Web Masters Episode #71: Jane Metcalfe & Louis Rossetto

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Jane Metcalfe:

We weren’t selling subscriptions or advertising. We were selling the idea of the internet. It was like, “The internet is coming and you want to be a part of this. And this is going to change your world, and you need to understand it. And if you want to understand the internet, then you buy a subscription. Then you buy advertising. If you want to position your company as prepared for the future, you buy advertising.” It was the whole idea of the digital revolution is what we were selling.

Aaron Dinin:

Just who was the “we” selling the digital revolution? Well, that was Jane Metcalfe you just heard talking. On this episode of Web Masters, we’re going to hear from her and her partner/co-founder, Louis Rossetto. Together they founded Wired Magazine, perhaps the most recognizable and successful mouthpiece of the digital age. Are you ready to hear their story? And let’s get dialed in.


Aaron Dinin:

Hi there and welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast for people interested in business, entrepreneurship, and digital history. It’s where we talk with and learn from some of the internet’s most impactful and successful innovators. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University.

On this episode, we have a first for Web Masters, despite being pretty far along into the project. This is the first episode where we’ve got more than one guest at the same time. It was pretty interesting. Actually, when I reached out to this episode’s guests, Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto, were both insistent that they speak about the origins of Wired together, which I thought underscored a really important aspect of entrepreneurship that admittedly sometimes gets lost in these episodes. And that’s the importance of collaboration.

Yes, usually I only speak with one person, but of course, none of the companies featured here on the show are the work of any single individual. It’s good to remind ourselves of that from time to time, especially after maybe listening to a podcast where one person talks about building a massively successful company. The worst thing entrepreneurs can do is try to replicate that sense of individual success and do everything themselves.

Instead, as you’ll hear in this episode, successful entrepreneurship is inherently collaborative. And heck, so is this podcast. It’s not just me. I’ve got a team supporting me, including, of course, the support I get from this podcast sponsor, whom I suppose I should take a minute to thank before we get too far along into the story of Jane, Louis, and Wired.

Web Masters wouldn’t be possible without the support and partnership of our sponsor, Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker. They help people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like eCommerce stores, Amazon FBAs, Shopify sites, SAS apps, domain portfolios, and pretty much any other type of online work-from-anywhere internet business you can think of.

If you’re currently running one and wondering about selling it, be sure to contact the team at Latona’s. They’ve been helping sell internet businesses for years, and they’re going to be able to you get your business sold for a great price. They can also help you buy an internet business. If that’s something that interests you, you can start that process right now by heading over to the Latona’s website, where you can browse all their listings for internet businesses Latona’s is currently helping to sell. That website is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com

As you’ve surely realized by now, the title of this podcast is Web Masters. And you’ve probably noticed it’s about people innovating on the web, and parallel to that, people innovating on the internet more broadly, which, of course, is related to the web, but actually something different and significantly bigger. Either way, whether we’re talking about the web specifically or the internet more broadly, Wired, in its original form at least, isn’t really a part of either.

Wired is, of course, Wired Magazine. It began life exclusively as a print publication. So yeah, what’s up with that? Why was the mouthpiece of the digital age a physical printed object? The answer to that question actually goes back to before Wired, when Jane and Louis met while working on a different magazine.

Jane Metcalfe:

I went through college as a humanities major and my focus was international affairs. I thought that was what I was going to do. I went off to Europe with really no digital skills whatsoever. In fact, I worked really hard not to learn how to type, because I didn’t want to be a secretary. My first job, of course, I was an audio typist. But I was in Paris, so that was cool. But I ended up actually meeting Louis Rossetto my partner in life and business, and he was writing about language technology.

He was working for a publisher that was doing translation software and services. They were based in Amsterdam, and they would localize software packages basically. So if Microsoft came to Europe at the time, there were nine official languages of Europe, imagine that. They would do all the documentation, translation, and localization. But along the way, they created these tools and they were essentially translator tools. But Louis was charged with imagining where that would go and tracking that.

Louis has this amazing imagination. He’s the son of an engineer. He saw this as a license to go poke around on really interesting topics. Over the course of the time that we were publishing that magazine, which was originally called language technology, and then we changed it to electric word, which is way better. We kept the translators but broadened it and made it about basically all the different technologies for man-machine communication.

Aaron Dinin:

Could you elaborate on that for a minute? What do you mean by technologies for man-machine communication, and how does that get discussed in a magazine?

