Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pathfinder Documents: "The First Media Powerhouse to Offer a Fully Graphical Site on the World Wide Web"

Pathfinder's ill-fated voyage across the perilous interactive seas began on October, 24, 1995. This press release (recovered from a promotional area of the fallen site), proudly touts Pathfinder's traffic (expressed in hits) and its stellar Time Inc. content partners (including Vibe, Southern Living, and Sunset Magazines). At its prime, Pathfinder would be the "umbrella" brand for more than 80 Time Inc. "content partners," many of which resented being confined in Pathfinder's "walled garden."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Pathfinder Documents: Home Pages: 1995-1998

This is the earliest home page in the Museum's collection, from October of 1995. It shows the infamous "OJ Guilty" gaffe which caused a major internal investigation of Pathfinder.com's edit staff to occur in the next few weeks. Despite intensive interrogations and forensic reconstructions, the person who caused this error was never identified.

The corrected home page.

An experimental 1996 redesign that was never deployed.

The 1997 home page.

Another 1997 home page, scanned from a laser printout.

Three nearly identical captures of Pathfinder.com's 1998 home pages.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pathfinder Documents: Early Depictions of "Web Surfing"

This intriguing visual artifact, produced by Time-Warner corporate, is a fascinating visual representation of the optimistic mindset of the organization in the mid-1990's.

This image (circa 1994-95) depicts a a jolly male figure, perched atop a computer keyboard, surfing through space. Around him are numerous pages from Pathfinder. With all of Time Inc.'s great world-class content before him, wouldn't this surfer be foolish to ever venture outside ?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Exploring Pathfinder's Intranet

The Pathfinder Museum is proud to announce that a generous individual has donated a complete copy of "TINM Inside": Pathfinder's Intranet which was deployed in early 1998. This donation provides an enormous trove of information contributing to a better understanding of Pathfinder's final days (the site was closed just a few months after the Intranet went online).

Of special interest to New Media historians are the Edit Project List, Pathfinder Tools Documentation, and Pathfinder Network News, in which we learn about the success of TIME's Presidential Scandal Supersite:

The TIME folks have been busy! The scandal supersite at one time or another has involved people from all walks of Pathfinder life. It was kicked off as a single page by Dick Duncan, Flora Garcia, Mark Coatney and Meg Siesfeld, with Ronnie Peters, Paul Notzold and Alex Juarez working on design. As the scandal escalated, the site was blown into the "supersite" category. Josh Quittner and Dick Duncan oversaw the development of the supersite...

Also of great interest is the Customer Service Contact List, which provides contact information for every brand in Pathfinder.

I will be referring to this resource in the future and supplying additional annotations and analyses. In the meantime - surf this incredible, fully-functioning replica of Time Inc New Media's central nervous system, circa 1998!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Pathfinder Fiction

by Anonymous

The sun was rising over 50th Street. Its rays reflecting red and orange light against the glass-plated towers and gray streets that were slowly coming back to life - the cabs and busses passing up 6th Avenue with greater and greater frequency and the vendors, in tiny enclosed carts, furtively brewing coffee and buttering bagels to prepare for the imminent morning rush.

K sat in his windowless office on the 37th floor of the Time-Warner building, totally oblivious to what was happening in the world below. To him, it was a too-familiar scene. For three years, he had pulled countless all-nighters as the Master Geek - the King Fixer for Pathfinder - Time-Warner's flagship Internet portal.

It had been an interesting ride. He had worked for the largest media company in the world, guiding the paths of brands like People Magazine and TIME into the new and exciting world of the Web. The downside was that he had had to give up his life in the process. Projects needed to be done on time and done perfectly, even if hitting the deadline meant going without sleep for days on end to make sure that every HTML link and line of JavaScript was checked and re-checked by hand.

To his credit, K was the last person afraid of hard work. In fact he enjoyed it. What pissed him off more than anything, though, was the oppressive heat in his office. In deference to Time-Warner's bean counters, Building Services had completely ignored his complaints and continued turning off the air conditioning at 6:00 PM every night to save money. The result was a steamy corporate hell which grew hotter by the hour, with the air heavy and hard to breathe and the only respite coming from the cooling fans of the three old P90 Dells under his desk blowing a slight breeze across his ankles.

