A White-Hot Media Company’s Mania for Breaking New Ground

Predictably (and appropriately, given the minor yet symbolic role a leaked e-mail played in Wired ‘s foiled 1996 bid for an I.P.O.), two months before I set eyes on Gary Wolf’s Wired-A Romance , a biopic of a book on Wired founder Louis Rossetto, his business and romantic partner Jane Metcalfe, and the phenomenal rise and fall of their media company, I got my first taste of it on Bowls, an e-mail list hosted by a former Wired editor, whose members include a couple other ex- Wired folk like myself. Mostly, Bowlers swap News of the Weird, song lyrics, blackmail-worthy JPEG’s and day-in-the-life confessions, but that week, one Bowler had received an early set of the page proofs to Mr. Wolf’s book, so he posted a few excerpts. Naturally, we heaped scorn on these (gleeful abuse is a Bowls M.O.) and then asked our literary scout if some of our own absurd, half-remembered memories from pre–Condé Nast Wired had made it into Mr. Wolf’s chronicle.

Had Mr. Rossetto’s refusal to buy his staff pens made it in? His raising of the men’s room urinal (much to the chagrin of the shorter fry)? Or how about the old kitchen policy? (For years, Wired prepared its staff three vegetarian meals a day, and each week a different department drew clean-up duty. This devolved into a grumpy dish-washing caste.) Was there any mention of the editorial retreats held in a yurt, or the brainstorming on brand extensions carried out in the hot tubs at Esalen?

Or what about that middle-aged idler, said to be in charge of “real estate,” but who, instead of finding new office space, spent his days wandering around with his two Jack Russells chatting people up, right up until the day of the big move to the new digs-which were right downstairs?

For myself, I wondered how Mr. Wolf handled “the fall”: the 1998 break-up of Wired Ventures into two companies, Wired magazine and Wired Digital, and their sale-over Mr. Rossetto’s violent objections-to Condé Nast and Lycos, respectively. (“It’s like taking a Ferrari and selling it for scrap!” Mr. Rossetto said of the Lycos deal.) Had Mr. Wolf cast former Wired chief financial officer Jeff Simon in the Judas role, as some alleged in ’98? And did he uncover S.I. Newhouse’s mole-the one who had enabled Condé Nast to buy Wired even after the Wired board of directors had reached terms with Spin and Vibe magazine owner Robert Miller?

Finally, one Bowler popped the $64K question: Beyond those who’d worked at Wired , who cares?

Weeks later, I can finally clear this thicket of queries. Of all the Bowler memories, only the ban on office pens rates Mr. Wolf’s attention. Though he does report on Mr. Newhouse scooping Mr. Miller, and on Mr. Simon’s brief stint as president of Wired (during a surreal week when Mr. Rossetto and Ms. Metcalfe, although terminated, continued to come into the office to work), Mr. Wolf has nothing to say about the identity of the Condé Nast spy, nor does he address the rumor about Mr. Simon’s million-dollar windfall for undermining Rossetto’s control of his company.

As to who might care, Mr. Wolf and his publisher clearly did give thought to broadening the audience for the book, and Mr. Wolf presents Wired ‘s story as a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs everywhere, armchair and otherwise-and successfully so. It’s a masterful case study of how the ambition needed to launch a breakthrough company can also lead to its undoing. Where it falls short is in capturing Wired ‘s cultural moment.

That Mr. Wolf gets to be the one to tell this story is fitting. A perceptive, stylish writer, he established himself early as one of Wired ‘s top producers of revealing profiles. He also served as executive editor of HotWired, Wired ‘s pioneering Web site, though you’d hardly know how central a role he played, because his book is mostly told in a cool, worldly-wise third person.

Mr. Wolf’s talent for distilling unusual personalities serves him well. He’s especially effective at evoking Mr. Rossetto’s “strangely affecting combination of certainty and vulnerability,” and he expertly charts Mr. Rossetto’s transformation from “a clueless ex-hippie parading around New York with a pamphlet about ‘Hacking the Brain'” to the fanatical creator of a prototype for a “computer magazine with the feel of gun magazine,” to the vindicated editor in chief of a white-hot publication that promised to give insight into “social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”

Mr. Wolf does nearly as well with Ms. Metcalfe, an ebullient Kentuckian mistaken in Paris (where she met Mr. Rossetto) for an American railroad heiress, and with Kevin Kelly, the highly original and disarmingly dear founding editor of Wired , who once biked the United States convinced he’d die in six months. The trip impressed upon Mr. Kelly the dehumanizing effect of life without a future. Later, Mr. Wolf gives an affecting portrait of Carl Steadman, co-founder of the satiric e-zine Suck . Meeting Wired ‘s anti-careerists makes much of Mr. Wolf’s book a breeze, and left me feeling nostalgic.

It’s in the book’s second half, where he details Wired ‘s rapid expansion online, that Mr. Wolf disappoints, and Wired-A Romance slouches towards Wired-A Dénouement . True, he nails the philosophical debates over how to make HotWired profitable, and brilliantly reconstructs an exchange over company-wide e-mail typical of the emotional round-robin discussions– cum –flame wars that consumed so much energy in that office. He recounts the comic scramble, too, each time Wired ran low on funds. But he gives short shrift to what, besides an Internet search engine, Wired spent its millions on. As such, Mr. Wolf’s decision to background himself-which at first seems an act of admirable restraint-becomes disingenuous.

Consider one notable omission. In late ’96, Messrs. Rossetto, Kelly and Wolf got a look at Pointcast, technology that allowed a company to send data and images across a network to a connected desktop computer-continuously, like television. The Wired brain trust seized on Pointcast’s “push” technology (as opposed to the “pull” of online search and retrieval) as the next big thing, and touted it in a March 1997 cover story. Co-written by Mr. Wolf, the article notoriously began by telling readers to “kiss your browser goodbye.” At the same time, Mr. Wolf set to work putting Wired ‘s money where its mouth was, and committed tens of thousands of dollars to creating LiveWired, Wired ‘s short-lived push media service.

The point of recalling this is not a gotcha! on Wired or Mr. Wolf’s false prophecy. Even then, there were heads at Wired who dissed push media. Pointcast, they sniped, amounted to a souped-up screensaver, and what was the point of a mass medium that only turns itself on when you’re not watching?

By not sharing more of his own commitment to such experimental media, Mr. Wolf misses the chance to convey fully Wired ‘s absolute mania for breaking new ground-the core aspiration of the mid-90’s San Francisco-and the instant ego gratification that came with it. This heady, history-in-the-making excitement was not the private reserve of Wired ‘s founders, or of individuals like Mr. Wolf who actively cultivated it.

Soon after the sale to Condé Nast, the magazine staff met their new bosses, including Mr. Newhouse, in the Wired kitchen. Someone-and it may have been Mr. Newhouse-made a crack about the push media cover story. Immediately, Mr. Wolf and Mr. Kelly, who were seated near one another, copped to it and, unrepentant, gave each other a high-five. It’s that candor and insouciance, that spirit of “Hey, it wasn’t pretty, but what a fuckin’ ride,” that Wired-A Romance sadly lacks.

Brad Wieners, a former Wired senior editor, lives in New York. A White-Hot Media Company’s Mania for Breaking New Ground