Jane Metcalfe:

Language is one of the most interesting ways of poking the edges of what we can do digitally because it takes you right up to the edge of comprehension and how do you preserve ambiguity from one language to another? There was this fantastic program. It was a machine translation that used Esperanto as an Interlingua, instead of having these pairs like French-German, German-French, or Italian-Spanish, Spanish-Italian. Then you have to multiply that, of course, times all of the different languages.

It would translate every source language into Esperanto and then it would have this output from Esperanto into every other language. So it was just a brilliant idea. It was a crazy wacko thing. And the entrepreneur who funded that research was just really cool, [inaudible 00:06:59] became a very good friend. We’d covered all the different technologies from machine translation, which got us into cognitive linguistics, and neural networks and all that kind of advanced expert systems and AI stuff.

But we were also doing speech synthesis and optical character recognition. What was interesting is, at the time, we were living in Holland and Phillips was a major consumer electronics company that was competing very effectively with Sony, which was, of course, the Japanese consumer electronics company. The two of them had started digitizing data types. And so, we had the Walkman. This is before social networks, kids, so pay attention now.

The Walkman, initially it was analog music, but then it was converted to digital. So we had compact disc audio. And then we had compact disc video and interactive laser discs. These were big shiny laser discs that you would play with laser readers and you could interrupt a film. You could play with forwards or backwards, or you could manipulate it, which was really cool stuff back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. We kept track of all of that.

Aaron Dinin:

Here we’ve got Jane making what I think is an incredibly important point about the relationship between language and technology. Specifically, the two aren’t separable because, well, language is a technology. It’s a technology for information storage and transmission. Heck, that’s exactly how we’re using it right now. This podcast episode is using language to store Jane and Louis’s story of Wired and transmit it to all of you. To be clear, it is without question imperfect technology, lots of room for interpretation and miscommunication and misunderstanding.

But to be fair, every technology has flaws. The point is, as Jane notes, she and Louis began their journey toward Wired, not because of the internet, but because they were interested in understanding how digital technologies were impacting, changing, and expanding the role of language.

Jane Metcalfe:

I think it’s really important to say that we didn’t discover the internet first. We discovered multimedia first, and we discovered digital technologies and digitizing data types. Our readers were people like the International Labor Organization, who was trying to understand how technology was going to transform work, or the European space agency who were trying to figure out how to shrink however many pounds of technical documentation, printed documentation for space shuttle, onto a little shiny disc.

So we were archiving. It was like digitizing and being able to index, and search, and archive, and retrieve, being able to transmit. This is all pre internet, and it was really the big coming thing was multimedia. It wasn’t until Coming to America and the whole BBS scene, the bulletin boards, which, for those of you who don’t know the early history of the internet, was really a scientific communication channel and a way of communicating among hobbyists and researchers.

There was some attitude and some personality that would make its way into those primordial chat rooms, but it really wasn’t until the invention of the browser and the graphical user interface for the web browser, that things started to really take off. And that wasn’t until ’92, ’93. So we were exploring all this digital territory starting in the mid to late ’80s.

Aaron Dinin:

So you’re studying the relationship between language, digital technologies, and specifically multimedia. I guess, I still don’t quite follow how that led you to creating a print publication about digital technologies. I mean, you were creating a print publication about the digital transformation. Isn’t that a little ironic?

Jane Metcalfe:

Well, it’s only ironic in retrospect because there were no digital publications at the time. And media was super hot. It was an explosive time of growth for the media industry, and you could get rich starting media companies. At the time, the big rich barons were Bob Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. Of course, Murdoch still is. Maxwell’s dead. But nevertheless, it was a very small group of people who would recognize the irony of doing a print publication about the internet business or about the digital revolution that was coming.

For us, it was really about… Louis used to say this great thing. If Wired had written about the computer revolution the way Rolling Stone wrote about the rock and roll revolution, we would not be putting amps and wah wah pedals on the cover. It’d be about people, companies, and ideas that were transforming our world. And that was really the big leap.

Aaron Dinin:

So you’re saying it had to be print, in the sense that the world wasn’t really ready for a digital publication about the digital world.

Louis Rossetto:

First, there were intimations of what’s coming in the ’80s.

Aaron Dinin:

That, by the way, was Louis Rossetto speaking. You probably were able to guess that. But we haven’t heard from him yet. So I figured I’d clarify.

