AOL's purchase of Arianna's International House of Huffcakes earlier this week is sticking in my gullet, and no amount of ratswill coffee will wash it down. I think it's because this deal is emblematic of everything that has gone wrong with the Internet over the last three years.
(Then again, maybe I've just turned into one of those cranky old farts who hates everything. What do you think?)
[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Cringely voices his doubts about another questionable AOL purchase in "AOL swallows TechCrunch -- but can they keep it down?" | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
It's not just about AOL -- never more than a bad joke in even the best of times -- or the Huffington Post. It's bigger than that. It's about how the Web, and especially Google, rewards mediocrity. It's what I like to call The Crappification of Everything™.
The Web has become like television, where if a show is both good and popular it's almost a happy accident. Mostly we get reality TV that's cheap to produce and painful to watch yet still manages to attract lots of eyeballs -- biggest losers, indeed.
When HuffPo launched in 2005, it was unlike anything most of us had seen before. Even if you hated Arianna's politics, you had to admit she'd found a niche with an oddball mix of actual writers and celebutantes, blogging about whatever floated their boat that particular day. It was often terrible, but it was also fresh and new.
What is the Huffington Post today? As I noted in my last post, it's become the Wal-Mart of Web news –- you'll find the pork rinds next to the shotgun pellets and behind the lawn chairs.
What happened? Money happened. Ad dollars started rolling in, but only to a point. Arianna & Co. quickly realized the only way to boost ad revenue was to dramatically increase the volume of posts appearing on the site, and the only way to do that was to hire newbies and have them crank out high-speed rehashes of everything everyone else was reporting, with an emphasis on Google-friendly photo slideshows and celebrity gossip. Sure, the celebutantes and reporters were still there, blogging away for free, but their voices were drowned out by the cacaphony.
Arianna was simply following the old dot-com mantra of Get Big Quick. Become the big fish that the little fish are afraid of. She's hardly the only one.
When TechCrunch first appeared, it consisted of one dyspeptic ex-lawyer giving his candid opinions on Silicon Valley startups. It was something we hadn't seen before –- an inside look at how deals are evaluated and made -– and it attracted a lot of attention and advertising revenue, despite the ego, pomposity, and bombast.
But how many blog posts can one man write in a day? To boost revenue, TechCrunch staffed up and became a tech news/rumor/innuendo site. Though it is still the first place VCers go to spill the beans about upcoming deals (most likely to benefit themselves and/or harm others), it too became another place where you could read about what other people were reporting without having to open a new browser tab.