Technology and Society
April 17, 2016
Want to buy a classic piece of internet history? A dorky-looking link-heavy platform that will remind some of us of our youth, spending hours on Netscape thinking “wow, this is way cooler than Gopher.” Yahoo goes on sale today. Though it’s an antique, you probably can’t afford it.
Or maybe you’re too young to have fond memories of clunky internet directories. Chances are, Yahoo is simply an annoying piece of malware that rides in when some sadistic site requires you to download Java and you’re in a rush and you fail to uncheck a tiny box and suddenly your browser keeps going to Yahoo and you tear your hair out trying to make it go away. You might want to buy Yahoo so you can smash it to bits with a hammer.
I happen to use Yahoo daily. No, I didn’t get stuck with that annoying malware (at least, not lately), but for years I’ve belonged to a book discussion group that has been running on Yahoo Groups since 1999. Mostly, I get posts routed to me by email, but the platform had quite a strong set of functions for creating databases, storing files, sharing photo albums, sending out polls, and giving moderators tools to keep a community humming – until a disastrous upgrade in 2013. It looked old-school and had its glitches, but it was far more functional than Google Groups, didn’t require hosting like the venerable and still functional listserv software, and wasn’t as dead as USENET. It reportedly had 115 million users in 2010; no word on how many gave up in despair when Yahoo decided to make it look more like Facebook. (Note to tech companies: never, ever try to be more like Facebook. Facebook has cornered the market on being like Facebook. You’ll never catch up, and you’ll lose whatever you do that’s worthwhile in the process.)
But I’m not just using their geriatric bulletin-board-like Groups, I frequently use Flickr to find creative commons-licensed or public domain images and I’ve posted some of my own there (though not many since they decided to redesign it and the load time became glacial). I use Tumblr to keep a stash of articles on privacy, even though I’ve never totally understood how the social side of Tumblr works. Yahoo bought Flickr a decade ago and spent over a billion to acquire Tumblr, which is now worth $230 million less. That kind of business acumen is a tradition with Yahoo. In 1998, the company turned down the chance to buy a new search engine from two Stanford Students named Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and in 2006 reportedly came close to buying Facebook but got cold feet during the bidding. Whatever happens with this sale, the CEO will walk away either millions or tens of millions. Buying and selling stuff on a giant scale is where the money is, these days. Doing it badly doesn’t seem to matter.
There’s something unsettling about having so much of the content I care about generated by millions of people who do it because they want to share stuff dependent on platforms that are worth billions, but never enough to keep shareholders satisfied – or worth so much the company doesn’t know what to do with all cash except buy up other platforms and the talent they rode in on. It’s the same discomfort I feel when I think about the fact that five corporations control the publishing of half of science research journals and three-quarters of social science journals. Coming up with sustainable ways to build and run platforms big enough to not fail is really hard. If you succeed and create a valuable platform, someone with deep pockets may buy it and rip its soul out.
Clay Shirky famously argued in Here Comes Everybody that we used to live in a world where little things were done out of love but big things could only be done for money. Thanks to the internet, he believed, we could now do big things for love. Lovely thought. But most of the things we do for something other than money are still small things created by a large number of people, donating those small things to platforms that suck in petabytes of love (and personal data), and become in the process so big they are too valuable to do anything but seek more value.
What’s love got to do with it? These platforms are too big to fail without losing a big piece of our collective culture. We need to find a better way of sharing what we love.