But it wasn't simply the heat that caused K's pressed trousers and starched Brooks Brothers shirt to lie like damp rags around his hunched body. Something else was eating at him that was stronger than the MSG from the bad Chinese food he'd eaten hours before. It was a feeling of shame that rose up in K's gut, fouling his mood, and casting a deadly pall over the future. What made this particular night different was that K wasn't trying to meet some high-priority deadline. As far as K was concerned, the deadlines could go all go to hell now. His career at Big Brands was over - three years of hard work destroyed because he had dared to speak the truth about where the whole Pathfinder mess was going unless management got its act together.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid", K thought to himself, and began calculating the hours remaining before he, like so many managers at Pathfinder, was tossed out the window to land 37 floors below.

As beads of perspiration dotted his forehead, K's white-knuckled fingers typed in fitful, short, machine gun-like rhythms, keying short character strings into a cryptic little dialog box, over and over.

Username: Editor
Password: User

Username: Editorinchief
Password: Guest

He tried another combination - the simplest one possible. The one that nobody should ever use: the one where your email username is your first name and the password your last name. K felt so stupid typing it: nobody in senior management would be clueless enough to leave their email box so idiotically unprotected.

But then, suddenly, K paused. The hard drive of one of the Dells was cycling below his desk - gently clicking as it cached some files. "Holy Shit," he mouthed. There in front of him, on the greasy 17-inch screen, opening like a rare blue flower, was the e-mail box containing the complete record of correspondences from the manager who K knew was out to get him - the manager who, beyond any of the numerous enemies K had made at Time Inc, had done everything in his power to end K's career.

"Now," K said to himself, "the game begins." And for the first time in months, he felt good - almost as good as he did when he first joined the staff of Time-Warner's mighty Pathfinder project some thirty-six months before.

... to be continued ...

A Short History of Pathfinder's Interactivity

Pathfinder's first interactive areas ran on WABBIT (Web Accessible Bulletin Board Information Technology).

In its early days, Pathfinder's content pioneers all lived by a single mantra known as "The Three C's" which stood for Content, Community and Commerce. In terms of Commerce, Time Inc. New Media had the game covered. After all, what could be more compelling than reading TIME Magazine, People, or Entertainment Weekly? In terms of Content, the game was fuzzier, especially after its liason with Open Market turned into less than a stellar success. But Community - the final C, ironically became the source for its own perverse varient of "The Three C's: Confusion, Consternation, and Chaos, because Senior Management never shared a single point of view about the desirability of offering interactivity.

This screenshot shows WABBIT deployed on a TIME area in late 1995.

At the beginning, interactivity was favored, especially after the OJ Central area of Pathfinder became popular. OJ Central, beyond its fancy crime scene graphics, was nothing more than a place for people to post incendiary comments about the case. Its runaway success proved that Pathfinder could do more than serve as a one-way hub for the electronic distribution of magazine content: it could do community at least as well as AOL, a company which was throughout Pathfinder's life its number one enemy.

Thousands of people were drawn to OJ Central's Bulletin Board area, providing a significant share of Pathfinder's hits in 1995.

But things changed after the Exon Amendment, otherwise known as the Communications Decency Act, almost became law. It became quite clear that Pathfinder, Time Inc., Time-Warner and its collected shareholders could become liable for indecent, annoying, and obscene content that its users might post. Why open the floodgates to lawsuits?

The Communications Decency Act (referred to in this memo) dealt a major blow to the hopes of those who wished Pathfinder could be more interactive.

Senior management's ambivalence toward interactivity ran through every decision it made. But instead of pulling the plug on the two-way street, its strategy was to starve interactivity to death, and hope it would simply go away. So only two "communications editors" were hired to run the chat lines and bulletin boards for more than 80 content partners. The results were predictable: content partners were furious when their chats crashed or their bulletin boards failed, the editors quickly burned out and quit, and things were left to drift.

Eventually, a larger staff was handled and two-way communications soon began to flow through Pathfinder, and it is possible that given sufficient encouragement and investment, Pathfinder might have lived up to its stated promise to serve as the "home on the Web" to many thousands, if not millions of users. But by 1997 other factors and forces were at work which undermined Senior Management's willingness to keep the project going in its current form, and so this vaunted goal would never be met.

After the failure of WABBIT, sites requiring interactivity resorted to their own choice of 3rd party solutions. This printout of the 1997 Netly news shows a comment area provided by Razorfish.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A New Look at Pathfinder's "New Look"

By 1996, Pathfinder's initial look and feel, established during the Walter Isaacson/Jim Kinsella/Craig Bromberg era, had begun to show more than a few cracks, especially after a crowd of demanding content partners - more than 80 - descended on Pathfinder with each demanding high-profile exposure on Pathfinder's home page. A few, notably People Magazine, were so unhappy with Pathfinder's rationing of home page space that they actually staged an attempted palace coup by attempting to launch their own domains, a move stopped only by the personal intervention of Walter Isaacson, and, it is rumored, Henry Kissinger.

