Digerati - Chapter 22

Digerati - Chapter 22

Jane Metcalfe [10.1.96]

Chapter 22


Jane Metcalfe

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): In so many ways Jane is the heart of Wired. She's the president, and she's an effective businessperson. Her energy has been core in building that organization.

Jane Metcalfe is the president and cofounder of Wired Ventures. She is also a board member emeritus of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

"You have three Wired people in the book," David "The Seer" Bunnell Bob said in an accusatory tone as he sat on my living room couch, as we were having drinks before dinner. "What's that all about, John?"
The key ringleader of the "radical front" of the digerati was on my case, and the subtext was clearly political, an indirect swipe at Wired, a publication that, in the front's eyes, has a propensity for promoting the commoditization of the emerging digital culture.

"Louis Rossetto and Kevin Kelly are obvious choices," I explained. "Louis is highly visible as cofounder and editor of Wired and HotWired; Kevin is executive editor of Wired and author of a seminal book on the digital revolution, Out of Control." Jane, I thought to myself, why did I put Jane in the book?

I first met Jane, Louis Rossetto's partner in Wired and in life, on the beach at Cannes, in January 1995, at a sumptuous luncheon hosted by Dr. Huburt Burda, the German billionaire and media magnate. Among the guests were a dozen or so young German executives wearing dark business suits and holding cellular phones. Seated to my left was Lord Weidenfeld, to my right Oskar Prinz von Preussen (general manager of Burda New Media and director of Europe Online), the great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Across the table, locked in rapt conversation with Dr. Burda, was a glamorous beauty who, despite the enchanting surroundings, was all business as she presented a smörgåsbord of projects as investments. Her success speaks for itself. Eight months later, Burda New Media made a seven-figure investment in the financing of HotWired.

"Jane is a brave woman, " Denise Caruso says. "She has sallied forth in an area that is populated by people who take one look at her and think, 'Oh, a bimbo.' She's about as far from a bimbo as you can get. Polar opposite. In Esquire's 'Women We Love' issue, Jane was 'the woman we'd most like to exchange email with.' It must be hard to be that pretty and that smart. Jane is probably more responsible for the success of Wired magazine than almost anyone else, even though she operates so much behind the scenes." She may be less visible than Louis Rossetto, but she is a powerful presence whose day-to-day activities are concerned with building Wired Ventures, the umbrella corporation that owns and operates Wired, HotWired, HardWired, and other companies on the drawing board.

Jane has thought a lot about how the digital revolution can empower people to fashion their own futures. "The information you absorb in society," she says, "is no longer necessarily going to be chopped up and fed to you first by your teachers, then by the national media. It could come at you from a variety of different areas. You could pursue it according to your interests, as deeply as you wanted to go. You could link it to other things and build your own picture, form your own opinions, and stimulate your own thinking. The idea that you can piece things together from so many different sources so easily, that you can publish, broadcast, or otherwise distribute your ideas and have every bit as much of an impact on other people's opinions as national media or film studios, is incredibly exhilarating."

Jane went to a small private girls school in Kentucky. Although the curriculum focused on ideas, it was still within the confines of fifty-minute periods divided across a variety of subjects and was geared toward preparing students for college exams. Jane sees our educational system as being completely out of sync with our industrial, business, and economic needs. "At this point," she says, "preparing students for college no longer seems like a valid goal for education. The information society clearly does not require people who can answer test questions well. It requires people who can think. The promise of multimedia, the promise of interactivity, is being able to follow your thoughts, learn how to think laterally and connect with other things."

"OK," I said, returning to my conversation with David Bunnell. "Jane's in the book because I want to get to know her."

"Good answer," said The Seer, "you should have Jane in the book, but I still don't know about the other two."

Have I gotten to know Jane? She answers my email.

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): When Louis and I launched Wired in January '93, the only people who were talking about the digital revolution in the national media were Bill Clinton and Al Gore. We wandered onto the stage at a time when the searchlights were trying to find something to illuminate the issues and understand what the new vice president was talking about. Wired came out with flashy colors and a new way of writing about what was happening around us. As such, it also represented a generational change: the end of World War II leadership in government and corporations and the dawning of a new generation of entrepreneurs, technologists, and politicians. We confused them at the beginning. We infuriated them. They were particularly annoyed that something important was coming out of San Francisco instead of New York. At the beginning there definitely was some fear and loathing, and some people are still complaining about the design. But they're all reading the magazine.

It's trite to say that Wired is talking about the convergence of media, computers, and communications. What we are really talking about is a fundamental shift in society that is being led by technology but is infiltrating every aspect of society. Technology, invented in labs, gets absorbed by business, and as business takes it on, it starts to spread throughout society. Often, at that point, artists are attracted to it and pioneer it, champion it, stretch it, push the boundaries of it, and use it to bring a different message to the public. It's a three-pronged approach that has a multilayered response from the society it's impacting. Wired is really about this change. It's led by technology, absorbed by business, and spread by artists. But it's not about technology.

