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THE CUTTING EDGE : Hip On-Line Magazine Generates Heat on Net

November 23, 1994|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its first month on the Internet's virtual newsstand, HotWired--the ambitious electronic offspring of the ink-and-paper magazine, Wired--is taking something of a beating in the on-line reviews.

Billed as "the Net's first cyberstation," "way new journalism," or, as Wired publisher Louis Rossetto described it in a press release, "live, twitching, the real-time nervous system of the planet," HotWired, the consensus seems to be, is a little too hip for its own good.

With the parent magazine's reputation as the most-flaunted mascot of the digitally aware, many publishers and other businesses are looking to HotWired as an example of how to migrate to a new medium. But Internet watchers say the young magazine's experience thus far should also serve as a lesson in what to watch out for.

First of all, there is the delicate matter of advertising, a controversial practice on the Internet that the analog magazine (Wired) has sometimes attacked and the digital version (HotWired) engages in with abandon. Despite a carefully reasoned e-mail memo sent to every subscriber, the apparent contradiction has inspired postings to Internet news groups with titles such as "WIRED SELLS OUT."

Then there is the sometimes-cumbersome process of user identification. While HotWired is free, subscribers must register and enter a password each time they want to read it--thus providing the magazine and its advertisers with some minimal demographic information.

"I can't believe Wired has sunk so low as to REGISTER all HotWired users. Come on! That's soooo 'tired,' " writes one Internet user, mimicking one of the parent magazine's popular features. "Wired: free flowing public information with no strings attached. Tired: HotWired/Wired mag hipocrisy (sic)!"

But overriding such philosophical questions seems to be one of image. The design technique that helped San Francisco-based Wired achieve remarkable commercial success in just two years of publication--without stinting on neon colors, digitized distortions and unconventional layouts--is winning far fewer fans among the Internet crowd.

Pages are filled with elaborate graphics that take several minutes to materialize on the screens of those not privileged to have a super-high-speed connection to the Internet. Things are hard to find. The back issues are hidden behind an obscure "coin" icon that no one quite gets, and there's no plain old table of contents.

"They're cool. They know they're cool, and they tell you they're cool, and the Internet doesn't really get off on being told that," says Adam Engst, a longtime Net surfer and author of Internet Explorer Kit. "It goes against the tradition of the Internet, which is good information hype-free."

To be sure, most of the criticism of HotWired focuses on packaging. The editorial content--generated independently from that of Wired--includes pictures, video and audio clips, articles on technology and interactive chat areas, and has garnered quite a few on-line followers. Nearly 30,000 Internet users have registered with the service since the beginning of the month.

And despite complaints from hard-core users about ads, many agree HotWired has broken ground by lining up such names as Volvo, AT&T and Club Med to experiment with advertising-based on-line publishing.

The magazine's editorial policy, different from that of many other publications experimenting with electronic editions, has also won friends among on-line veterans. "More is not better," HotWired president Andrew Anker told a packed seminar on magazines and new media in Beverly Hills last week. "Our asset is not our content. Our asset is our community."

Still, critics say HotWired suffers from trying to do too much too fast in a technological world that is still too slow.

"They've made the most common mistake in businesses entering into the Internet, and that is doing their design for the high end of the Net," says Aneurin Bosley, editor of the Internet Business Journal. "They get lost in the technology, and they lose touch with the consumer base that's out there. The result is it's not very hot and not terribly well-wired."

The relatively new ability to display images easily on the Internet--and the promise of a secure means to transact commerce--has spurred a rush of businesses onto the network, which allows them more aesthetic freedom and control over content than commercial on-line services such as America Online and Prodigy.

But in their sometimes-desperate attempts to appear techno-savvy, Internet consultants say, commercial enterprises scouting out the overwrought electronic frontier risk turning off those they are trying to attract.

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