Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

IN THE PATHFINDER BASEMENT

By Levi Asher on Thursday, April 2, 2009 01:02 pm

(This is chapter eleven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

The big idea behind Pathfinder.com was to turn Time Warner's top magazine brands -- Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly, the always incongruous Vibe -- into the best and most professional website in the world. If all went according to plan, Pathfinder would dominate the Internet the same way Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin's earlier venture Home Box Office had come to dominate cable TV.

The Pathfinder plan was an aggressive one, with a lot of money and corporate muscle behind it, and many people expected it to succeed. That didn't mean many people wanted it to succeed -- in fact, several of my web developer friends hated the idea of Pathfinder so much they reacted with horror when I joined the team in June 1995. I took a lot of heat on my tech/art mailing listantiweb and on rec.music.dylan after I proudly announced the new job change.

I just wanted an exciting place to work. I also loved working in the famous Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, even though I only went to 1271 for editorial or business meetings, and was otherwise stationed in the basement of the Exxon Building at 1251 with the rest of the tech team.

They put us in the basement for a reason: we techies didn't always fit well into the corporate culture at Time Inc., a company so staid and respectable that the 1956 study of upper-middle-class workplace conformity The Organization Man was written by a Time Inc. employee (William Whyte, a writer at Fortune). I was one of two older and more experienced mid-level tech managers on the Time Inc. New Media team, along with Dan Woods, who'd previously worked at a newspaper and bore the high energy level and gregarious personality that characterizes many newspaper people. Dan's job was to work with the editorial team and build web applications. I was responsible for the advertising systems, and I hired a database administrator with Wall Street experience named Mike Stoeckel to manage the Sybase servers. Mike Coble, who had recently graduated from Columbia University while building their first website, was responsible for traffic analysis and reporting. We got a new manager named Vicki Zilaitis who'd been a director at a pharmaceutical firm, and we hired a mysterious ex-hacker named Dave had once been a contributor to 2600 Magazine.

We were the "grownups" in the tech team, but we were outnumbered by the kids. Many of the younger techies had been hired right out of college, and they were brilliant and cheerful and creative but lacked much sense of how to navigate inside a major corporation. There were occasional behavioral problems, as when we hired a tall bearded hippie named Jack who'd been working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I interviewed him along with Oliver, Shad and Jorgen, and we all agreed that he knew his C++ and Unix cold, though his personality seemed hard to read. Working late one night, Jack upset a younger member of the tech team named Amanda by getting frustrated about a broken program and yelling out "blowjob" over and over for several hours.

Vicki had to take him into a room and explain that he was fired, because Time Inc. doesn't expect its employees to yell out "blowjob" when they get frustrated (and if the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has different rules, that's up to them).

Delegations from various parts of Time Warner would occasionally tour our basement cages and gape at us while we worked. Magazine people appeared to be particularly frightened of and fascinated by techies, and when we saw them watching we would perform tricks like eating Twinkies while typing. There was a big culture gap between the new tech department and the old-time editorial folks around Time Inc. New Media.

They had big problems of their own on the editorial side of the venture. An eager young editor-in-chief named Jim Kinsella was trying his best to get anybody to pay attention to his decisions. But Jim Kinsella didn't really run the show. Walter Isaacson, a noted writer and intellectual, was the lofty captain of Time Inc. New Media. Gentle-voiced and dignified, he seemed to rise above the day-to-day details of running our site, and so did his deputy, a tall and gangly man named Paul Sagan, who physically resembled his astronomer cousin Carl.

Walter Isaacson and Paul Sagan were the top managers, and it appeared at first that they ran the show, but on closer inspection it became apparent that they didn't call the shots either, and neither did tech boss Oliver Knowlton, editor Jim Kinsella or ad sales director Linda McCutcheon. The person who had the most influence on the early direction of Pathfinder was a marketing maven named Bruce Judson.

Bruce, who would go on to write books and is still active in the Internet marketing field, was the wizard behind the curtain at Pathfinder. As the advertising tech manager, I worked closely with Bruce Judson, and had mixed feelings about his influence on the venture. Of all the senior managers running Time Inc. New Media, he was the only one who ever showed intensity and passion about what we were doing. Bruce was a marketing "quant", a by-the-numbers guy with a successful track record but little understanding of magazine publishing. But, unfortunately, he really had no creative vision at all.

He was also, even more unfortunately, so good at covering his mistakes and so friendly to everybody that nobody ever confronted him about his lack of creative vision. He was a kind, patient man whose talent, like that of every marketing quant, was to observe audiences in tight detail and respond to their responses. If yellow text on black scores higher than red text on white, then you recommend yellow text on black.

All of Time Inc. thrived on the work of analytical quants like Bruce Judson. Editorial marketing was Time's signature business skill, and the technique had also proven successful in the creation of HBO. But an over-reliance on quantitative marketing doomed Pathfinder. Marketing analysts need to be balanced by creative thinkers, and this is where Pathfinder fell short.

