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Netscape's New Coke moment

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After losing six million subscribers over four years, you'd think AOL would be wary about upsetting the ones who remain. Especially when its new business model banks on attracting the unsubscribed to its newly opened portals.

But a faddish redesign of one of its key properties, the Netscape.com portal, appears to have achieved the worst of all worlds. AOL gave the job of revamping the site to weblog impresario Jason Calacanis, who replaced the concise aggregation of wire headlines and editorially-selected hot topics of the day with a rip-off of the popular headline-swapping site Digg.com.

A core of users "vote" for their favorite headlines, which are wrapped in the pastel shaded rounded rectangles that's the "Web 2.0" style. Many users are furious and it's not hard to see why the exercise has attracted comparisons to Coca Cola's catastrophic New Coke launch.

When something isn't broken, you don't need to fix it, and the old Netscape.com [ example ] was actually a model of effective web design: it delivered lots of information very concisely. You can fit a dozen headlines, or teasers, in one of the new site's pastel-coloured lozenges.

And the mind of this particular crowd offers very little wisdom.

Stories about the latest Iraq massacres, Israel's incursion into Lebanon, and today's Chicago train derailment mingle tastefully with "Hamster Wheel Gone Wrong", "Angry Ken" (... "This is a freakin hilarious blog. This guy rants about all kinds of stuff, and his readers shoot him down constantly!…", we learn) and "Replay the World Cup in the Zidane Head Butt Game".

Further down the page a headline suggests "Humans Are Becoming Genetically Less Intelligent" - and here, Calacanis' new Netscape portal appears to be doing what it can to accelerate the process.

For Nick Carr, the debacle is a sign that the Web 2.0 bandwagon is fundamentally misconceived, calling it "a seminal moment for Web 2.0, or at least the participative media side of Web 2.0".

Digg is only accidentally a "news site" - it's a social activity, a game where people swap interesting bookmarks. Some of the most interesting pages Digg's audience unearths aren't new at all, unless you've been on the web for less than five years. And unless you've got a photographic memory, it can be fun to find them again. The Netscape portal's traditional audience isn't interested in playing a game with the news, it just wants the headlines, and selecting a balance that keeps readers coming back is an editorial skill.

Little of this is new. See our story Gates: PC will replace TV, TV will become a giant Google for an account of the follies of interactive TV.

(Interactivity is valued a lot less than the attention-deficient technology enthusiasts like to think: Lee Gomes at the Wall Street Journal recently compared web comments to incessant chatter in the cinema when you're trying to watch a movie. It doesn't enhance anything, it just gets in the way.)

Technology expands "choice", but the choice becomes a substitute for judgement, both from product designers and media executives. It's easy to blame the nerds in the labs for providing us with remote controls with fifty tiny buttons - they really think that a 2x slow-forward button is just as important as Play - that's what they like to do. It's harder to excuse media executives for losing confidence in their own judgement.

There's a paradox here that's rarely remarked upon, but that underpins this latest installment of the tale.

Militant technology enthusiasts spend lots of time decrying "Big Media" on their weblogs. But no one wants "Web 2.0" to succeed more than these "Big Media" executives, because it's a great excuse for cutting costs.

The rise of cut and paste generic news brought about by the daily free sheets is much more profitable than running a real newspaper. And getting the readers to do the work of the editorial staff is much more profitable than running a portal. As a consequence, Netscape appears to have set itself in competition against the automated junk sites, currently choking Google's search index to death. And, in turn, no one needs Big Media more than the bloggers. Who'd be left to cut, paste, and then complain? ®

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