Yahoo Got Delicious, But…

Yahoo was the number one website, but about to be overtaken by… MySpace. It was 2006. The April 3 issue of Newsweek magazine had as cover story “The New Wisdom of the Web”, by Steven Levy and Brad Stone.

The article features a couple of firms acquired by Yahoo. One was Flickr, which had “a vibrant community built around photos”, and a photogenic couple of founders (they were on the cover of that issue). The other was del.icio.us, built around bookmarks.

Delicious, like the original Yahoo, was about favorite websites. Yahoo started as links to its founders’ favorite sites, then linked to more and more sites, using a hierarchy to organize the links.

Delicious was based on a bottom-up approach. You bookmarked your favorite sites. As you added a site, such as Newsweek.com, to your Delicious bookmarks, you could apply tags to it. For example, you might have applied the tags “magazine” and “deadtree” to Newsweek.

“The central idea is harnessing collective intelligence.” That’s Tim O’Reilly, quoted by Levy and Stone. Delicious certainly did that. Delicious bookmarks weren’t just individuals keeping track of sites for themselves. They were, actually or potentially, the basis for recommendations to other users, communities of users, accounts of interests, and means of targeting ads.

Joshua Schachter, founder of Delicious, left Yahoo in 2008, frustrated at the lack of progress on Delicous after he had sold it to Yahoo in 2005. del.icio.us still exists, having changed hands a few times.

Delicious seems like a particularly striking fumble for Yahoo. It looked like a social successor to the original Yahoo.

Did Yahoo Fumble the Web?

If Fumbling the Web has to be about one organization, that organization should probably be Yahoo!.

But FtW isn’t the story of one organization. The web isn’t a product, like the PC. While Xerox may have had the personal computer within it’s grasp, no one organization can grasp the web in a similar manner.

The web is a platform, not a product. The PC is both product and platform.

Here’s a one-paragraph explanation of the rise and fall of Yahoo!

[T]he only reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted only for a moment. The early internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the internet. Then the internet was flooded was capital and infinite solutions…

That’s from Nicolas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!. It’s mainly a book about Yahoo, despite its title.

The quote implies, accurately I think, that the web presents too many problems and solutions for any one organization to hold securely. So it would be inaccurate and unfair to say that Yahoo fumbled the web in the same way that Xerox fumbled the PC.

It might be more accurate to say that Yahoo stumbled, and never established a firm foothold on any part of the web. So Yahoo belongs in FtW, but is not the tragic hero in the way that Xerox is the “hero” of FtF.

From Fumbling the Future to Fumbling the Web

Fumbling the Future (FtF) is:

  • Terrible! Imagine: you developed or owned certain technology; then someone else somehow took it over; then that tech took over the world.
  • What Xerox did: developed technology for personal computing; then watched as the world was taken over by Microsoft and others.
  • The title of a rather good book that describes what Xerox did and didn’t do.

Fumbling the Web (FtW) is a project similar to FtF. It poses questions such as:

  • Who fumbled the web?
  • How, why,…

I’ll explore these questions in subsequent posts. In the meantime, I really do recommend FtF.