Netscape’s junk drawer

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 Petition to Have New York Times Press Credentials Withdrawn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.

11 thoughts on “Netscape’s junk drawer

  1. Mark Devlin

    In addition to the issue of the quality of filtering most mainstream users simply don’t have the time to do the extra work of filtering news for other users. Isn’t Web 2.0 supposed to save you time?

  2. Zephram Stark

    You don’t need Web 2.0 to do a straight vote on articles. In fact, you don’t need the web at all for such a simple reduction method. To vote, you don’t even need a computer. People have been voting for hundreds of years and it’s always been one of the most God-awful methods of determining an outcome. Voting is nothing more than tyranny of the largest faction. Some people, myself included, believe that voting is closer to despotism than the average dictatorship. That’s why my country, the USA, was founded on something better: government by consent of the governed, which it implemented through a republic of independent states, counties, and townships.

    Voting doesn’t work because it assumes that preference and consent are the same thing. It also assumes that the views of each voter are equally useful to the desired outcome. The desired outcome at Netscape is to make the stories that are most interesting to the most readers easiest to access. A useful contributor would be defined, in this case, as one who can discern which stories readers will find most interesting. The advantage of measuring this usefulness with modern technology is that we don’t have to make a judgment call; we can gauge the fitness of a contributor for a particular task based on objective measures, weigh his opinions appropriately, and auto-reassess them in real time. When the New York Times can achieve this level interactivity with their readership, it will be in their best interest to welcome it.

  3. Shawn Christopher

    Digg 3.0, Who needs The New York Times? Well a few people feel the New York Times doesn’t matter anymore anyways, so the question becomes are people afraid of change OR are people more interested in the fact that it’s an “OH NO!!! AOL Property”? That’s what the metajournalism is for, if something interesting happens they can post, promote and override what is currently on the page at the time.

    At the time of writing this there is an article on the Shuttle Launch, A train wreck in Spain, and North Korea going to Nuclear War if Attacked…now the New York Times has about the Ex-GI that raped that girl in Iraq, Senator’s Plan B Creates Quandary for Democrats, and Tapping the Power of Barnyard Waste. Now the article about the Ex-GI was already on the Netscape homepage, and probably moved off due to lack of attention. The New York Times doesn’t care what you want to know…they tell you want they want you to know. Netscape allows you to join in what the rest of the world wants you to know, which should be the top stories anyways. The New York Times doesn’t have that flexibility…

    Remember also the New York Times has a popular page…sadly it’s burried on the top tabs and not in the center of the page…to grab your view. It seems as if alot of people are now just complaining about Netscape because it’s an AOL Property and not for any real value. BTW you can always get back to the old Netscape by going to http://www.isp.netscape.com/

  4. migurski

    And yet, Digg continues to serve up news to crowds of enthusiastic readers & diggers, blissfully unaware that the format doesn’t work. I’ve always believed that the success or failure of such ideas is only marginally about the implemenation, and mostly about the participants. Digg’s users care about what makes it to the front page, and use their votes accordingly in a happy mess that probably shouldn’t be mistaken for journalism. Netscape.com’s readers couldn’t even be bothered to change their default homepage, so how can they be expected to embrace the new format?

  5. Phil

    I had a minor revelation the other day: it’s still a geek Web. Or: there’s still a geek Web, and it’s still making a lot of the running. And we’re all seeing the world from inside it (even you, Nick).

    More here.

  6. Tish Grier

    ah, poor Netscape! Just another pathetic attempt to pander to the “citizens” without understanding anything about their habits. Sure, lots of folks love Digg–but Digg’s (still) a geeknews site that aggeregates a specific type of content for a specific group of people. Trying to graft that concept onto a site meant to serve a group whose reading habits are more broadly defined was wrongheadded from the start.

    So many media businesses are looking for any sort of kitschy, trendy effort to reach “the people” in an effort to shore up their failing business models. I’m so glad “the people” are using web tools to let Netscape know their new people-pleaser doesn’t please at all. That’s the power (and one important purpose) of conversation on the web. Yes, “the people” have a voice and are willing to use it.

  7. eszter

    Both techies and journalists who report on all this need a reality check occasionally, and it looks like the release of the new Netscape.com was just one such instance.

    As I noted in a recent talk where I presented findings from a big survey of college students, even people among the most highly wired generation (100% are Internet users, most are online several times a day) less than 2% use digg and less than 1% use del.icio.us. They are also not big participants in the so-called blogging revolution with only 1% ever having visited DailyKos or InstaPundit and just 1.5% ever having visited Boing Boing.

  8. Dan Ciruli

    LOL. Right now, the context sensitive ads on the right side are giving me the opportunity to buy junk drawer organizers. I guess someone at Amazon needs to write a metaphor filter.

  9. Creamer

    So far I haven’t seen it do so … I mean I seem to loose more and more time trying to find what I was looking for. Like the other day I was trying to find some groomsmen gift ideas and it took me half an hour to find something relevant. – so I guess it’s time to ask: what did Web 2.0 did for me?

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