The Rise and Fall of Silk Road – Wired returns to what it does best

I remember when Wired magazine first came out in 1993. It was the same year I first installed a web browser on my computer.  I was a Valley rat in those days, job-hopping every two years or so, quite caught up in the surreal suspended reality of the boom.  And Wired was the perfect oracle for the time.

It was was entirely a hard copy magazine at first, and there was a glorious audacity to it.  From the very beginning it published in a perfect-bound form factor, instead of the single signature stapled through the center that is a far more common, and fiscally prudent — with a stapled-signature format each issue could be as few or as many pages as the combination of content and ads for that issue warranted, but perfect-bound publications need a minimum number of pages to be technically feasible.  So there was a delicious arrogance in going perfect-bound from their first issue — a proclamation of confidence that even without any initial brand recognition, they had zero worries about selling enough ad space to warrant their investment.

A cover of Wired from 1997

A cover of Wired from 1997

That arrogance was well warranted. Their journalism made for deeply enjoyable reading, and nowhere more so than their feature articles.  They were a good 50% longer than conventional wisdom says a feature article has any right being.  And more than anything else, the staff at Wired had the knack for turning a string of facts into a truly compelling narrative.  Their news items were stories in the true sense of the word; every issue was a new delight.

The bubble did not last of course, and when it burst, the fortunes of Wired largely paralleled its rise and fall. Wired managed to survive and evolve; I still subscribe, though now this takes the form of having their RSS feed on my iPhone’s news reader.  What comes across the feed is quite different from the Wired of the 90’s; they now compete with the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo as purveyors of the new and the cool, dispensing meme-sized factoids on technology, science, and nerd culture.  Even in this form they tend to do well; I find their content to be consistently more well curated than that of their competitors.  Nevertheless, in terms of enjoyment it can’t compare to the Wired of their hardcopy heyday.

Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Wired. I could just be suffering from the kind of nostalgia that seems to be an inevitable by-product of growing old.  Living and working in Silicon Valley in the midst of the bubble is certainly a suitable target for such nostalgia, though in truth I am far happier now both personally and professionally. Perhaps it was the visceral feel of leafing through the magazine, a sensation that reading things on a screen will never replicate, or perhaps it was that waiting for each month’s issue generated a sense of anticipation that doesn’t track well to the 24/7 stream of content we have come to accept as the norm now.

That being said, the Wired of old has not completely died, and that is the occasion for what is only my second blog post this year.  Every now and then, a feature article like the ones that were their standard fare in the 90’s catches my attention.  I remember the article on the Long Tail, where the term was first coined, back in 2004.  And their article on Stuxnet was another compelling narrative in their inimitable style.  In fairness to Wired, they probably still do a lot more of this kind of writing than I am aware of — they still do publish a print issue, and I am sure it creates a different impression than the one I experience on their RSS feed.  Nevertheless, this morning around 3:00am, in a fit of insomnia-fueled news reading at my African home-away-from home at the Intercontinental Nairobi, I came across a magnificent example of Wired at its best: a tale of the rise and fall of the Silk Road Marketplace.

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Silk Road was a deep-web site available only via the TOR browser, Silk Road operated as an open and unabashed Amazon-like black market, primarily for drugs and guns.  I first became aware of them in mid-2011 through an article in Gawker.  I even set up my own TOR browser so I could visit the site myself and see if it was as blatantly in-your-face about drug dealing and gun running as Gawker claimed; if anything it was worse.  All payments on Silk Road were made via bitcoin, which has been another fascination of mine; from mid 2011 to the site’s inevitable downfall in 2013, the story of of Silk Road was one I followed closely.  Yet knowing most of the facts of the story in advance did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the article; the writing was that good.  My hat is off to Joshua Bearman and Tomer Hamuka for crafting a truly compelling story. Reading it was pure delight, and their prose is something I am unabashedly envious of.  Anyway, here it is.  Enjoy!

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