Wired’s Worst Stories: Zippies, The Long Boom, and Push!

What was Wired’s worst story? The three likely nominees for this prize are easy to identify. By popular anti-acclaim, the three worst Wired stories ever were:

Here come the Zippies! (2.05) In May of 1994, Wired announced that a confab of techno-pagens at the Grand Canyon in August would spark a cultural wildfire that could change America forever. It was the next Woodstock, the inauguration of a millennial culture.

Push! (5.03) In March, 1997 Wired said goodbye to the Web browser. In an article so important it started on the cover, the Wired editors announced: “the Web browser itself is about to croak. And good riddance. In its place…” The promises continued for twelve pages, before the table of contents.

The Long Boom (5.07) In July, 1997, Wired asked its readers to prepare themselves for the most radical idea in its arsenal: everything would continue to go up forever.

From the first, Wired published stories that produced howls of outrage. In fact, the very first letter to the editor that Louis published, in issue #2, described the magazine as “yuppie bullshit.” This never bothered the editors. As Kevin Kelly told me one day, when I gave him some cautionary advice: “Hating things is a form of attachment, too.”

Among writers, such recklessness in an editor can inspire love. Writing for Wired was like having a quirky, temperamental, unpredictable, inspiring, laughable, extremely permissive parent. You could get in huge trouble from both obeying and from disobeying. Guidance was intermittent and contradictory. You knew only that if you delivered something unexpected, especially something unexpected and big, you stood an amazingly good chance of seeing it appear in the magazine. For a while, I held the record for rambling narrative: twenty-five thousand words on Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, the most influential failed software project of the personal computer era. This was a Kevin Kelly assignment, and he never blinked. A few years later Neil Stephenson delivered a forty-thousand word travelogue on wiring of the planet, starting with the completion of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 and ending with the paranoid adventures of fiber-optic installers running lines through the jungles of Thailand. This one gets my vote as the best Wired story ever.

But back to what I suspect will be the more popular topic of Wired’s terrible mistakes. The insouciance that got Stephenson’s story and mine into the magazine could also get you into trouble. (And by you, I mean me.) Kevin and Louis treated the magazine as theater – they wanted a spectacle of ideas, a revolution every single month.

Let’s run that by again. A revolution how often? Every month? That’s a lot of revolutions. All of the three worst stories in Wired were inspired, in part, by a plain desire to provoke.

Which one of the three was really the worst? The Long Boom is by far the most important story, and on the theory that a great flatus is more offensive than a small flatus, this one is the winner running away. Five years after its appearance in the magazine, the phrase The Long Boom continues to be widely used (mercifully, without attribution) as an example of the most idiotic, market-besotted optimism.

But the Long Boom doesn’t get my vote. The backlash it provoked was planned, and the central idea was credible: not that prosperity would necessarily increase and spread, but that this might happen, and that we ought to think about it. The big, yellow happy face on the cover – itself an obvious provocation – erased the difference between might happen and will happen, as did the cover lines. This was a classic Wired move. But inside, it was not pure shit, so it doesn’t win.

The Zippies cover story, was one of the most heinous examples of a non-event accorded disproportionate attention. In fact, there is some question as to whether the people involved were simply circulating a hoax, with the deliberate aid of Jules Marshall, its author. (Read his account of the story here.) Again, Wired’s own hype-enhancing reflex came to Marshall’s aid, as the editors took an offhand comparison about the next Woodstock and elevated it to the top of the story. But the Zippies cover can’t win, either. It was fluff, but it was light, insignificant, biodegradable fluff, whose impact vanished the moment it appeared. The main damage was to Wired’s credibility, but Wired was on the next thing instantly. A couple years later, Wired did a similar story on Burning Man – but this time they got it right. The photographs were amazing and the story was accurate, for Burning Man, like it or not, is an important event. With the Zippies, Wired had the perfect story – with the wrong central characters.

By process of elimination, the winner is – but first: I am the co-author of the candidate in question. Believe me, I recognize how dubious my pretense of objectivity will now seem. But follow my argument, and see if you don’t agree.

The worst story Wired ever published is Push! In my view nothing in Wired before or afterward managed to combine both concrete error and speculative absurdity in such high concentrations; moreover, its influence was real and its effect was malign.

It all began with a note from Kevin Kelly. “I’m unhappy with the current line up for 5.03,” Kevin wrote, to a large group of editors and other employees. “I think we need one article with a lot more NOW, a lot more urgency, a lot more must-readness than the others we have on deck.”

