Netscape served as the midwife at the birth of Web 1.0. Now, in what would be a lovely ironic twist, it may be the undertaker at the burial of the Web 2.0 hype. A few days ago, Netscape turned its traditional portal home page into a knockoff of the popular geek news site Digg. Like Digg, Netscape is now a “news aggregator” that allows users to vote on which stories they think are interesting or important. The votes determine the stories’ placement on the home page. Netscape’s hope, it seems, is to bring Digg’s hip Web 2.0 model of social media into the mainstream.
There’s just one problem. Normal people seem to think the entire concept is ludicrous. Wrote one: “I don’t want other people voting on what I should read first. I want to see major national news stories and then, if I want to know about entertainment or sports or whatever, I can click a link … This new format is awful. What if the New York Times decided to have readers vote on where things should be placed in the paper? What a disaster. If this is how it will be from now on, I’m changing my homepage.” Richard McManus sums up the situation in a post titled Netscape Community Backlash: “There appears to be a genuine feeling of betrayal by the (very large) set of users who have had Netscape.com as their homepage for some time.”
My guess is that the reaction is less about betrayal than sheer bafflement. Here is what a Netscape user looking for a quick news roundup will find listed as the current top five “hot stories submitted and voted by you!”:
1. Documentary: 9-11 Didn’t Happen as We Think It Did
2. Star Jones Reynolds Sorry for Wedding Spectacle
3. Noah’s Ark Found!
4. Opinion: Bush Guilty of War Crimes
5. Petition to Have New York Times Press Credentials Withdrawn
This isn’t a news site. It’s a junk drawer.
Netscape is now backpedaling. When you go to Netscape.com, you land initially at a “welcome” page headlined “What’s going on with Netscape.com?” You’re then given a distinctly unhelpful five-step “tour” of the new home page (with the assurance that “a more detailed Tour of the new site is coming soon”). When you then continue on to the actual new home page, there’s a big yellow box headlined “Attention Netscape users” that explains how you can find the old Netscape features you’re used to.
Netscape seems to be assuming that once it educates its users about the mechanics of the new site, they’ll suddenly “get it” and start reading and voting on a bunch of goofy news stories. But this is a misreading of the mainstream. What the mainstream wants is – duh! – a summary of the top news stories of the moment. That’s it. “What if the New York Times decided to have readers vote on where things should be placed in the paper?” Only a very narrow slice of the population – the Web 2.0 true believers – would view this as anything other than a rhetorical question.
The best way to prove that a niche product is a niche product is to toss it into the mainstream and let it sink.