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Five people are easy to overlook. During the monster furor over AOL's purchase of Netscape Communications last week, the five folks were lost, jutted up against sound bite statistics like "$4.2 billion in stock" and "14 million subscribers." But the fate of these five the full-time staff of one of the Net's most ambitious, communitarian efforts will stand in testament to the increasingly tricky balance between experimentation and co-optation online. Can a swarm of volunteers be bought?
A week before AOL nabbed Netscape, the latter bought a small, alternative search engine called NewHoo.com for an undisclosed sum. Run by just five employees, the folk take-off on Yahoo! launched this summer with a simple rallying cry: "Link Different." NewHoo was both a business and an ideology: The concept was to let volunteer editors now some 5500 people select the sites for inclusion in the search engine. Anybody could be an editor; nobody was paid for their contributions.
The purchase came as an enormous vote of confidence in NewHoo's communitarian model the Net's progressive politics in action. Netscape renamed NewHoo the "Open Directory Project" (ODP) and grouped it with "Mozilla" (mozilla.org), its own "open source" software development project. (Like NewHoo, hundreds of volunteer programmers have contributed to the new Mozilla browser, slated for release next year.) Before the sale, NewHoo on its own didn't have enough traffic to pursue advertisers. Now the editors' links would appear on the massive Netscape's "portal" page, Netcenter.com.
But NewHoo's success could prove to be its unmaking. Now that longtime underdog Netscape has been bought by the titan AOL, NewHoo editors are concerned that their best intentions (and free work) may be turned into the private company's gain. Tom Tobin, a NewHoo editor who oversees the "Ambient," "Gothic," and "Industrial" music sections of NewHoo, calls the current situation "barely tolerable" and fears that AOL, with its "horrendous" reputation, could ruin the service. "If AOL interferes with the spirit of NewHoo in any way . . . even if they try to affix their label to it, I will resign," he wrote in an e-mail. Janet Berg, who manages many NewHoo categories (for free), is waiting to see just how AOL treats the service. "It was a grassroots effort . . . a different option for people," she says. "I was volunteering to get that off the ground if it becomes commercial, I will not contribute."
NewHoo cofounder and CEO Rich Skrenta, one of the five paid employees and now an engineer at Netscape-qua-AOL, attests that "the model won't change." That means splitting the service in two the ODP site and a "mainstream and conventional" service on NetCenter. "We're trying to preserve the indie-rebellion version of this," he says. The ODP site will stay nearly identical to its previous incarnation and will remain ad-free. "We don't want to gunk it up," Skrenta says.
But of course, nobody knows quite yet just what will happen once AOL takes a close look at Netscape's open source projects, Mozilla and the ODP. Hard to believe it will continue without some alterations. Imagine a major TV network buying another with a public access channel in tow do they really want the baggage? In a document titled "Fear and Loathing on the Merger Trail," Mozilla.org head Jamie Zawinski addressed this question last week. With Netscape acquired, "what does that mean to mozilla.org?" he wrote. "Hopefully, it will mean nothing. . . . It's hard to imagine that [AOL] would spent $4 billion on Netscape just to throw away the client."
But as James Love at the watchdog organization Consumer Project on Technology (cptech.org) in Washington, D.C., points out, AOL doesn't need to kill the ODP to make it irrelevant. The simple fact of new corporate ownership might do the trick. The ODP and Mozilla worked when people believed they were contributing to something outside of business interests and conventional thinking. But with AOL involved, volunteers might steer clear. "People are saying, 'Gee, we felt good when Netscape released the source code [to their browser] and we could modify it,' " he says. "But now people are reading the fine print in the licensing agreement for 'AOL.' " They trusted Netscape, he says. Now they ask AOL, "Why should we trust you?"
It's hard enough just to generate the social and technical momentum necessary to get nonprofit projects off the ground. Earlier this year, folks from the humming, all-volunteer tech-news site slashdot.org ("News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.") tried to create a "non-goal-oriented" contributory-directory called "Everything." But despite a loyal following, the contributions "leveled off," says the indefatigable Slashdot creator Rob Malda. "But that was our fault," he adds. Technical snafus stymied the system. "The machine couldn't stand it and we couldn't stand it," he explains. (The directory is down now Malda says they are "fixing it fundamentally.")
Meanwhile, Slashdot itself, like NewHoo, is looking more and more like bait for bigger fish. Run off a slim advertising budget, Slashdot serves up an impressive 300,000 pages a day, with headlines and stories written by readers in the form of postings (each item brews up a skein of raucous discussion). Slashdot's Malda, however, won't consider selling the service. "A lot of people have offered and it's the thing I like to do most in the world," he says. "But I'm not willing to let somebody take it because . . . I would not give up complete creative control." As it stands, he likes the smaller profile, an option NewHoo no longer has. "People just stumble on it," he says. "It keeps the crazies out."