From his chair as the Managing Editor of The Harvard Business Review, Alan Webber could see that there was something changing in the business world. Something big. And so Webber, a bit of an unconventional entrepreneur, and his partner at HBR set out to raise money to start a magazine about the emerging world of business.
They struck out.
As we know, new ideas don't often get easy acceptance. And after a slew of rejections, Webber and his partner Bill Taylor launched Fast Company in 1995 with funding from Mort Zuckerman... the rest is magazine history.
Fast Company quickly became the bible for a new way to work. And covers like 'Free Agent Nation' captured the sprit and the changing realities of the world of work.
Today Webber's book "Rules of Thumb" turns a career of insights about companies and trends into a page turner that's likely to be scribbled on and have page corners folded over. His network of Fast Company Alumni are collectively among the most prolific and prescient -- and he remains one of the most sought after advisors and visionaries on the future of the magazine.
I reached out to speak to him about the evolution from content creation to content curation.
Says Webber: "The problem with the web is that the web is its own worst enemy. Since there's so much stuff on it, it is all mostly unedited. So, rather than calling it "editing," which is what it needs, people have invented the fancy word "curation." And what does this mean for the future of the magazine? Explains Webber: "One of the things that editors do is aggregate. They aggregate it into a new magazine. A magazine is an aggregation of stories."
For Webber, the next frontier is Curation and Design: "Today, we have an undifferentiated look and feel on the web. As long as it's undifferentiated, it's not very interesting. What I was made to believe about great magazines, I think, it's what we did at Fast Company with Pat Mitchell, was we had the department of look and feel. Because look and feel matters."
Webber thinks of Curators as core to what the web needs to be, and thinks about them in much the same way that he embraced groundbreaking graphic design in launching Fast Company. "Think about a curator as a designer. Right now, everybody is writing about design and thinking how important design is" says Webber. "The curator designs from ideas into the collection of ideas he or she wants to present to the world, if you then harness what the Roger Blacks of the world to say in how should this curation look and feel, then you're reinventing magazines.
And new platforms are part of the equation. "The Apple tablet isn't about hardware, it's about software. Reading, real honest to goodness reading, with design, fonts, cool layouts and a desirable experience for readers is about to explode on the web. No more scrolling, no more boring visual stuff -- the engineers are about to get a big bump from the designers who understand not just efficiency but also pleasure."
Can the tablet really change things? Webber thinks it can.
"It's not about "magazines," it's about "magazining" -- a fun reading experience with great design and all the audio and video links that the web makes possible. It means differentiation is possible, which means that readers will be attracted to great design, which means that design -- the altar at which Apple kneels -- is going to make the web a fun place for readers, for writers, for art directors, for advertisers, and for publishers."
And what's working today? "Huffington Post is a...there are examples of things that are working, that doesn't mean they're what we need. I think the Huffington Post works on its own terms. I think Tina Brown's new "Beast" is working on its own terms. There are some websites that are aggregating work around the environment and cause-related websites. But still, we're in the infancy of this stuff. I think it's very raw, and very crude, and people find something that works, meaning people will go look at it, and then everybody goes and does that. But nobody has figured out a killer model of what is exciting, about a wonderfully produced movie, magazine, book, record."
Alan explains the Curation/Editor role here.
Looking at the web, at the emergence of the Kindle and iSlate -- Webber sees the future as being fueled by curation. He calls curation essential. "I think it is one field that is absolutely indispensable, that what editors do, what curators do is adding incredible value, and same for designers." And is Apple friend or foe? "Apple has always been a friend to desktop publishers, to designers, to storytellers -- to all kinds of business-artists" says Webber.
Call them Curators, call them Editors, Webber says we need them, and fast. "The world needs editors. It turns out, when I was a young person, I did not respect editors. I thought editors were kind of a second order of humanity. Writers are great, editors are....essential. They organize information in ways to help makes it either exciting to figure out how the person organize it or it becomes a magazine, which is an entire concept organized around the way the editor sees the world."
So, kids, it's not plastics that's the future. It's editors.
"The real need is for editors, because what do editors do? Editors create categories. Editors create agendas. Editors create choices. Editors organize information and make it interesting or useful or salacious or whatever business they're in, and that's what we need is somebody to help them figure out how to make sense out of the world."
A final thought? Says Webber: "Fasten your seat belt, things are about to take off."
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