When Kinsella was ousted in early 1996 (after ousting Bromberg in late 1995), a furious effort to redesign Pathfinder ensued to appease the content partners. This, plus the incredible demand from Paul Sagan, who succeeded Walter Isaacson as Pathfinder's commander, to launch a personalized news service, exerted enormous pressure on Pathfinder's staff.

While Personal Edition was a costly, disastrous failure, Pathfinder's "New Look" was a moderate success. The home page was faster loading, the "touts" (advertorial areas that directed users to Pathfinder's content partners) were fully automated (previously, they had been changed manually), and, at least for a while, Pathfinder's content partners, and even Don Logan, who had done his utmost to sink Pathfinderand the New Media division, were temporarily quiescent. In fact, the "New Look" was so successful that it remained Pathfinder's design until the site's shutdown in the Spring of 1998.

To many, "New Look" home page was a welcome departure from Pathfinder's earlier attempts, which tended toward being over-crowded, complicated, and often counter-intuitive. Note that this page provided a way for users to obtain free Pathfinder.com e-mail addresses, an enticement that was not taken up by many users but an indication of how much Pathfinder still wanted to be the "AOL of the Web."

Pathfinder Spotlight Page was a new feature intended to highlight timely content from a wide range of content partners.

Another innovation of the "New Look" were "Special Features" pages intended to highlight timely content from content partners.

An example of a "Special Features" page.

Screenshot: Pathfinder's Network Guide. This page shows the enormous number of content partners that Pathfinder was required to service by 1996.

Screenshot: Pathfinder's Network Guide

Screenshot: Pathfinder's Network Guide

Screenshot: Pathfinder's Network Guide

Pathfinder's "New Look" Error Page

Monday, June 20, 2005

Pathfinder at Work: The Totemic Whiteboard

Pathfinder.com's all-important "whiteboards" were essential for coordinating the site's technology projects. If you rated at all, you had a whiteboard in your office, and if you didn't, there was one for you in every conference room on the 37th Floor of the Time-Life Building. Here we see a snapshot of such a whiteboard from 1996. The project being sketched appears to be related to the development of an online game, perhaps coded in Pathfinder.com's propriatary "GDmL" (Game Description Markup Language).

Pathfinder at Play: The Friday Night Pour

Pathfinder's employees worked like Trojans, but they were also blessed with a long-standing Time Inc. tradition known as the "Friday Night Pour." Each Friday, a white-coated butler would show up at Pathfinder.com's offices with buckets of alcoholic beverages, elevating staff morale significantly.

It is not known whether this tradition survived the AOL-Time-Warner merger. Because alcohol often serves to remove inhibitions, leading to the expression of primitive instincts and urges ordinarily supressed by the norms of the modern workplace, the "pour" was always controversial, even within the traditionally free-wheeling editorial corridors of the Time-Life Building.

Pathfinder at Work: A Clean, Well-Lit Place

Pathfinder.com's editorial offices moved around quite a bit over the years, although the tech side stayed in one place: in subterranean chambers just across the street from the Time-Life Building. These snapshots are the only photos known to exist of Pathfinder's actual offices in the Time-Life building. No photos are known to exist of the Tech Side.

Pathfinder at Play: Group Bowling

Group activities were a critical part of Pathfinder.com's unique workplace culture, and we are lucky that several unidentified photographers took many pictures of them. Here, at a subterranean bowling alley, three members of Pathfinder.com's technology team are clearly enjoying themselves. Take note of the "News Exhange" and "Pathfinder" T-shirts worn by two of them: it's going to be a fun night!

Several happy Pathfinder employees take note of their team's high score. This pointing gesture was often used by Pathfinder staff when viewing an impressive hit report.

Group activities were very effective in honing Pathfinder.com's morale to a razor's edge. This employee is obviously proud to wear a "Pathfinder Killer App" hat, even though management had made the wearing of such promotional items non-mandatory.

Tasty food and delicious drinks were supplied by Pathfinder.com's management to participating employees at Group Bowling events without any charge.

Cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and team spirit are all evident in this photo, even among Pathfinder employees who are not bowling. Go team!

Pathfinder.com's fun-filled group activities often took their toll on those members of the staff who were unfortunate enough to have lives outside of the workplace.

Pathfinder at Work: Men of Many Monitors

While flat-screen, low radiation monitors are rapidly replacing yesterday's behemoth CRT screens, Pathfinder.com's employees had to contend with several of these monsters operating at once, which subjected them to high levels of completely harmless radiation throughout their extended workday.

