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 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