Louis Rossetto:

Even as most of the focus in multimedia was on CD ROMs, companies were networking. They were connecting themselves together across continents. And there were bulletin boards forming. And so, there were people communicating on networks or whatever might have been pre internet at the time. And there were harbingers of what was to come. And so, the vision originally was about computers mostly and mostly about the effect that that was going to have as it cascaded through the economy and through society. But there were aspects of what was to happen, what was to come on the internet as well.

Aaron Dinin:

What got you so excited about the potential of the coming digital revolution in whatever form it was going to take, that it pushed you two to start an entirely new publication about it?

Jane Metcalfe:

I’ll let Louis tell this next story because we were in Amsterdam and dealing with this from a linguistic standpoint and looking at it with an eye towards how the technology was transforming business and technological enterprises and science and stuff like that. And then he went to Macworld in San Francisco.

Louis Rossetto:

There’s a lot to digest here. I went to a Macworld in San Francisco with a friend of mine, John Plunkett, and another guy who we were talking to about becoming the managing editor of the magazine. We walked around and John was just blown away, first of all, at the scale of the whole thing, that they could fill all of Moscone Center on both sides with a lot of stuff about Macs. And then the stuff that was there, the screens, and the printers, and the software, and the rest of it and things he was seeing visually, as was being displayed, he thought I was just like psychedelia incarnated into technology and was really, I guess, astounded by the cultural economic impact that that technology was having, that was still submerged.

For those people who were into the computers and were working on technology, the changes and the power was clear. But outside of that, if you weren’t part of that group, it was invisible. The people who were nerds were the people with pocket protectors, and the glasses held together with Scott’s tape. They were the ones who you sharked in high school. And yet, from our point of view, as we were covering the language technology component of it, which was also some of the most advanced stuff going on, these people were incredibly smart. They were incredibly impactful.

They were doing stuff that was important and that was having an impact. And they were unknown. They were unknown to the outside world and they were unknown to themselves because they’re all beavering away in silos. John was impressed when he saw Macworld and just the cultural influences that he could see streaming from it, hadn’t incarnated in it. And then it just clicked for him. I, of course, was happy that we had John on board for this because John and I had been conspiring ever since we first met back in Paris about doing something together, some kind of a magazine together.

This seemed like the project. This seemed like the way forward. To your point before the irony about magazines, really the question is always, how do you get your idea out in the most efficient way possible? 1991, 92, there are what, 20,000, 30,000, some ridiculously small number of devices that are on the internet. It’s just a ridiculously small number. So if you want to get an idea out, you’ve got to go about it by selecting an efficient method. And the internet was not the efficient method.

The idea was to speak to the people creating the technology and using the technology to change the world, and to speak to the people who needed to know about these people. Then the way to do that was to use whatever was there at the time and leverage all of that existing infrastructure, knowledge, distribution channels, economic foundation, et cetera, to get your message out. And even as we were getting our message out, we were impacting what was going on.

Wired’s appearance itself encouraged people to get connected, to discover the things that we were discovering as we were writing it and to build the world that we were writing about or envisioning or propagandizing or trying to see happen.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s interesting to me that you’ve both mentioned the importance of people in this of equation. Wired wasn’t just about the technology. It was almost less about the technology and more so about the people creating it. Why was that? Or why were the stories of the people so critical to the ethos of what you were trying to accomplish?

Jane Metcalfe:

Well, what I thought Louis would say when he went to Macworld was that, yeah, there were all these cool new products coming and it was at the time desktop publishing software was just being released for the first time, putting the power of the press in the hands of anybody who could run PageMaker on a Macintosh computer. But it was the parties, and it was the stuff that was happening behind the scenes that was really mind-blowing.

You could see the shrink wrap software that people were selling and you could see what they were demoing about what they could do with it. But it was the way they were talking about it and the way they were approaching their work. Until that point, nobody thought computer scientists were cool, or interesting, or creative, more to the point they themselves saw their own creativity, but no one else did.

And so, this was really a chance to say, “Not only do these people have mad skills, they’ve got a vision for the future,” which is super compelling. And they want to give you to tools to unleash your creativity. And that was really a message that could only be told by people. It’s like, “So who are these people and what are their values?” To me, they were the people with the pocket protectors in the air conditioned basement with the big machines that spit out cards. It was like, “What is that?” And to put a name and a face on it and to give it a personality.

