19 November 2022

Elon Musk, before you wreck Twitter, heed what happened to Yahoo! Tumblr & other Internet flops

I watched a TV news report about the upheavals at Twitter, and Elon Musk's plans for revamping it and his firing of more of the staff, which have got a lot of Twitter users in a bit of a tizz, wondering whether their fears that it is about to collapse are justified.

I suspect that a lot of their fears are justified. It has been very common in Internet history for a web site that does one thing, and does it well so that it attracts a lot of users, to be taken over by someone bigger and then wrecked, so that it no longer does the thing that made it successful in the first place. Or if it does do that thing, it does it badly and then flops.

One of the companies that specialised in doing that sort of thing was Yahoo! It was very big and a power to be reckoned with on the Internet about 20-25 years ago. It started off as a search engine, but when Google produced a better search engine they decided to diversify, and started buying up other web sites that did one thing, and did it well. Nothing wrong with that. But then they started to mess with those web sites without apparently understanding what had made them popular and successful in the first place. The list of things they took over and wrecked is a long and a sad one. Here aree some of them:

  • YahooGroups - Yahoo! took over Egroups, a mailing list host, and added a few useful features. Then they installed a new manager who had the brilliant idea of making it more like Facebook, It did what Facebook did very badly, and also did badly at what it had formerly done well -- mailing lists. Eventually groups.io sprang up to replace it in its original function, and YahooGroups closed
  • Geocities - a free webhosting site that had the novel idea of grouping the sites it hosted into communities based on common interests. The people at Yahoo! didn't get the community thing, which helped to make free webhosting profitable, and it collapsed
  • WebRing - another scheme that linked web sites into communities of web sites with similar themes and interests. Again, the people at Yahoo! didn't understand what had made it attractive, and wrecked and then closed it
  • BlogLog - something like WebRing, only applied specifically to blogs and online journals. It was a kind of communal blogroll, and became very popular, which made it attractive to the people at Yahoo! But the people at Yahoo! didn't understand what made it popular, and took that away and tried to replace with with something else, which flopped.-
Yahoo! lost an enormous amount of goodwill through this, and is now a shadow of its former self, and now Twitter users fear that something similar will happen to Twitter. Let Elon Musk study what happened to Yahoo! and learn from its history before he repeats their mistakes.

There have been plenty of other examples; they are not limited to Yahoo!

There was Technorati, a kind of communal blog tagging site. You could visit the site to see who had tagged particular themes in their blogs, and when. You can do something like that with search engines, but Technorati was much more efficient. You could find the most recent blog tags on a topic. But the people who took over Technorati had the Facebook mentality. They wanted people to stay on their site. Facebook doesn't object to people going to other sites if the owners of those sites advertise on Facebook, but if you post a link to a blog post on Facebook, Facebook will show it to very few people unless the first few people react to it by "liking" it. Technorati tried to do something similar, which was totally counterproductive. People went to their site to see what blogs had similar tags. The new owners tried to get people to stay on their site by providing articles to rival the blog posts, which they simply could not muster the expertise to do. As a result, people stopped visiting their site. They did one thing well, got greedy, and stopped doing the one thing they did well, and tried to do something else badly. Elon Musk, take heed! It doesn't work.

Another example is Tumblr. It offered a lot of attractive features. E-mail posting, blog aggregating, and so on. At one time I used to put my Tumbler address in my email signature, because I could tell people that if they went to Tumblr they could see all my stuff, It had links to all my recent blog posts on other sites too. But none of that works any more, and as a result I haven't visited Tumblr for months, perhaps years.

I'm not saying Twitter can't be improved. It does one thing well, but it could do it a lot better. Its algorithms, for example, can be enormously frustrating to users, and create a very bad user experience (#UX). So Twitter users have to spend quite a lot of time and energy trying to work around the algorithms, and resent being manipulated by them. The current crisis has helped to make a lot of Twitter users aware of a rival outfit, Mastodon, which is algorithm-free.

But before making changes, make sure you understand why people who use Twitter are there, and don't alienate them in the hope of attracting others -- Yahoo! Technorati and Tumblr tried that, and failed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, 

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