Our traffic numbers were okay, but our web presence felt commercial and sterile. We had good raw material from the magazines to work with, but instead of trying to capture Time's sophistication, People's cheekiness and Sports Illustrated's grand scope in an exciting frame, we buried it all in a design that was intentionally bland. Clever art directors could be found all over the Time-Life Building, but Pathfinder's design seemed to aim for a suburban shopping-mall visual aesthetic. Brilliant journalists and columnists worked at our magazines, but our news reports emerged with the mechanical and official reportorial voice of a wire service ticker -- that is, with no voice at all. Our news feed didn't even come from inside the Time-Life Building. We were one of the world's leading news organizations, but we used an external wire service for breaking news on Pathfinder.com.

Because of our many faults, we were frequently cited as the worst of the major websites by Internet commentators and critics, and this began to create a self-perpetuating culture of loser-dom within the company. This got worse after October 3, 1995, the day of the O. J. Simpson verdict, the day we became the laughing stock of the new media industry.

Most of the tech team had gathered around the TV in our kitchen at 10 am to watch the conclusion of this long trial. We were heatedly discussing the surprising "not guilty" verdict when an editor from across the street rushed into our kitchen. "They just put up a 'Guilty' front page" she said.

"Huh?"

"Pathfinder says it right on the front page: O. J. GUILTY".

The story was everywhere the next day. Someone on the production team -- I know who did it, but I won't say the name -- wanted to be the first to report the story online, so he rigged everything up for a one-button push. He then scrambled to change the image when the verdict came in "not guilty", but got confused and published the wrong one. Pathfinder's mistake made the front page of a much cooler website called Suck.com the next day.

This got a lot of play, but mistakes really weren't our biggest problem. Mediocrity was, and we soon realized that we'd become a laughing stock even within Time Warner. Jerry Levin's second-in-command Don Logan was quoted in the New York Times in November as saying that Pathfinder had "given new meaning to me of the scientific term 'black hole'". This remark got gigantic coverage all over the industry, and must have seemed hilarious everywhere but inside Time Inc. New Media, where it really hurt. A few of us truly hoped we could shake off our slow start and rise to the greatness that had once seemed our destiny. With Don Logan's remark, it was starting to become clear how bad our image problem was.

Late that year, we heard a rumor that Bill Gates would be visiting our office. Nobody would tell us why, including our bosses Oliver and Vicki, which probably meant they didn't know either.

We began to speculate: what if Time Warner decided to walk away from this mess by selling Pathfinder to Microsoft? We knew that Microsoft was scrambling to enter the Internet marketplace, but none of the Unix developers on the team relished the thought of switching to Microsoft's clunky closed-source software. Many web developers saw Bill Gates as a predatory presence on the web, and we all understood that it was only because the Internet was built on Unix that it worked so well. If Bill Gates and Microsoft had built the Internet, we knew, it would crash constantly and charge by the minute.

As the day of the mysterious visit approached, several of us began planning ways to decorate our cubicles and bodies with symbols that would be hostile to Microsoft: Sun posters, Linux manuals, Apple baseball caps, Java t-shirts. I offered to wear the black Hot Java t-shirt I'd picked up from a Sun salesman, and several other developers pledged to dress similarly. We'd show Bill Gates where our loyalties lay.

The day came, and I was the only one who followed through with the plan. I hate when this happens! I'm sure I have many flaws, but I am a person of action and resolve, and when I say I'll do something I'll do it. Disappointed that not a single one of my co-workers had shown up wearing Unix or Java or Linux or Apple paraphrenalia, I decided to go ahead with a little demonstration by myself.

The black and gray suited delegation finally arrived at our office, including Time Inc. CEO Norm Pearlstine (formerly of the Wall Street Journal, a soulless stuffed shirt as far as I could ever tell), Walter Isaacson, Paul Sagan and many editors from Time and Fortune magazine, all of them visibly excited to be hosting the wealthiest software developer of all time. They toured our cubicles but didn't swing down my own hallway, so I had to watch from a distance as the delegation ensconced itself in our glass-walled conference room for a private meeting.

We all gathered to whisper. "Did you see him?" "I saw him". John had been working on the server racks when the entire delegation walked into his refrigerated room, and so he had gotten to shake Bill Gates' hand. "Clammy," he said.

A stairway offered the best view inside the glass conference room, and I conjured up an excuse to walk up and down the stairs so I could see Bill Gates' face and make sure he saw my Java t-shirt. I walked up the stairs, scanned the room, walked down again, but could not spot Gates among the men in suits. Embarrassed at my obvious unsuccessful grandstanding, I waited ten minutes before trying again. This time I saw his unmistakable face, wearing an expression of polite concern as another person spoke. I caught his eye, puffed up my chest, made sure my big Java logo was highly visible, and walked on down the stairs. I like to believe that Bill Gates caught my intended insult. Hell, at least I tried.

Needless to say, Microsoft never bought Pathfinder, and a few days later a co-worked named Chris from Time magazine told me his theory: the editors had invited Bill Gates to visit because they were considering naming him "Man of the Year". This theory made sense, since the launch of Windows 95 and the growth of the Internet had been among the biggest news stories of 1995. I can't imagine that Gates would not have been one of the candidates, but he must have failed his "interview", because a few weeks later Time's "Man of the Year" issue came out with Newt Gingrich on the cover. I don't know which choice is worse.

