When I first got online in 1995, the World Wide Web was a weird mess of hobbyist fanatic sites, academic papers, and porn (yes, even then).
I remember spending a couple days trying to make sense of it, and wondering why this startup I’d just started working for — CNET — would bother publishing a magazine-like thing on this rudimentary online bulletin board like thing.
Then somebody said, “oh, just go to Yahoo.”
That simple list of links created by two Stanford grads, Jerry Yang and David Filo, was the web. That’s where everybody started their day, and that’s where every new site in the first dot-com gold rush wanted to be featured.
It’s easy to sneer at Yahoo today, but back when it started it represented something very important: the open web.
“Open” is a loaded word, used today by every commercial tech company in its own way to further its own ends. But the web really was open: it was built on a set of published technology specifications that nobody owned and anybody could use. Anybody could read a web site. Anybody could create their own web site. (One of Yahoo’s big 90s acquisitions, Geocities, was devoted to this idea.) All you needed was a computer with an internet connection.
This was a big deal at the time. The 1990s weren’t that far removed from the pre-cable TV era, when there were only three TV networks and a handful of local stations. Companies like AOL and Microsoft, with the original MSN, wanted to make the Internet a lot more like the old and controlled world of TV, forcing everybody to sign in and pay a fee to get a limited selection of content. (Microsoft eventually moved on to different methods of control, using the Windows monopoly and its built-in web browser to encourage new and slightly-off-standard versions of web technologies, among other things. AOL hung on to the walled garden content approach for a lot longer.)
Yahoo never took that approach. It didn’t care what kind of computer or browser you used. Yahoo didn’t care how long you spent on the site, because it knew you’d be back for more. Yahoo just wanted to help you use the web.
Even as it expanded into other areas, like email and games and financial information, it always had that sense of frontier fun about it, like the web is this big exciting place and you should really want to explore it! (That’s what the much-mocked exclamation point was about.)
Contrast that with today’s online landscape, which is dominated by two companies with very different DNA. Google and Facebook pay lip service to open standards in their own ways, but they are much more sophisticated and controlling players than Yahoo ever was.
Google started off very similar to Yahoo, as a guide to the web, only using search instead of a directory.
But it always had greater ambitions, as contained in its mission statement: to organise the world’s information.
To do that, Google needs users to spend as much time in its orbit as possible. It wants you to watch videos on YouTube. It wants you to use its smartphone platform, Android. It wants you to buy music and video from its stores. It wants you to use its web browser, Chrome (as it prompts me every time I visit Google.com on Safari). Most important, it wants you to be signed in as much as possible so it can figure out your preferences and interests to sell advertisements against. It used to talk about “open” standards a lot, but now it uses the same strategy book as every other big tech company, pushing its own technology wherever it makes sense to do so.
Facebook doesn’t even try to pretend — you need to be signed in to Facebook to use it, and it takes pains to hide its content from the open web. (Think about how you can’t search for Facebook posts outside Facebook or how difficult it is to find the link to share a post.) Most of its growth over the last four years has been driven by its smartphone app — the ultimate proprietary system that has nothing to do with the web.
The downfall of Yahoo has many chapters. The company missed out on chances to buy Google and Facebook for ridiculously low prices. It installed a media-focused CEO, Terry Semel, who thought that the web would be just like traditional media businesses, missing entirely the point of technological disruption, which is to create something newer and cheaper that eliminates the need for the old traditional thing. By the time Jerry Yang reclaimed the CEO role in 2007 long enough to say “no” to Microsoft’s $44 billion bid, it was pretty much over. Marissa Mayer’s fight to save Yahoo turned out to be little more than a footnote.
Yahoo will now live on as part of Verizon, a telecommunications company that has no particular history on or love for the web, and has taken a pretty clear stand against net neutrality — a core principle of the internet that says no content should be given favoured treatment in terms of speed of delivery.
But the core of Yahoo died a long time ago, and with it, so did a little piece of what made this medium so great in the first place.