And then, of course, as they got a little notoriety, their quirkier side came out. I was like, “And they have blue hair, and they have lip piercings,” or eyebrow piercings or whatever. And so, it really was acknowledging the eclecticism of the kind of people that were attracted to computer programming, and then amplifying that and feeding that back to them. It did become this feedback loop, where they were encouraged to be more eccentric, and more individualistic, and more creative.

I used to delight in the fact that the chairman of the board was now going to have to talk to some blue-haired kid in a motorcycle jacket about something that was absolutely in trying to the future of his company’s value, whether it was security or reinventing their business model or protecting their trademark online, or whatever the challenge would have been for Fortune 1000 companies, they were not used to having those kinds of conversations with anybody in their organization.

Now it was a bunch of kids. It was a bunch of freaks that were talking in a language they didn’t understand, and Wired was their badge of honor. Now we’ve got all the chairmen of the board trying to read it and sending us letters, typed letters, or faxes saying, “Who is supposed to be reading this magazine? It’s an eight point type. No one under 40 can read this.” And it’s like, “Yeah, deal with it. It’s a new generation. We’re going to break down everything and start all over again. The freaks are in charge this time.”

Aaron Dinin:

This is why even though Wired itself began life as a print magazine, it was still incredibly relevant to and influential across the digital world, internet, and web. When we step back in time to the early days of the web, we find it was anything but mainstream. We’ve heard a lot about those early days right here on this podcast with guests like Caterina Fake of Flickr and Stephanie Syman of FEED Magazine, discussing the evolution of the web out of zine culture. That’s episodes number 57 and number 40 respectively.

We even heard from one of those crazy blue-haired people telling Fortune 1000 companies what to do. That was Craig Kanarick of Razorfish back in episode number 12. The point is the early web wasn’t mainstream. It was counter-cultural. In contrast, magazines were very mainstream. So it makes sense that for the web and internet culture to become mainstream, it had to meet people where they were, which was as readers of print publications. So that’s what Jane and Louis did. And rather than focusing on the technology, Wired focused on the people creating that technology,

Louis Rossetto:

Neither Jane or I are technologists. And so, technology wouldn’t have been the center of our particular interest. But I think both of us are obsessed with how people can use tools to make change. And that’s the lens that we looked at this phenomena. It was, how are people using technology to make change? And the change that they’re making is multifold. It crosses all aspects of society, from industry, to culture, to education, to social, to personal.

And so, from the very beginning, our remit was a lot broader than just looking at fees and speeds. It was trying to figure out how the people using these technologies were impacting all of society in all aspects. So in that sense, it had an enormously broad perspective on the world. And the only way you can actually explore or convey that perspective is through people, the people actually doing it. So it’s always about the people and the companies and technologies they were creating and how they were using those to change the world, to the point that Wired was always looking at things from a different and broader perspective from the very foundation of the magazine.

As to what we were trying to do, we were just trying to survive on level. You have a crazy idea and just want to bring it to the world and get people to buy it and let you keep going. So very modest ambitions, is get something out there, have people buy it, get advertisers to use it, keep going long enough that you’re able to continue going autocatalytically. But in a larger way, we were trying to champion the people that we thought were unknown. We were trying to make them known to each other.

And then we were trying to foster the revolution, trying to be a part of the revolution that we recognized was going on. I used to joke that we were trying to be the Pravda of the digital revolution. We were trying to bring to the world the story of this revolution. But at the same time, we weren’t dispassionate objective observers. We were active participants, and we were believers, and we had a vision that we were trying to bring out to the world. That was always explicit in the way we went about making Wired and bringing it to the world.

We knew that objective journalism was a myth at the time, and that rather than trying to be objective, but tell both sides of the story, which is an impossibility because there are more than two sides. Our intention was to try to approach the truth, to try to deliver the truth as we saw it, to the world, because we thought that media, if it has an evolutionary purpose, in the grand scheme of things, why was it ever developed?

What are we doing as journalists, or reporters, or a media people, or raconteurs, or storytellers, or whatever, is to try to connect the human race to what’s really going on because the human race needs to understand what’s really going on. And if it doesn’t understand what’s really going on, it’s going to fail. It’s not going to work. So our mission was to make that revolution visible and to tell the story of what we thought was really, really happening. Because we thought that would be really, really valuable to people.

