Monday, June 20, 2005

Pathfinder at Work: The Totemic Whiteboard'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'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'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'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'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'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'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'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!'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,'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'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'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, 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'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'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:

This group photo of'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 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.

The World's Best Web Site

This adhesive sticker from 1995 announced'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.