Pathfinder at Play: Group Volley Ball

The value of volleyball in strengthening Pathfinder.com's morale during its toughest days has often been underestimated by corporate historians. But it is apparent that the sport succeeded in bolstering the staff's spirit well into 1997 and possibly into 1998. These pictures appear to have been taken in New York's Central Park, a place close enough to the Time-Life building to have made the transportation of employees and volleyball equipment logistically feasible.

Pathfinder Technologies: Personal Edition

In late 1995, Personal Edition (or "PE") as it was known, became, in the minds of Pathfinder.com's senior management, the "Great Web Hope" that would turn a money-losing division into a profit powerhouse. The complete story of PE is beyond the scope of this short article, except to say that when it inevitably failed after thousands of man and woman-hours worth of testing, the axe began to fall: slowly at first, butinexorably.

No traces of PE's code are known to exist, nor did its development lead anywhere; it was an evolutionary dead-end that few people remember. Only this T-shirt, issued to commemorate the efforts of PE's many bug-testers, survives. The image is somewhat ironic: despite the Herculean efforts of Pathfinder's Tech and Edit teams, PE eventually became the evil, multi-legged creature that ate pathfinder, consuming the bug testers, the site, and the hopes and dreams of all who had bet their careers on Pathfinder: the World's Greatest Web Site.

Pathfinder Technologies: WABBIT (circa 1995)

In its early days, Pathfinder.com prized itself on boldly deploying proprietary technologies, such as WABBIT, a revolutionary system for managing its nascent Chat and Bulletin Board areas. It is not known why this document, a page from WABBIT's documentation, was printed in white type on a black background, but it is certainly keeping in character with this project's bold and often unconventional presentation methods.

Pathfinder at Play: Group Gambling

These photos appear to document Pathfinder's staff engaged at an elaborate game of chance. No record exists of Pathfinder.com's staff being transported to a location in the United States permitting gambling, so it may be the case that they were simply playing for symbolic tokens or "funny money."

It is not clear to me whether Group Gambling was as effective as Group Bowling or Group Volleyball in terms of positively influencing the attitudes and worldview of Pathfinder.com's staff. Some of the faces in these photos look quite tense -- almost as if the employee was still at work. In fact, of course, everyone who worked for Pathfinder was "betting his or her career" on its success -- a bet that, unfortunately, turned out to be a bad one.

Group Photo: Pathfinder.com

This group photo of Pathfinder.com's combined Technology, Editorial, and Business staff was taken at an editorial retreat in late 1996. It is, to my knowledge, the only attempt to photograph the entire staff at one time.

Pathfinder: Personal Artifacts

For a long time, I didn't want to be reminded of Pathfinder, but I did manage to save a few items that prove that I actually worked at this long-gone site: my business card, my cube name plate, and the first file folder I began using when I arrived at Pathfinder in 1995. Today, now that more than 10 years have elapsed, I almost treasure them.

Pathfinder Content: The Netly News

While the great bulk of Pathfinder's staff spent its days processing pre-existing content from its many Content Partners (a process disparaged by some "shovelware"), original content at Pathfinder was, at least for a time, judged to be crucial to the goal of building "the World's Best Web Site" and the Netly News was Pathfinder's highest-profile experiment.

Everything about the Netly News was uncompromisingly original, including the use of a large cow as its emblem, its use of unconventional, unprecictably-shifting page margins, peculiar retro-graphics, and an opinionated, abrasive editorial voice that melded well with the frontier ideology of the early World Wide Web.

Pathfinder Documents: Attack of the Content Partners

Pathfinder.com began with just a few editors, a small art staff, a tiny technology division, but a big dream: to dominate the Internet. By 1995, however, it had grown into a mammoth undertaking with dozens of content partners, each of which wanted to jump on the Web. In this project timeline, we see the frenetic schedule of content partner launch dates, a pace which would drive Pathfinder's staff to the outer reaches of human endurance.

Pathfinder Documents: An Evolving Strategy

Pathfinder's strategy evolved from its earliest days, when its mission statement (to be the "World's Best Web Site") evolved significantly. "Personalization," a word that was very much in vogue during the late 1990's, became the site's rallying cry and the key to its future, as revealed in this 1995 strategy memo from Pathfinder's editor to its top editors.

The World's Best Web Site

This adhesive sticker from 1995 announced Pathfinder.com's mission statement to the world. Many Pathfinder employees took them home and stuck them on their personal property; others placed them on laser printers and other office equipment (see below). Today, these stickers are very rare souveniers of a bygone era.