Aaron Dinin:

At the risk of getting maybe a little too practical, how did you actually do that? How did you go from having nothing to having launched and grown an immensely popular magazine?

Jane Metcalfe:

I love to talk about how we used to market electric word and how that became the basis of what we did for Wired. Electric word, we would buy mailing lists from conferences and professional organizations, and we would mail them a copy of the magazine, which was wildly expensive to do. But we had a really good hit rate and people would subscribe. It would spread the word, and we could piece together our audience in that way. And so, that’s all I knew. I never took any business classes.

So when we got to Wired, it was like, okay, who do we want to read this magazine? Well, what are the industries being disrupted? Well, of course the computer industry business. So that’d be finance and Wall Street and communications. We’ve got to hit the media companies and the entertainment industry, so we’ve got to hit Hollywood. We just basically went down the line of all the different communities that were going to be disrupted and found those people at the head of those communities who were talking about digital tools and we put the magazine in front of them, however we needed to do that.

So yeah. We flew to the Sundance Film Festival and put copies there. We went to the TED Conference. We went to Digital Hollywood. We went to Wall Street and put copies. Nicholas Negroponte was our first investor and he has this amazing network. And so, through him, we were able to get boxes of the magazine delivered to Blair House, which is the Vice President’s residence. We would send boxes to the Creative Artists Agency, CAA, and Michael Ovitz, who was the superstar, super agent at the time, boxes of the magazines.

People would put them on their display tables and in their waiting rooms to show that they were hip to the future. It’s like, “We understand how the world’s going to change, and we are your strategic partner as your financial advisor, your business agent,” or whatever, and we are going to lead you there. And Wired became that beacon. There was no one else out there doing it. It was just this wide open territory and the magazine strutted on stage with a lot of attitude and a lot of confidence and a lot of access. So people were like, “Okay, we’re going to do that.”

Louis Rossetto:


Jane Metcalfe:


Louis Rossetto:

Or just naivete and stupidity, which is a lot of what entrepreneurs are about. But to Jane’s point, we could only do what we could do. We had no money. I actually do have a marketing degree, an MBA. I thought of our marketing as like the original Star Wars marketing. The original Star Wars marketing was to get in all the science fiction fans at the beginning, wow them so much that they went out and became your apostles. They would drag their friends in and said, “You’ve got to see this movie.” And they’d say, “I hate science fiction.”

And they would say, “It’s not like you think it is. It’s much, much better.” Then they would see it and then they would come the next round of advocates. So the idea was to bring in people who were our target audience. The only thing we knew how to do was from our own experience as consumers of underground movement. In Amsterdam, the way you learned about anything was through wild postering, people postered stuff all over the place, and street postering. I mean, they literally sprayed things on the street. That was in the village.

And then, when we got to America, we had a very small amount of money, like I don’t know, 25,000, 50,000 dollars to spend on normal marketing. And so, we decided to spend it on outdoor postering and mobile. And so, we went into five major cities and put up posters. Then we hired a guy who has an expert in transit marketing, not mobile, but transit marketing. He bought us transit route in five cities, so that the buses would go around with slogans on the side of the bus that said, “Get Wired, the mouthpiece of the digital revolution.”

Then he had the bus routes figured out in New York so that the buses went up Madison Avenue. So it would go past all of the advertising agencies, and the people would be coming out of their offices and they would see these buses going by with the big Wired posters on the side. The buses would loop around Central Park and then come down Broadway. And so, that was their route. And then end up they’d go down as far as Wall Street and come back up the other way.

So they would cover all of these places where either the financial or marketing advertising people were living or working. They would get out of their homes in the morning and they would see this bus go by that said, “Wired.” They would get to their office, they’d see another bus come by that’d say, “Wired.” They, for sure, thought that this is some big company and we had some gargantuan marketing campaign going on.

Also, our distribution guy put Wired in Grand Central and in office lobbies all over Midtown. We had this CNN piece that was done on us, a 10-minute introduction that also aired literally as the magazine was coming out. So all of these things together gave the impression to the media and advertising communities, and even, I guess, the business community in general, that there was some gargantuan, big company effort going on to launch this magazine, when in fact it’s exactly the opposite.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s amazing. You were basically using a micro-targeting strategy before that was, well, much easier to do, thanks to the web.