The thing was, it was late, and no such story existed. So, into the soup pot went every stray notion about interactive media that had been gleaned by people working on a wide variety of disconnected, early-stage projects. Having penned, twelve months previously, a cover story on Marshall McLuhan, I poured some media theory into the mix, along with a pinch of dystopian fantasy. Dozens of others on Kevin’s email list contributed, and Kevin ran the results through some sort of de-randomizing process, then passed the copy around again for comment. My comments and warnings were copious, and when the issue appeared, I discovered that I had the honor of co-authorship. Erik Adigard created the remarkable cover: a giant blue palm pushing aggressively into the reader’s face. And the “push media industry” – half-baked, unprofitable, wasteful of talent, passionately hated by the very few users of its very buggy products – was given its crucial media boost.

It took several years for the farce to unwind. Classically, tragically, hilariously, Wired was a primary victim. For a time, a major fraction of the companies employees were deployed building Push media products. And I was the leader of this group.

How? Why? It started with the sensible idea that material should flow over any available platform or protocol – Netscape, Microsoft, email, Pointcast. But soon the browser wars were heating up, and Netscape and Microsoft began offering incentives to create content that would appear only inside their own browsers. Remember “optimized for IE?” The pressure was intense. (Our emails were eventually subpoenaed by the Justice Department in connection with its lawsuit against Microsoft.) Beth Vanderslice, the day-to-day leader of the company, said she had some kind of connection with Microsoft executive Brad Chase, and urged us to tailor our content specifically to the new “browser channels” that would be competing with Pointcast. This would surely win us a bucket of promotional money from Mr. Gates himself.

I was given full time access to and a partnership with the designer Erik Adigard, whose fertile imagination only encouraged my own manic enthusiasm. Despite huge pressure from more sober executives to straighten up and fly right, we burned money like so much campfire kindling and created fantastically interesting demos that earned gratifying accolades and never, ever worked.

In defense of our technical colleagues, I should reiterate that it was our premise rather than our execution that was flawed. Neither Microsoft nor Netscape delivered a functional push platform, and we were fairly warned by several engineers that while Vanderslice was dangerously uncritical in her admiration of the software venders, we were being downright silly in our demo-mania. Ed Anuff, who went on to great success with Epicentric, sat nearby, and told us every single day that we were wrong.

Meanwhile, the Wired cover spawned Push media conferences, push media consultants, push media investment strategies, and uncountable push media nightmares. The Push story widely perceived as an advertisement for our own Push products. But it was not a marketing tool. It was an instrument of self-conviction.

As we leave this story of Wired’s worst story with the image of us disappearing into the whirlpool of our own creation (or, you might say, up our own asshole) let’s give the last word to Carl Steadman, co-founder of Suck, current guru of Plastic, as he expressed himself during a heated conversation about the Push cover, which occurred on the Well. Carl’s explanation, strangely enough, parallels Jules Marshall’s account of Here Comes The Zippies. Each story was a mixture of provocation and wish, mind-game and delusion – as misleading to its authors as to its readers.

Carl, below, is responding to accusations that the Wired story is shameless and self-interested hype:

Carl Steadman (carl) Thu 20 Feb ’97 (05:57 PM)That the piece itself begins with a reference to Welles’s hoax of the century – “We interrupt this magazine for a special bulletin” – should be clue enough that something else is going on here. That the story clearly “pushes” itself onto the reader – beginning as it does, on the cover (or, if you will, from the newsstand) – plays on not just what it means to push, but also on the positive and negative connotations of push….How could anyone not conclude that the PUSH! feature is no less than a brilliant deconstruction of the mediasphere of the future? As it carefully erodes distinctions between push and pull, between content and context, between infomercial and advertorial, it demonstrates, as only Wired can, how our utopian and dystopian futures are one in the same. If Wired consists of bulletins from the front lines of the digital revolution, it is only delivering on that promise.

Carl’s defense is indistinguishable from an accusation, and the contest is decided: Push! wins!

Some other comments on Push:

From media critic Geert Lovink: A Critique of Push Media:
On the rebirth strategies of Wired magazine.

From a contemporary Webzine, j-dom(1997): “It’s worse than TV, it comes on when you aren’t there.”

Still inspiring hatred after all these years. Wade Walker calls Push “the epitome of the butt-stupid idea.

Still inspiring consultants after all these years. Vin Crosbie is an expert on “solicited” Push media.

The fate of Pointcast:

1997: Business Week reports that Pointcast spurns buyout offer from Newscorp worth 500 million dollars. Note that the company is still searching for a chief financial officer.

1999: Wired News reports Pointcast sold to Idealab for 7 million dollars cash and stock.

2003: Hopefully, not too much was stock, as Idealab’s stock value soon dropped through the floor. Earlier this year Business Week reported that its value was down to pennies per share.

Comments are closed.