Pathfinder's problems in 1995 were serious, but they were not fatal. Walter Isaacson would soon leave Time Inc. New Media to become editor of Time magazine, and Pathfinder started gearing up to find a bold new leader and a bold new direction for 1996. We had a lot more mistakes to make; we were just getting started.

Myself, I was losing interest, because the web was growing fast and Pathfinder was starting to seem like the least exciting thing going on in Silicon Alley.

I didn't know where it all might be heading -- it all looked murky to me -- but LitKicks was more popular than ever, and I was starting to come up with big plans of my own for 1996.


This article is part of the The Memoir series. The next post in the series is LIT SCENE. The previous post in the series is THE SUMMER OF THE WEB.


7 Responses to "IN THE PATHFINDER BASEMENT"

by billectric on

But what happened to the tall bearded hippie from Pasadena?

Maybe he hooked up with the Little Old Lady from Pasadena!

by jota on

I worked for Paul Sagan when I serfed at Akamai.

I wrote his first blog post to the internal Akamai team in 2005.

LoL, t'was ez as I had learned blogging from Litkicks.

Thank you Levi for showing me the path :)

Levi, were you at this time tempted to quit your day job and do LitKicks full time? Obviously you had found an excellent use for the interenet, while your corporate bosses were clueless.

That's pretty funny, Jota! Yeah, I remember when he went off to co-found Akamai -- I think it was a smart move on his part.

Michael -- I dreamed of it, sure, but with three kids and a mortgage? No way.

I miss Suck.com. I used to read it every day.

I also miss Feed.com.

Long live Automatic Media!

by Tim Barrus on

I note two things: 1.) A lot of memoirs will almost vicariously and omnisciently pose a question that never gets answered because the writer is committed to a narrative where A goes in linear mode to B. I am working with a writer, Mary Scriver, right now on a book who does this brilliantly. She brings this linear kind of thinking to the book that I simply don't have. My brain does not work that way AT ALL. For me, A can jump immediately to Z, and whatever is in-le-between is quite irrelevant. This is where I run into difficulty with le editors who most definitely think in a linear paradigm when they think at all. Most are dull. Most of them are severely learning disabled. Mary and I simply bounce off each other. Her voice and POVs are radically different from mine. I don't collaborate well (especially with suits). She's not a suit so we get along.

2.) On a personal level I think it's a complete cop out for any writer, the suits are the worst at this, to grease the narrative, pose questions that should be obvious, but then wiggle off the hook because they get away with I have to move on the next linear thing. Their commitment to finishing the book (writing is drudgery, tell me about it), fanatical. What I am reading here between the lines is a question that has to do with the extent to which the contemporary individual creates identity based on their job. We ARE what we DO. Most writers might play with that superficially but they never examine it because A-to-B is singing refrain in the chorus. In a book like this, it seems almost compelling for the writer to spend some time with how that works -- not necessarily why but how we become what we do or see ourselves as our jobs -- because the sub-thematic issue is the paradigm shift from whatever culture was before to what it has evolved into.

Are we the same. Or is it just what we do mechanically (people say we've gotten away from the mechanial but I note how writing itself is still mechanical and since I teach video to at-risk boys, I note that video is almost completely figuring out equations) that has changed.

When you bring up the nature of identity, most writers run, but this time around, I don't see how the writer can do that because how we form identity is the fundamental structure of the Internet. Whether that's a brand or a person.

Thusly you have the interior (is who I am my job) and the exterior (is everyone's identity formed in the marketplace). That leads one to examine the rock the Internet lives under. Personally, I am interested in HOW the Internet went from a place where there were multiple versions of HOPE that it could even become artistic, or a place where art could flourish, but what it morphed into is just another version of yesterday's Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It's completely unimaginative. Even here, you guys spend time on "lists." Which is fine. It just eludes me so like who cares what people read or should read. Obviously everyone. But me. I am far more interested in how things are made. The Internet is a shopping list of consumer items and pornography. HOW did that happen. Art is marginalized. Again.

Okay, we see how specific companies rock and rolled. But doesn't that lead us from A-to-B to A-to-X. The operant theme concluding that the Internet AS A CULTURAL SHIFT has basically failed. On one level, we're getting here a take on how things evolved. But this poses the writer a dilemma before he can move from A to B and that is the question evolved into what and what kind of impact did that evolution have on the narrator. He seems quite separate from the suits. Thusly, he needs to give us, the reader, more meat than a suit would or could know how to rock and roll a narrative from the tip of his tongue because he has no voice as his very identity precludes it.

http://le-too.blogspot.com Tim Barrus, Paris

by mike on

Man Tim, What's in that expresso ?

I'd say it's much more than an online version of a sears and roebucks catalog, although that it is. It's like having the library of alexandria on your desktop. Also an asynchronous communication device or synchronous if so desired. Can it compete with reality, hell no but who wants reality anymore ?

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