Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
In my more high-minded moments I can be tricked into comparing the Internet to the printing press circa 1760. As it becomes more widely available, it is opening up media outlets to those with almost no resources, giving a broad voice to lots of previously silenced folks. Whereas the capital heavy television industry brought about almost a century of decreased access to media, the Internet is throwing the channels open again. In place of the many small newspapers of the Revolutionary era come many small blogs, podcasts, and 90ways.coms.
And an estimated 40% of all Internet traffic is used for porn. So 90ways' niche is not too crowded just yet. Its pursuit of general-interest intellectual rigor and its dedication to the legacy of Lester Buckets
is still unique. How successful it's been in its first year is another matter.
On the most basic level 90ways is a magazine. The Internet has freed it from physical publishing and the way the site rolls out it's weekly editions -- with one house updating every weekday -- is a subtle but elegant use of the medium. The logo and navigation, the layout of the site in general, also plays to the elegant potential of the Internet. It's not MSN-crowded
, but it is utile and straightforward.
Other ideas the site had had over the year have not all been so great, but, to its credit, 90ways has been willing to scrap its high-minded ideas whenever it has realized they were crappy and no one liked them.
The site's long-time readership will remember that originally there was no front page. The newest content was simply front and center. 90ways didn't want people to have to click through a cluttered gateway to get to something interesting. It turns out users actually like some sort of overview, a virtual welcome mat. The current front page is a happy medium. It emphasizes the weekly nature of the magazine. The day's current mix of five pieces, what constitutes that day's weekly, is visible all at once and something interesting is still only one click away. Nice save.
The site has also tried to adapt to those readers who complain of headaches when reading off monitors. Instead of haughtily decrying that those truly interested in self-improvement ought to read even the longest pieces -- which was done for a few weeks -- articles have become more reasonable lengths and been serialized when necessary. The spare layout is already printer friendly for most computers but there are those for whom the site remains unprintable, something which should be addressed. 90ways also made every week available for download to iPod's and like devices but it's unclear how much use is made of this service. At least someone is trying to think outside the monitor.
The voice of the site, while improving, still ought to be more prominent. 90ways' editorial philosophy is all about getting as many contributors as possible, writing as intelligently as they can and in whatever challenging ways they deem best. Originally, this variety of voices blocked out any central narrator or guide that could help frame the site and contextualize it for those visiting for the first time and looking to work it into their daily routines. There will always be a variety of voices on 90ways but the site still ought to have a tone, a charming editorial We
that acts as a sort of guide. The language of the site -- phrases like "Everyday a new weekly", "making intellectual rigor fun again", and the various quotes from Buckets -- all offer some flavor of what the site wants to do. More clear and honest communication would add more.
The sort of navel gazing found in this review ought to be a rare indulgence, but by wearing its collective editorial heart closer to the sleeve, perhaps 90ways' passion for its venture and its desire to continue to improve would help give perspective about where it stands and where it hopes to go. To the extent that the site's readers don't find its commentary nattering and cutesy, an editorial voice can act to give definition to what it is to visit 90ways.
From the writers' perspective the site has one shortcoming that is hard to miss. The folks who contribute to 90ways ought to be paid. The recent addition of ads
to the site is an obvious aesthetic sacrifice and, ideally, it would lead to untold riches with which to honor all who work for 90ways. The money will instead be given out every thirteen weeks to those chosen to be in the site's Quarterly Review. A nice compromise, but a compromise. Those who win will have to accept the honor on behalf of all those who work hard for the site. It's an imperfection and one that runs headlong into 90ways reluctance to let commercial motivations steer the site before intellectual ones. Principled and all, but folks got to eat.
90ways does work to offer contributors other benefits. The editorial staff works hard to establish relationships that are supportive and foster the best writing possible. There have been times when communication with writers has been abrupt or disorganized, perhaps forgivable for a non-paid, non-centralized staff. But writers are encouraged to experiment with form and subject and as long as they want collaboration to improve their writing, 90ways will do its best to offer that. That combination of freedom and editorial support is valuable, especially for amateur writers or professionals just beginning, when so many larger publications have a cut and dried, aseptic relationship with their writers.
Finally, a brief list of complaints, things 90ways simply has not done well. The copy-editing is hardly centralized. Different grammatical styles can be found throughout the archives and this amateurish imperfection needs to be cleaned up. The site has also failed to fully realize the multimedia possibilities
of the Internet. All five houses would benefit from audio-visual content, both as its own end and as a supplement to written content.
The site also comes up short on a more fundamental level. 90ways claims its goal has always been to stimulate intellectual thought, to stir the pot and generate discussion across a wide variety of topics. But it offers no place for this hypothetical discussion to take place. This oversight is so important, it will be given its own examination tomorrow, in our Essay