Louis Rossetto:

Put them to context, a normal magazine launch by a large company, I think the time there was one being done with Hearst and Time called Money, something like that. They spent 40 million to launch that magazine upfront. They put the money on the table and they said, “We’re making a magazine.” This was about the same time. So what we were doing is just unprecedented. We were doing it because we were naive. We were expatriates who hadn’t been in America for a decade. We didn’t know the industry. We didn’t know magazine publishing. We didn’t know publishing aside from little magazine we were making in Amsterdam.

If we had, we would have never been so foolish as to think we could ever do anything like that. So it was our ignorance, which was our strength, and our belief, our self belief that it’s doable. I mean, we have an idea. It’s a good idea. And we have these new tools that we believe in, that are going to change the world. We know how to use them because we made this magazine with DTP in the Netherlands.

Then we came to America and nobody’s using desktop publishing to make magazines, since we have these ability to put out a magazine with a fraction of the people that ordinarily did it. And we did it. Then we just came out. I think people were… They didn’t understand what it was, like, “Oh, this is it? Who are the real people behind this?”

Jane Metcalfe:

Okay. One more story. Jann Wenner. We win a National Magazine Award with our first year of publication, and we’re at the National Magazine Award luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria or wherever it was. We were up against Men’s Health, which had launched maybe a year, a few years ahead of us. I forget exactly what the timelines were. It was also up for the General Excellence Award in the same circulation category, which is like a hundred thousand or below.

Jann comes up to Louis at the luncheon and thumps him on the chest and says, “I’m going to beat you next year.” And it was like, “God, Jann Wenner, with all the publications, all the success.” I mean, I think he had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame or something at that point, and he’s feeling competitive with us? I was like, “God, if he only knew there’s water coming through the roof in our office back in San Francisco right now.”

Aaron Dinin:

Jann Wenner, by the way, in case you aren’t familiar with the name, is the famed American magazine magnate best known as the creator of Rolling Stone. The fact that he was battling Wired speaks to the incredible work done by Jane and Louis and the entire Wired team. It’s maybe even a little hard to appreciate how much they accomplish now because of just how mainstream the internet is. In fact, calling it mainstream even seems a bit pejorative. The internet is just part of how life works.

But a big reason the internet is part of life is because Wired helped make it mainstream and socially acceptable. Whether you were one of the world’s most recognizable companies or a teenager sitting alone in your room, you attached yourself to the internet and web through Wired and its brand.

Jane Metcalfe:

We built a brand that was so powerful and so influential that mega brands like IBM, and AT&T, and MCI, and Cathay Pacific, and Volvo were afraid to go out on the internet with a commercial message on their own. And so, they all lined up one after another, and we launched Wired Digital with 12 major global brands in lockstep, following along what we wanted the commercialization of the internet to look like.

Louis and John and Barbara designed the banner ad, and we established how that was going to work and what the reporting looked like, and what the expectations were. It was such an extraordinary thing to be able to do that. When I look at some of the media that followed, it was so lacking in passion. And I think in the end, yes, we saw what was coming. Yes, we were three seconds ahead of everybody else. Yes, we had an amazing group of people who were very brilliant about how this was all going to unfold, both in terms of the technology itself, in terms of building Wired Digital and Wired HotBot search engine and all of that stuff, but the design, the packaging, all of it.

But ultimately, it was an extraordinary opportunity. It was an honor. It was a hell of a ride. It transformed millions, I mean, honestly, millions of people’s lives. I mean, we’ve been hearing, for the last 30 years, stories about, “I was a little punk in my garage and you guys wrote about me, and then I met my first investor. And now I’ve done this, that and the other.” They would be calling into our circulate department and saying, “I don’t have a computer, but I’m going to go buy one. But can you tell me how to get onto the internet?”

And then, we’d get email messages from a 13-year old bipolar person, or closeted gay person saying, “I feel like I can tell you this.” It was just this unbelievable explosion of pent up demand for community, for a vision of the future, positive vision of a digital future, because that’s the other thing. Everything out there was negative. It was all Cyberpunk. It was all dystopian. It was all Mad Max at the time. And we came along and said, “Hey, what if we actually used this stuff to make a better world? Wouldn’t that be cool? And don’t you want to be a part of that?”

It just turned that whole dialogue on its head and set us off in a different direction, that was very compelling to readers, to advertisers, to employees, to collaborators, to everyone.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you think Wired’s message was so compelling? What was it tapping into?

Louis Rossetto:

We were always true to our vision and I think that the voice that Wired had and the optimism that Wired brought to the subject was really important for the time. So the time, if you remember, was at the end of the Cold War in the beginning of the new era, basically. And so, the old media was stumbling along. I remember when we used to joke about the New York Times and the headlines they would have on the front page.

They would run stories regularly, “Internet, threat or menace. Internet was going to bring you the ability to research, but at the same time you were going to trade exam answers. So it would undermine education,” all this nonsense that was going on out there, that nobody had an antidote to, and that we were saying, “Hey, it’s going to be good. The world is good. It’s important. And it’s important to believe that.”

I think we were realistic. We were critically optimistic. We believed the future could be better if you want to make it better, and that’s an important point to get out there, because I think that’s been lost.

Aaron Dinin:

How so, and why do you think that is?

Louis Rossetto:

We didn’t see the arrival of social media, not during my time anyway. There was never an article about this phenomena that occurred after Wired, the beginning of the thoughts, and Facebook, et cetera. We didn’t get that right, for sure. I certainly didn’t expect that these nascent industries would become overbearing monopolies like they’ve become. Google was started in the 90s and it’s now just such preposterously dominant player, both in terms of its economic situation, as well as its impact on the life of the world, in its forming of popular mind.

The same goes with Facebook. We didn’t see that. I think we were also mistaken about how long it would take for state power to diminish. It’s in decline. But it’s being replaced by the power of oligarchical, technological companies like Facebook and Google.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you think you missed that?

Louis Rossetto:

It couldn’t be seen from what we were looking at at the time. But the one thing I think we did get right, and that I’ve already mentioned, is the idea that you need to be optimistic about the future and to recognize the power of the technological revolutions that are going on. We focused on one, the connection of computing technology with networks and the impact that that would have on the world. We were absolutely right about that. The impact has been phenomenal. It’s continuing, it’s accelerating.

But at the same time, there are new revolutions now that are coming up, that are not being looked at comprehensively or even individually, particularly, in the same way that we did and recognizing the impact that they’re having on our lives, the positive impact that they’re having on our lives, the positive impact that they could have on our lives and why we should be optimistic about the future.

Being optimistic itself is important. Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic. If you’re not optimistic, you can’t be an entrepreneur. It was Noam Chomsky who said, “If you want to make a better future, you better believe the future can be better,” because only the people who believe that the future can be better for their children will step up and actually make it so. If you think the future’s going to be worse, then you’ll sit around and eat lots of cake. You’ll do a lot of stuff that is indulgent and decadent, which is some of what’s going on now.

Aaron Dinin:

Be optimistic, not indulgent. That, according to Louis, is the key to entrepreneurial success. And honestly it sounds like the key to Wired’s success. I’ve spoken with lots of people on this podcast and a bunch them have referenced Wired Magazine as a crucial inspiration and or motivation behind their passions for digital technologies. Yes, Wired was unequivocally optimistic about the future of digital technology and its impacts, and that enthusiasm, well, it was infectious.

After talking with Jane and Louis, I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t an accident. That was Wired’s brand. Heck, that was Wired’s purpose and it succeeded big time. In fact, the existence of this podcast is, in many ways, yet another example of Wired’s incredible legacy. So a huge thanks to Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto for taking the time, 30 years after they launched it, to come back and share with all of us the story of creating Wired Magazine.

Of course, you can still get Wired Magazine today in print or online at wired.com, Jane and Louis aren’t with the magazine anymore, but you can find both of them on Twitter. Jane is @JaneMetcalfe, Louis is @Rossetto. This podcast is on Twitter too. We’re @WebMastersPod. Reach out to send us any thoughts you have about the episode, or ping me directly. I’m @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. You can also find all sorts of articles and other content about startups and entrepreneurship over on my website, that’s aarondinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs for all his work, bringing together this episode. A big thanks to my sponsor, Latona’s for their incredible support. Don’t forget if you’re thinking about buying or selling an internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com.

One final, even bigger thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to like, subscribe, share, and do all the other things podcast hosts ask you to do so you can help spread the word about Web Masters to other people who will surely enjoy it just as much as you. And because you enjoyed it so much, I promise we’ll be back again soon with our next episode. It’s coming in just a few days. Until then, it’s time for me to sign off.