft of history," Anderson says. "Magazines are fantastic at taking ideas, packaging them with long-form journalism, lavish photography, and high-end design."

Wired has a lock on the latter; what new depths can it reach on the former?

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