There's a lovely and typically astute installment of "The Intellectual Situation" in the latest n+1, which in my book is the most interesting small magazine to appear in at least a decade, that takes on the topic of what they call "webism." It's worth reading in its entirety, but I wanted to respond to (and gently correct) this passage. I quote from it at length here so you get some of the context:
The early web magazines were Slate, Salon, Feed, and Suck—as with the best print magazines, you could count them on the fingers of one hand. Some used the unlimited space of the internet to run longer features; others used the limited attention span of internet readers to run short. Slate (funded by Microsoft) was a lighter-hearted New Republic, minus the great book reviews; Feed (funded by venture capitalists) was a more earnest version of the Village Voice. Things changed after the crash of the tech stocks in 2000. At this point the founding editor of Feed, Steven Johnson, announced that Feed and its sister webzine Suck were folding and being replaced by something called Plastic.com. Plastic.com was a new kind of site: a news aggregator. User-contributors would post links to interesting articles, with a summary, and then everyone would discuss them. This would be called “user-generated content.” It was the future of the internet, Johnson explained. Here was a man who’d burned through more than a million dollars of funding by paying a living wage to his writers and editors to produce a high-quality product that competed with traditional print media. The world, it turned out, was not ready for that. It’s still not ready.At the time, the world wasn’t ready for Plastic.com, either. In the years to come its formula would be copied with some vulgarization and more success by sites like Reddit and Digg. News aggregator blogs like Boing Boing and Gawker would also find glory in curating and annotating news items (and only then inviting commenters in). But the apotheosis of user-generated content would come with the rise of the social networks, where the content being generated by users was not just links to interesting news items but entire photo albums, playlists, recipes, recommendations . . . in short, entire selves.
The actual events were slightly different, though I don't think the true sequence detracts from the larger argument of the essay. We launched Plastic.com before we shut down FEED and Suck. Plastic had been in the works for more than a year before we launched it—the idea had been shaped largely by four of us: FEED's Stefanie Syman (and me), Suck's Joey Anuff, and Lee DeBoer, whom we had brought in to be CEO of the company, Automatic Media, which owned both Suck and FEED. (Putting Suck and FEED together had been the brainchild of Bo Peabody, Tripod's founder, but that's another story.) The plan all along was to have Plastic run alongside FEED and Suck, with extensive overlap. Plastic hosted all the discussion forums for FEED and Suck articles; FEED and Suck editors helped curate stories for Plastic. There was some vague plan to use the Plastic threads as a farm league where talented writers could make a name for themselves before graduating up to "the show" of FEED and Suck. As a business, we thought -- accurately -- that Plastic could be much bigger in terms of page views and unique visitors, and so would complement the smaller audience size, but more polished content at FEED and Suck. (We'd be able to show advertisers both reach and quality, in other words.) I still think it's a model that might work for someone, but we didn't really get to try it out, because the dot.com bubble burst right as we were closing our initial financing, and our institutional and strategic investors—Lycos Ventures, Advance Internet—chose to let the company run out of cash, rather than to support us through the dark ages of 2001-2003. (I say that, by the way, with no malice—it really was a dark time, and if I had been in their shoes I might have made the same call.)All of which is to say that we did not deliberately kill off magazine-style articles, written by professional writers and edited by professional writers, to replace them with "webist" user-generated content. When Plastic launched, I did publish a little manifesto at FEED, called "The Swarm Next Time," that would end up evolving into my book, Emergence. But the plan was always to figure out a way to let the user-generated content co-habit productively with curated, long-form essays. It just didn't work out. It's true that when we ran out of money, we shuttered FEED and Suck, but kept Plastic running, because it pretty much ran itself. (The beauty of user-generated content!) But we sold it off within a few weeks, so that we could close down the company without filing for bankruptcy. The irony of it all was that three months after we shut our doors, Plastic won the Webby Award for best community site. (Wonderfully, it's still around, almost entirely unchanged from its original design.)