At the crossroads of journalism and technology
J.Net/Impact 96 Special Assignment
by The Crossjammer
I have here in my hot little web browser, a few bookmarks to Hotwired. This is the first time I've consistently browsed Hotwired for well over 9 months. I'm glad to say the web site is actually useful now, and profoundly so.
You may know that I'm not particularly sanguine about Wired magazine. In a nutshell, I think the magazine has become overwhelmed by crass commercialism. I had hoped that Wired would live up to its manifesto and add context to the digital idolatry it wallows in. Instead, we wound up with a ton of ridiculously flashy adds and the reading lists of the digerati.
Hotwired started out mainly as a web version of Wired magazine. As I was still reading Wired when Hotwired was launched, I browsed it often in its early days. Some of the content was useful but the good stuff was snowed under typical web idiocies like Surf Central. Who needed yet another assortment of cool web links? At the time I believed that the Threads element of Hotwired was fairly interesting and had a lot of potential, but that wasn't enough to keep me coming back.
Over time, I wandered away from Hotwired. I just didn't need another list of links or Dave Winer whining. Brocks Meek was something of a draw, but I was subscribed to the Cyberwire Dispatch which carried the exact same columns.
On the other end of the spectrum, I almost religiously read Suck every day. It is in fact the only thing on the Web I browsed every day, up until a couple of weeks ago. I can't claim that Suck was the first site that produced content on a daily basis, but for me it was the first daily site with compelling content, namely smart ass commentary about the Web.
The irony is that Suck started out on spare cycles of a Hotwired machine and was eventually spun off, sold out, and/or absorbed by, Hotwired Ventures. To this day, the Suck producers probably only have to stand up and peer over the sides of their cubicles to throw spitballs at the Hotwired staff. Two renegades whose express purpose was to deflate peoples ridiculously grandiose expectations of the Web had succeeded magnificently.
The essential element to my attraction was Suck's simplicity. The core of Suck is old-fashioned good writing. Each day they critique the Web phenomenon in some fashion and now they've expanded into new media. The images used on Suck are exceedingly small by Web standards and download quickly. There are always some links, but they're embedded in the context of the daily column. Finally, Suck was consistent from day to day which was a refreshing change when sites were seemingly revamped every month.
Then one day, Suck announced that they were selling out. They had cashed in and been bought by Hotwired. This was not a good omen I thought to myself. I'm glad my ill premonitions turned out wrong.
Now having returned to Hotwired, I've found that the Suck style has infected Hotwired for the better. First of all, Hotwired has been broken into a collection of sites. All of these satellite websites are geared towards generating some content on a daily basis. Each satellite has a specific editorial focus, e.g. Packet is generally technology oriented while The Netizen is political in nature. Yet they all have the Suck style. Graphics are effective but not overbearing. There are few if any Web tricks. Web Monkey, oriented toward Web hackers, has a few Java applets but The Netizen is appropriately devoid of such gadgets. While the hyperlinks in Suck can be gratuitous, in The Netizen they actually point to highly relevant political sites on the web. Okay, the satellites don't all have a smarmy attitude but some things you have to take seriously.
Even better has been the revenge of Threads. When Hotwired first started, a large portion was devoted to Threads, a knockoff of Usenet news or Well discussions. Threads added the ability for visitors to the site to sound off about the particular topic at hand.
Unfortunately, Threads flopped with a resounding thud. They either generated no response or turned into flamefests. Threads wasn't integrated well with the content either. There was always a link to the threads section from each web page, but not much organization.
Now Threads are back with a vengeance. Again each article has a link to Threads, but now the link is surrounded by a discussion inducing question. Threads I now believe are monitored a bit better and thus devolve into flamefests less often. For example, the pornography debate reared its ugly head in a thread. Even Arianna Huffington got into the act, having one of her lackeys post a reasonable if flawed argument advocating censorship. On Usenet, this would have been akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. In Threads, the debate got heated, but the debate at least remained rational.
Even better is that Hotwired is improving in the encouragement of these debates. When Hotwired initially introduced columnists such as Brock Meeks, a respected Washington correspondent, a provocative article wouldn't be responded to for days. Now at the end of each column there's a small bit of encouragement boiling down to "What do you think?" At the same time, a small link to the last thing posted to a related thread is always available as a sort of hot sidebar. Lastly, links to provocative threads themselves are featured right along the columns.
The new promotion of Threads seems to be working. My admittedly unscientific survey of current threads indicates that articles are actually being responded to on a daily basis. Imagine the San Francisco Chronicle asking you to send them a letter, promising not to edit it, and putting it in context to what your letter is replying to. This is what I mean by the revenge of Threads.