The Web is likely to become a lot more like television than like books, at least as long as screens are such a fatiguing interface device. As new technologies come online‹streaming audio, streaming video‹big media companies will move in and we'll all be vying for the attention of Web audiences. The Web started out as a text-based intellectual space. Now it's going to have to compete with MTV. Print is still a remarkably colorful medium for delivering ideas and analyses. While images are powerful in conveying certain ideas, words allow you to go much deeper and much further. Stewart Brand said that intellectual elites, the people capable of grappling with the ideas of the digital revolution, are going to take charge and have the power, but I'm not sure the Web is going to be the medium through which they do so.

Teleconferencing is much more likely to be the kind of medium through which ideas are propagated. Look at the business networks that exist today. Whether it's Ford or General Motors or Matshushita, businesses have their own internal networks, through which their experts and senior executives communicate. Those types of systems are going to become more and more powerful. It will be interesting to see if you can have a system that's less business focused and perhaps more intellectually focused. Once you work out the jaggies and slowness, teleconferencing becomes an expressive medium in which a lot of exchange can take place. And with teleconferencing systems springing up at Kinko's shops around the country, it's slowly moving out of the pure business to a business domain.

Television is stuck in a mass-market mentality that is antithetical to the explosion of opportunities for special-interest programming and niche markets. What will be interesting is when the Internet meets television. The result is going to be driven more by the Internet than by television because people will be coming at it from an I-want-to-see-what-I-want-tosee-when-I-want-to-see-it and I-want-to-be-able-to-communicate-with-others point of view. Television has been so driven by advertisers' needs that the two media (TV and online) are going to be locking horns to figure out how those needs are going to be incorporated when people choose exactly what they want to see when they want to see it.

The trend among advertising agencies and advertisers to want to own content is both interesting and scary. Advertisers see that the media world is changing very rapidly, pushed by technology, steered by content owners, and paid for by advertisers. They're concerned because they're being asked to support this medium, but they haven't in many cases gotten what they wanted out of it‹or even figured out what they want out of it. Their response is to try to own the content themselves, directly. In the next couple of years, we're going to see some real experimentation in sponsorship models. Some of it could turn out to be wonderful patronage of the arts, a de Medici model, in which advertisers say to the content providers "We'll give you guidance about what would be good for us, and we'll give you the money and the editorial space to develop your ideas." Of course, it could also turn out to be a disastrous mistake, as marketers delude themselves into thinking they are entertainers, as opposed to staying focused on what they're trying to accomplish, which is selling their product. I am very concerned about editorial integrity if sponsors want to manipulate the programming. Our society has a long way to go before we are truly media literate‹and this blurring of editorial and business interests is something we need to watch very closely.

The relationship between publishers and advertisers is undergoing a lot of change. Print, radio, and television are all mature media, which are pretty well understood. Media companies are clear on what they offer, and advertisers are clear on what they want back. Advertisers know how to measure response to an ad and how to judge whether or not they're getting their value. Now translate that experience into an entirely new medium in which the old rules don't fit but you don't have any new rules yet. When you launch a Web site, the pitch to an advertiser is, "Hold my hand, and we'll jump in together." It's been a cooperative experience in which the publisher, the content developer, says, "Here's what I can do." The advertiser tries it and says, "OK, here's why it doesn't work. Here's where I want to go next." I'm not sure how long that's going to last, but if you look at the cable industry, it took MTV and CNN quite a long time to build their advertising relationships and turn a profit. Advertising is no longer the company's public image and message, crafted by an ad agency. It's not a billboard or a TV commercial the company can hide behind. That barrier between customer and company has become much more porous. The minute you put up a Web site, you've got to keep it fresh and changing. You have to show you're a company with ideas and that you're responsive to your customers. Otherwise you've just cemented your site into a mausoleum, and people will never come back. That's the big challenge for both agencies and clients.

At the moment, ads on the Web are primarily in the form of banners. Clicking on the banner takes you directly to the advertiser's site or to additional pages that fill out what the advertiser is trying to say. The big challenge is to get people to click on the banners. The other model we're seeing more and more is animation‹a moving icon or text that broadcasts a message and also clicks through to the advertiser's site. The Web at the moment is a little like television with a direct-marketing arm, so in a way, it's back to a broadcast model for advertisers, but with back-end fulfillment opportunities. The fulfillment is a lot bigger than just order taking, though. People can get product specs and have their questions answered. You can correlate their tastes with other people's tastes, and propose merchandise they might like. Customers can provide feedback to manufacturers, participate in product design or focus groups, and eventually get products and services tailored to their specific profile.

Louis Rossetto describes the content on the Web or the Internet to date as being like twenty-five years of public-access programming. Now we're starting to see a couple of different developments. One is the evolution and emergence of new multimedia auteurs who shoot their own video, score their own sound, and craft their own experience. Then there are the media professionals with a background in broadcast, audio, film, or print, who bring with them some of the intellectual baggage from working in another medium and have to try to figure out how to adapt that medium to the new one.

