How Wired Magazine Changed the Way We Talk About Technology

20th-anniversary issue sneak peek

The Making of a Revolution
The editors started assigning stories, and the magazine began to find its voice.

Rossetto: Kevin, John Battelle, and I drove the editorial direction pretty much exclusively. We had a couple of wonderful strengths: We had a clear vision of the kinds of stories we wanted to read, and we had utterly complementary interests. John liked business, Kevin liked going out over the edge of the future and coming back with fresh kill, and I liked to figure out the big picture of what was going on now.

John Battelle (managing editor): We never wanted for great story ideas. We asked, what would happen if the government could track everything we did? Holy shit, it turns out there’s a case called Inslaw about that! What if the approach to learning was radically shifted by digital technology? Lewis Perelman just wrote a book on that topic! You could ask the same question about any pursuit on Earth and make a story out of it.

Kelly: Before Wired, I had tried unsuccessfully to start a magazine called Signal. It was a broad cultural view of technology, but the center of Signal was ideas. Louis and Jane’s genius was to use people as the wrapper for ideas.

Barbara Kuhr (designer): All the computer magazines we’d seen to date had pictures of machines, or people sitting with machines. We said, “No machines. We’re taking pictures of you.”

Kelly: I instituted an internal device for our story meetings: the revolution of the month. The future is going to be a series of upsets, displacements, disturbances, and we’re going to identify them—not to present them that way but to incorporate them. If a magazine came from the future, there would be all kinds of things that weren’t explained in a pedantic way but just embedded in the context.

Meanwhile, the design staff was frantically putting together visual treatments.

Plunkett: Louis and I were fans of McLuhan, especially The Medium Is the Message. What if McLuhan and his designer, Quentin Fiore, had a six-color press? What would that have been like? We were trying to merge words and images to communicate ideas, to make the magazine that Marshall McLuhan would look at and say, “Well, finally!”

Rossetto: The whole experience had to convey what it was like to be in this revolution. These were revolutionary times, this was a revolutionary publication. It had to look as jangly and electric as the times.

Plunkett: Hot metal typography had been locked in a frame, or chase, since Gutenberg invented it. In a digital world, nothing is locked down. So the first thing we did was break that. If you wanted to represent communication as electrons, maybe they wanted to go from side to side rather than up and down in columns, to get across that sense of transience, a glimpse of something always moving.

Mosier: Adding fluorescent colors was a way to evoke the screen, transmissive color rather than reflective color.

Even as the issue itself was taking shape, a crucial element was almost entirely missing: advertising. The business plan had called for something unheard of, consumer advertising in a magazine about technology. In December, with only weeks to go before finished pages were due at the printer, Rossetto and Metcalfe persuaded Kathleen Lyman to join the team as sales director.

Kathleen Lyman (associate publisher): I had nine working days to sell the first issue. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I was standing in front of 40 senior managers of AT&T and the first question after my presentation was, “What does online mean?” I thought, oh shit, if AT&T doesn’t get this, I can’t wait to get to Calvin Klein.

Plunkett was determined not to use a printer who specialized in magazines. Instead, he insisted on a high-end custom printer who could process pages electronically and put more than the usual four colors on paper.

Plunkett: That first issue probably used a dozen different inks instead of one or four.

Rossetto: This gargantuan Heidelberg six-color press. Rolls of paper the size of Volkswagens. Huge drums like they play at Jamaican festivals filled to the brim with screaming orange Day-Glo ink.

Plunkett: What printers define as good is the least amount of ink they can put down. To get the look Wired had, we had to print greater densities of ink of all the colors. So there was a lot of institutional resistance.

Rossetto: The first sheet comes out. The guy rips it off the caddy, puts it on this big table at the press control panel with the lights that are tuned to get true color. He takes out his loop, he makes some adjustments. Finally he says, “We’re ready.” John looks at the sheet and says, “I want more ink.” The guy says, “It’s perfect.” John says, “I want more ink.” The guy looks at him like he’s got two heads. He does the same thing all over again. John says, “More ink.” They do this two or three more times. John says, “Turn the ink up until it smears. Then dial it back until it doesn’t. That’s what I want.” The guy is disgusted. Out comes a sheet and it looks like Wired.

The World Gets Wired
Wired 1.1 was packed onto trucks bound for California. The launch was scheduled to coincide with Macworld on Jan. 6, 1993, only a few days away. A Midwestern snowstorm delayed the shipment until the very morning of the show.

Critchett: We weren’t exhibitors, so we had to do it guerrilla warfare style.

Metcalfe: Friendly exhibitors had told us they’d distribute the magazine at their booth. But the convention center used union labor. We couldn’t carry boxes in. So we smuggled them in.

Kelly: We made a lot of trips and used a lot of disguises, tricks to get these things dollied in. But we didn’t get all of them in.

Will Kreth (director of marketing and infrastructure): So we stood on the corner of Third and Howard handing out copies to people walking into and out of the convention center.

That night, Wired threw a rave emceed by DJ Dmitri of Deee-Lite. The line extended down the block.

Lyman: I tried to cut. Jane and Louis called me from way back in line. They said, “You can’t go in. It’s not democratic, you’ve got to wait in line.” The Internet was democratic.

Battelle: Everyone we thought was interesting was there: people in the software and hardware industries, people running interesting little startups, digital artists, weird furry hacker freaks pushing the boundaries of the Internet.

Kelly: Previous to this time nerds were not cool. No one associated technology with parties. The fact that Wired threw a party you couldn’t get into was news in itself.

Wired had arrived, and it was a hit. It was also the beginning of a legacy that’s still going strong, monthly on paper and iPad and 24/7 online—a prospect the participants in issue 1.1 had barely considered.

Plunkett: I remember Barb and me leaving the launch party early and exhausted, leaving this big party where everyone was celebrating Wired and dragging ourselves back to our nasty little foldout couch in the dark office. And we knew we had to get up the next morning and start working on the next issue. I’d only done one-offs at that point. It was dawning on me: With a magazine you’re never done, are you?

Metcalfe: The phones were ringing off the hook. Can you come speak? Can you answer these questions? We want to do advertising specific to the magazine, can you design it for us? All these requests we were so ill-equipped to handle. We finished the round of promotion, which took a couple of weeks. We were exhausted. Everyone needed a vacation. Then we looked at each other and said, “Oh shit! We’re late for the second issue!”

Rossetto: There’s something about investing your humanity, your eccentricity, your exuberance in the things you do. Why do people watch tightrope walkers? Not to see them get to the other side. It’s because they might fall. Not everything you do is going to be successful, but that’s part of the allure. It’s also what makes the work valuable: That you’re really present and invested in what you’re doing. That’s what the first issue of Wired was about.

The 20th anniversary issue of Wired will be available for download and at April 16, and on newsstands April 23.

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