This kind of debate generation and management has apparently been happening on The Well for quite a while now. Hotwired has now found a way to bring this to the much larger audience of the World Wide Web. This is a significant feat and why in my opening paragraph I intimate that Hotwired is profoundly useful.
The archival capabilities of the Web actually shine on Hotwired. Often when reading Wired, I've wanted to check out someone's outrageous claims against back issues of the magazine. Yet unless I'm actually sitting next to a stack of old Wireds this is highly inconvenient. When reading a Hotwired article there's always a link to the archive handy. I'm a few clicks away from fact checking against old material. On Suck, every Suck ever written is archived and easily available. On Hotwired all the articles are archived and Threads are as well.
Not only do I have a library of the original articles, but the debates the content generated. This is especially significant when knowledgeable readers make corrections to the columns. I didn't get to the Arianna Huffington thread I mentioned earlier until a few days after the debate had been going on. Yet I still managed to get the full context of the debate both before and after she had entered her salvo.
The overwhelming glut of ads in Wired is a major irritant for me. While I doubt it will last forever, advertising on Hotwired is mercifully restrained. On Packet, there aren't any huge ad banners. In the animated gif banner there's a small statement of "made possible by Oldsmobile" but this disappears by the end of the animation. Of course the sponsors have to get a little more for their money so they do have a permanent spot in the navigation bar at the bottom of the page.
The narrowcasting aspect of the satellite idea cannot be overlooked. I have simply bookmarked Packet, The Netizen, and Web Monkey. I never even see other Hotwired satellites like Surf Central and Cocktail. I even manage to avoid the gratuitous splash page at http://www.hotwired.com/. As opposed to Wired, where I'm usually hacked off about the 90% junk I paid for, Hotwired can spew as much crap as they like on satellites such as Pop and Ask Dr. Weil, as long as I never have to see it. For a long time newspapers have been positing about the bottomless well of content that they could use the Web for. Hotwired is that concept in action.
All is not perfect though. For some reason pointing your browser at http://www.hotwired.com/ induces Netscape browsers to pop up their version of a navigation bar. I imagine Internet Explorers suffer the same fate. In any event, this feeble attempt at a Web user interface needlessly consumes screen real estate. The navigation bar also does not go away when you leave Hotwired, something of a major irritant.
But that's just a minor quibble. Even more disturbing is the Hotwired splash page which has been turned into an animated gif. The staff at Hotwired have accumulated enough acumen to make these into commercials of the kind you see on television. I can foresee an increasing trend where entry into parts of Hotwired are proscribed by mandatory viewing of such 15 second spots. Right now the gifs only plug the Hotwired satellites, but can ads for Absolut and Polo Jeans be far behind?
Also, while most of Hotwired is free there is still a registration process. As far as I know, my Hotwired registration hasn't benefited me in the least. Yet I'm sure there collecting all sorts of interesting demographic information about me. By now they may know which of the satellites I visit frequently and which ones I never go to. For all I know, the actual ads sent to my browser could be tailored to whatever browsing patterns I have, completely unbeknownst to me.
Hotwired has fallen into the trap of instant gratification with its insipid use of polls on the Netizen. When you have a device like Threads why do you need low context, biased tools like polls to tell you what people think? A refreshing feature is that the poll data is actually presented with the poll results, but this is mitigated by the fact that Web polls are first highly self selecting and second, pretty unscientific. Just because the Web supports forms doesn't mean you need use them.
I should confess here that I have not reviewed another interesting aspect of Hotwired from a multimedia perspective. Many of the satellites have recorded interviews that have been digitized and are playable from a Web browser. Unfortunately, I didn't have a system configuration readily available to me that could actually play these interviews, in time for this review. While ultimately the usefulness of these recorded interviews depends on the skill of the interviewer, I'm probably doing the site a disservice by not discussing them.
The ultimate reason that I like Hotwired is that technology is a servant to the communication and not an idol as it is in Wired. Whereas Wired falls into the old media ruts of shocking to attract, celebrity worship, and consumer fetishism, Hotwired for the most part has managed to blend the Web into a journalistic endeavor. Hotwired has advanced the state of the art in producing content every day. The content is compelling and at the same time is not overwhelmed by either the sponsors or the technical capabilities of the Web. Decent writing about interesting topics is the major media, with images (animated and static), sound, and links all contributing to the experience. Hyperlinking is finally used to augment the basic content through archiving and through discussion generation and management.
Tired: Wired, Wired: Hotwired