Until now the tools have been very accessible, though restricted, of course, to the people who have computer and Net access. Anybody can learn HTML. But the emergence of object-oriented programming languages like Java will make much more complex applications available, and you're going to see a split again. The explosion of people who are learning HTML and creating personal homepages is great, but those pages aren't going to look nearly as exciting or sensational as those made by engineers who can do the Java programming and can use the applets and the animation and so forth. There will be these jags of technology, when a new thing that only engineers can use is designed and then filters down through an interface-design process until it becomes accessible to a larger public. Meanwhile, the pioneers are out developing the next edition of the latest technology, which will be difficult to use and therefore inaccessible to the bulk of Web users.

More and more people are encouraged to check out the Net. Once some sort of critical mass has been reached in people's minds, then people, whether they're programmers or advertisers or users, will be more comfortable segmenting into their natural interest groups and into more identifiable niches. People are used to thinking of Internet users as eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, pimply faced adolescents, and egghead researchers. I don't think that was true even at the beginning. There has always been an incredible diversity of interests on the Net, which is clearly becoming more a reflection of society as a whole than of any particular group.

A recent study says there are 24 million people on the Net, or on online services, and 17 million on the Web. We're starting to see numbers at which content creators feel comfortable saying, "I can't be all things to all people. I can't expect everybody who has a modem to want to come to my site." So I'm going to create material from a particular point of view with a target audience in mind. That's an encouraging sign.

However, the cyberworld we inhabit is still pretty homogenous. I've been thinking about Brian Eno's statement that the problem with computers is there's not enough Africa in them. And Peter Gabriel has been talking about the north-south divide and how technology and music can help bridge that gap. What happens when you take the technology out of the labs of the people who've designed it‹primarily Western engineering types‹and plunk it down in the middle of a place where it's completely alien? The Net is a global communications medium that is being used only by a very small percentage of the real world. What happens when the Net starts to reflect the diversity of the entire globe? It's going to be a fascinating. People will talk a lot about the signal-to-noise ratio and then start to be segmented out, but the Net will change and grow faster at that point.

People are increasingly looking for experience. There are so many barriers that distance us from experience. I don't read a book anymore; I read a book review. I don't experience a speech live; I watch it on television. People are desperate for firsthand experience. To an extent, we can use the Net to create that experience, to penetrate the solitude of one person, one computer, isolated up on the twenty-eighth floor of an office building. That's really interesting. According to the people who run the cybercafés, many of the customers who come in and pay to use the computers have Internet connections at home, but they come out because they want to share the experience. This is a trend that starts to counter the isolating technologies of the twentieth century. We'll be looking for unifying experiences in the twenty-first century.

My big hope for the people who are designing our digital future is that the things they talk about and care about become implemented in the products they produce. So much of the technology of the twentieth century was deployed without conscious thought about its impact. Who knew that cars would lead to freeways which would lead to the creation of suburbs and the subsequent death of our inner cities? Or that cars would lead to increased air pollution, grid-lock, and freeway shootings? If there's anything going on at the end of the twentieth century, it's a desperate attempt to project into the future as far as we can how technology is going to be used and what the impact is going to be on society, and how we can deploy it rationally and consciously to reunify our society instead of split it further apart. We're all aware of the socially isolating impact of MUDs, MOOs, and interactive games, and the physical impact of carpal tunnel syndrome, reduced fertility, eye strain, and neck and shoulder stress. These are recognizable problems that people should be grappling with. As soon as we can get rid of the monitor and the keyboard, the experience becomes more integrated, then we can go and share it, and we're not tethered to a wall with an electrical outlet. Then we can really share the experience.

Wired has been criticized for featuring business executives on the covers. Some people in our community feel that there is no place for business in an intellectual realm, an artistic realm, or even a pioneering realm, that pure research and pure art and pure science should be untainted by business. A number of people who are very communitarian and egalitarian are hopeful that the Net can be a great equalizing medium, which is certainly happening. But their antagonism toward to business seems like a relic of old political dogma that does not recognize the emergence of markets as a primary influencing force in our society. Business leaders, even those who may not be considered visionaries, are sitting on piles of assets. They're going to deploy those assets in ways that will fundamentally alter the world. As much as anything, you've got to recognize the dominance of markets as an organizing principle and deal with the consequences, from an artistic point of view and from an intellectual point of view.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): Jane's job is to market to a community and to be part of it. She is a traditional publisher in this new market. She knows how to excite people's imaginations and deliver content that audiences buy and find audiences advertisers want to sell to, which means she has to be right in the middle of it and taking its pulse all the time.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Jane is destined to be among the greatest women in the history of business. I don't see any glass ceilings in her career. Besides that, she is warm, smart, and fun.

THE JUDGE (David R. Johnson): Jane is an extremely lively and committed member of EFF. I particularly remember her involvement in some of the agonizing decisions about how to deal with developments in Washington. Although her basic background has been in business‹and I'm sure she was horrified at the things going on inside the Beltway‹she became deeply immersed in trying to think through what the right thing to do would be, and made a major commitment to do that.

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Jane didn't just chronicle the Wired culture. She helped created it.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.