Looking Back on ZiffNet: 20 Years in Technology Publishing

Social networking and online publishing weren’t always about the web. When I got my start at ZiffNet – an umbrella organization for the family of Ziff-Davis computing magazines – “online” meant CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL. At the time, CompuServe was only accessible in command line mode, through terminal emulation software. Seems impossible by today’s standards, but at the time, it was the state of the art. The Ziff-Davis presence on Prodigy and AOL came a bit later, and were graphical – some of the first to take advantage of the then-new new Windows operating system.

We were lucky to have been in the cat bird’s seat when the web hit in the early ’90s (though we were also blind-sided by it, since our business model was all about charging for connection times). I was lucky to have been there at the birth of the web, and got to help create Ziff’s first web presence, which in turn inspired me to launch Birdhouse (first as an arts collective, then later as a blog, and later as a hosting service).

A lot of water under the bridge since then – incredible to contemplate how the landscape of online publishing has changed since then. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of ZiffNet, ZDNet has published a ZDNet 20th Anniversary Special, with memoirs from myself and others involved at the time. ZiffNet launched my passion for technology and my career. I’ve re-posted my own contribution below, for posterity.

See also: Photo gallery: ZDNet through the years, 1997-2010 as well as Michael Kolowich’s recollection of the start of Interchange – a service that was designed to blow the doors off the online services of the time, but that was eclipsed by the birth of the web: ZiffNet: ‘Project Athena’ and the moment of conception.

In the winter of 1992, I traveled by motorcycle from Oakland to Boston to take a job as a freelance editor. At the time, my exposure to computing amounted to little more than using vim and nroff to write philosophy papers on the UC Santa Cruz campus mainframe – there had been no GUIs or mice in my life. I had come to work as an editor, not as a technologist.

My new ZiffNet overlord stuck me in a cubicle with a scanner, a 32MHz 386 running Windows 3.0 , and a 14.4 external modem connected to a socket in a Dilbert-gray wall. I have many awesome memories of my years at ZiffNet and ZDNet, but few stand out as starkly as the constant howl of those modems – 30 or so people in a room, all connecting dozens of times per day to get their work done on CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, and a syndication stream we ran called ZD Wire. The web had been invented a couple years prior, but its tsunami hadn’t yet hit ZiffNet’s corporate shores (or much of the world’s, for that matter).

Ziff-Davis was at the peak of its technology magazine publishing days, and the dozen or so pubs under its umbrella were generating massive amounts of content. But amazingly, there was no central database to house all of those articles. Each book had its own system, and none of them talked to each other. What we received at the mothership in Boston were the same dead tree magazines the subscribers got.

That’s where I came in. To feed the ZD Wire beast, someone had to hand-pick articles, scan them on a flatbed, and manually correct all the errors made by the “state of the art” OCR software of the day. Predictably, zeroes and Ohs were hard for it to discern, as were fives and S’s. Column breaks had to be carefully selected to give the software its marching orders, and entire paragraphs would occasionally be mangled beyond repair. Guess who got to re-type the mangled bits in from scratch?

I was given rudimentary training and left with a stack of manuals on DOS and XyWrite. “Read up, Sonny!,” my wonderful and delightfully zany boss Sarah Delaney joked. Ah, XyWrite, the 1990s text-based word processor of choice for newsrooms across the country. XyWrite seemed arcane (if not downright Byzantine) as you first tried to find your footing, but most long-time users eventually fell head over heels in love with its huge collection of hotkeys and customizable macros. Without a doubt, XyWrite was the first piece of software I truly fell in love with. Well, that and DirectoryFreedom, a shareware utility I found in the Software Library which became permanently baked into my workflow, essential for managing the hundreds of files I worked with on a daily basis.

Ryck Lent was the undisputed XyWrite king, the Master of Macros. Watching him make XyWrite sit up and bark like a dog was my first glimpse into the world of the Nerd as God… and I wanted in. Before long, I was tweaking autoexec.bat and config.sys, setting up Trumpet WinSock for colleagues, installing drivers, and hacking Lotus Notes databases (lord have pity).

After cleanup and processing, I’d transfer the digital copies I’d made of ZD magazine articles onto 3.5″ floppies and push them across the sneakernet (i.e. walk across the office with a handful of floppies), delivering copies to other people with custom content packaging work to do.

I had intermittent involvement with getting those scanned stories up onto CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. Each had strange, proprietary systems with varying degrees of ridiculousness baked in, but somehow we got the job done. For a brief stint, I had the “pleasure” of banging my head against the strange markup system known as FrameMaker. A while later, I was privileged to be able to pump content into Prodigy’s system, doing my best to get those clunky 16-bit highlight graphics to look OK against Prodigy’s stultifying black background. My job was to select stories from the daily magazine content I had just finished scanning, use a rudimentary graphics request system written in Lotus Notes to order up graphics from the tiny art department, add markup to the stories, and write custom highlights, along the lines of “NEED FOR SPEED: Which 9600 baud modem is the best?”

Somewhere along the way, my boss started talking in oblique-but-tantalizing terms about something called “Project X.” She wasn’t able to divulge details (Delaney could be trusted with an NDA!), but I did infer that Project X was going to revolutionize the online space and make things possible that couldn’t be dreamed of on AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. I was kept in the dark on details, but a few months later, plans for Interchange were made public.

Something about reading the daily tech news started to rub off on me. I had started off thinking “It’s just an editorial job, be grateful” but soon was lapping up words from Spencer the Kat like he was the Dalai Lama. I started to crave my daily dose of tech news, and soon had my initiation ceremony, building my own x86 box from scratch. Before long, I was writing articles for Windows Sources, PC Mag, and others. I stopped sublimating my inner nerd, and gave myself over to CompuServe pleasure.

At first, I was a bit hurt by not being selected for the Interchange team – thought I had missed a big boat. But a year later, a few of us office geeks were downloading the NCSA Mosaic and Cello web browsers from our own software library and having our minds blown by the world wide web in all of its flat-grey-background, layout-free glory. Gopher and WAIS still mattered, and Archie wasn’t yet a thing of the past. It was assumed that if you wanted to play on the web, you had to know FTP (it continues to amaze me how many people run web sites today without knowing how to do simple file transfers).

The potential of the web was quickly becoming apparent, but no one quite knew what to do with it. We made our money by metering connection times to the Big Three dialup services — by finding ways to get users to spend as much time as possible reading Ziff-Davis stories. How could we possibly make money off the web, with its stateless connections? Advertising on the web was still considered taboo, a place we didn’t dare go (and there were no ad-serving platforms available yet anyway). I remember being in a staff meeting when Katherine Prouty, the manager of the software library, pounded her fist on the table, yelling “Over my dead body will our software find its way onto the web!”

Still, we knew we had to get there. A small team was formed to come up with the first ZD web presence, and I was on it. Our first site was a whopping three pages – basically a brochure site with subscription info for the mags. We learned HTML from articles in our own pubs, and from ye olde “View Source.” The site would be painfully embarrassing by today’s standards, but compared to what was out there at the time, we were rocking the scene. We coded our hearts out in Notepad and in the first shareware HTML editors to come ashore.

Before long, the site expanded to include actual mag content, the publications all got their own domains, and a master database housing actual digital content was created, no OCR needed. The rest is history, but I feel blessed to have been part of those pre-web presences, proud to have been working online when you still needed a terminal emulator to participate on CompuServe (which is now a ghost of a shell). Today, ziffnet.com is nothing but a bizarre placeholder page apparently owned by some kind of fly-by-night petroleum stock index trading company. But we were there when these sites were something great, dammit, and we owe our careers to that background.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *