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How Pathfinder will become Web legend

A former Pathfinder editor says future generations will compare Time Warner's massive, ill-fated site with Howard Hughes's pioneering, expensive, over-publicized flop: the Spruce Goose.

A former Pathfinder editor thinks future generations will compare Time Warner's massive, ill-fated site with Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose: both were pioneering, expensive, over-publicized flops destined to become tourist attractions.

That's why the founder of the Pathfinder Museum, Steve Baldwin, now a freelance writer, is racing against time to preserve brighter moments in the site's timeline before Time Warner pulls the switch for good.

While many Pathfinder critics panned the site, founded in 1994, as a suicidal project that diluted powerful magazine brands such as Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Fortune and forced the company to build and promote a new brand, Baldwin thinks Pathfinder provides a snapshot in the Web's history that should not be forgotten.

"It's like writing about the pioneers, and what did they really do," Baldwin said. "Because so few objects were left behind, someone should say, 'I was there.'"

Pathfinder was Time Warner's attempt to fold the online editions of Time Incorporated's magazine properties under a newly created brand, and the media firm poured millions into it. The company stuck by its giant lemon even as it watched upstarts such as Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos grab market share and sky-high stock valuations with aggregated content and Web services such as free email.

Though Time Warner fashioned Pathfinder as the future of the Web, its size, lack of navigability, and repurposed print content made it an example of what not to do online.

In the end, Time Warner decided to put its money-losing experiment out of its misery; the site will be shut down by the end of the summer. The media giant plans to replace Pathfinder with five "vertical hub" sites and a new e-commerce strategy in hopes of attracting the traffic it sought with Pathfinder.

The Pathfinder Museum was launched in November 1998 after Baldwin and some of his ex-Pathfinder colleagues realized their periodic "bitching sessions" could be put to constructive use. The site gives a few screen shots of moments in Pathfinder's timeline that the curators find memorable.

For example, the home page features a shot of OJ Central, the day-to-day coverage page of the football star's murder trial, including information graphics of the murder scene. There's also an "exhibit hall" that leads to editorial excerpts of experiences from former Pathfinder employees and images of early page designs.

Preserving dead or dying Web sites is not new for Baldwin. His Ghost Sites Web page catalogs some of his favorite examples of online camp.

"I've been archiving great Web content failures for a while," Baldwin said. "They're not all great, of course, but when I can find a site that has really gone to seed, I take great pleasure."

Ghost Sites reads like a laundry list of "Where are they now?" Web sites that have fallen by the wayside. The popular syndicated TV show Baywatch Nights still has a Web site, which features an episode list from 1996. Then there's the official page from the film Spinal Tap that has fake diary entries from the characters in the film.

But Baldwin, who describes himself as having "an unhealthy emotional attachment to Pathfinder," still feels nostalgia for the early days when the Pathfinder team was charting virgin territory on the Web. He hopes the museum will become a showcase of their attempts to define the space.

"This is my way of saying to the world that, 'Look, guys, all this wasn't for nothing,'" he said.

Baldwin views Pathfinder as not only an experiment in Web strategy but also an ambitious period in design and aesthetics. Pathfinder's graphics took up so much memory that for PCs with standard Internet connections at the time, downloading the home page was sluggish at best, Baldwin said, and many Netizens just got tired of waiting.

"They would put up one big 50K GIF and then image map it," Baldwin said. "They didn't care that people couldn't see this stuff, but it was so graphically cool. No one builds stuff like that anymore. But at that time it was considered OK because there were no rules in those days."

Baldwin is hesitant to accept Pathfinder's demise and says there could be a comeback for Pathfinder, as has happened with a number of cultural fads and icons that have faded.

"With cable modems, a 50K GIF might be OK," Baldwin said. "Pathfinder might come back--like disco."