How the historic company became known as a bumbling villain of internet culture
Yahoo Answers is not what most people would call a good source of information. On Monday morning, the top questions on its homepage, as decided by its users, included whether the Democratic Party would eventually initiate some kind of genocide, whether Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were really in love, why small dogs were “the most aggressive seeming,” and “What’s the last thing that entered your nose by mistake?”
Still, when Yahoo made the unceremonious announcement earlier this month that the site would be wiped from the face of the web on May 4, with little explanation beyond the fact that “it has become less popular,” there was a general outcry and a wave of nostalgia. The Verge gathered up “the best” material from Yahoo Answers’ 16 years of operation, including such classics as “Is it illegal to kill an ant????????!?” and “Is there a spell to become a mermaid that actually works?” BuzzFeed eulogized a website that “died as it lived, needlessly and stupidly.” Twitter was crowded with screenshots; one popular email newsletter started a series of commemorative illustrations. “Yahoo’s still out there doing what they do best: deleting an unimaginable amount of internet history with 30 days’ notice,” tweeted Andy Baio, a web developer who worked at the company from 2005 to 2007.
When Baio was at the company, Yahoo Answers was one of the biggest things it had going. “The volume of activity was extraordinary,” he told me. “This doesn’t mean it was good quality; a lot of it was always questionable.” But deleting it still means scrapping a huge archive of the ways that people look for and try to provide knowledge. Baio had already watched a website that he’d made and sold to Yahoo, called Upcoming, get marked for death with less than two weeks’ warning in 2013. Over the years, the company has rubbed out GeoCities, where many people made their first bonkers-looking personal websites; Yahoo Groups, where a generation joined their first listservs and forums sorted by subculture; and all the NSFW content on Tumblr.
Plenty of tech companies make acquisitions and then shut those acquisitions down. Plenty of tech companies dispose of “user-generated content” without fanfare. And plenty of tech companies get dragged for holding on to users’ information a little too tightly—even when they ought to be erasing it. Yet one tech company in particular has been made into a running joke, and has sparked genuine outrage, over bad decisions, indecipherable motivations, and seemingly bottomless disregard for the feelings of people who have shared something on the internet.
A spokesperson for Verizon Media, Yahoo’s parent company, told me in an emailed statement that customer needs had changed during a time of “unprecedented demand for premium trusted content,” and that Verizon would be investing in “professionally-produced content and high-quality journalism.” She declined to comment on the choice to pull down Yahoo Answers entirely, rather than archiving it.
After almost 30 years in business, Yahoo has come to be known as a straight-up villain. According to Ian Milligan, an internet historian at the University of Waterloo, the company’s most notable characteristic at this point is “the sheer amount of destruction they’ve done to the historical record.” Whether or not one company really deserves to hold that reputation on its own, this latest dustup indicates that Yahoo is not about to change its ways.
Once upon a time, Yahoo was young and filthy rich. Founded in 1994 by Jerry Yang and David Filo, two Stanford classmates, the site was the first portal to the web for millions of people. Before the dawn of search engines, it functioned as a directory—and a guide—to the amorphous everythingness of online, making the internet feel manageable, even homey. The site’s ad revenue swelled and swelled, through the dot-com boom and beyond, from $70.4 million in 1997 to $3.5 billion in 2004.
By the end of the 1990s, though, the internet was starting to change. Yahoo was looking for a way to fit in with Web 2.0, where static pages and gate-keeper-funneled attention had been displaced by community-generated content and interactive tools. Being filthy rich, Yahoo decided the obvious answer was to buy a bunch of companies. “They had a huge appetite for social apps,” Baio said. “They knew for them it was a cheap way of getting content that they could put advertising on.” Let the users make the pages, then rake up all the money.
Yahoo’s first major acquisition to this end was GeoCities, in 1999, for $3.6 billion. “They paid over $100 per GeoCities user, and that’s still one of the most expensive deals in internet history,” says CJ Reynolds, a doctoral candidate and media researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who considers herself a lifelong Yahoo fan. Reynolds has studied the relationship between GeoCities and Yahoo, and the culture clash between the site’s existing users and the corporate giant’s business interests. (Following the sale, users led a huge, successful boycott called the “Haunting” to protest Yahoo’s terms of service.) Ten years later, after a series of failed integrations and lackluster attempts at synergy, Yahoo abandoned ship. The cost of maintaining GeoCities’ extremely simple webpages is difficult to know, but it was likely small, Reynolds says. “Shutting down GeoCities was a way to shut down a product that looked old, dated, and still wasn’t strongly associated with the Yahoo brand.”
In 2005, Yahoo went on a Web 2.0 buying spree, picking up Baio’s event-calendar site, Upcoming, as well as the photo-sharing app Flickr, known for its exuberant user community, and the bookmarking site Delicious, which mainstreamed the idea of letting people write their own tags and organize their own content. Maciej Ceglowski, a web developer who was hired by the Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake to work at Yahoo’s in-house incubator, told me he remembers feeling like he was in the “late Byzantine empire.” At that point, Yahoo had a ton of history, a ton of wealth, and nowhere to go.
Then Ceglowski paused and started a new metaphor: “You know those 1950s Jell-O molds where it’s clear and there’s a raisin over here and a chicken leg over there? That was kind of what Yahoo was. Embedded in it were these little things with no clear plan or connection.”
In 2011, Yahoo sold the raisin that was Delicious to the YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, who later pawned it off to a marketing company, which sold it to an SEO-optimization expert, who sold it to Ceglowski in 2017 for just $30,000. “Now it lives as a museum,” Ceglowski told me. (Flickr was sold to a company called SmugMug, which started mass-deleting photos in 2019; Baio was able to buy Upcoming back from Yahoo in 2017 and has preserved an archived version.)
In fact, Yahoo’s bad reputation may be thanks, in part, to the fact that it had such a good eye for acquisitions 15 or 20 years ago. It kept buying things that people really cared about, cool companies that could have had more interesting futures if their founders hadn’t sold them to a megacorporation that would eventually pull them from public view. Ceglowski started a third metaphor with a sadder tinge: “Yahoo put everything behind glass, locked the door, and then walked away,” he said. Then he laughed. “I hope to buy them one day, that’s all I can tell you.”
Before Yahoo Answers disappears, a group of volunteers will try to archive tens of millions of its questions and responses. The Archive Team, an ad hoc group led by the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott and loosely affiliated with that organization, has hundreds of people running a specialized program on their computer to open millions of individual pages and save them as compressed-web-archive files, in a format called WARC. But Scott’s team doesn’t even know how many pages there might be. So far, it has managed to store 110 million questions and their answers. “I’d love to get them all, but we’ll never know,” Scott told me.
It helps that the Archive Team has previously rescued so much Yahoo content. The team’s biggest and messiest preservation project was in 2009, when it tried to save GeoCities. “That was incredibly difficult,” Scott said. “We didn’t know how big it was. It turned out it was eight terabytes. We only got one of them and it took us nine months.” The most recent large-scale effort was on behalf of Yahoo Groups, bolstered by members of various fandoms who were highly motivated to save their fan fiction. “I can’t stand when things just disappear,” Doranwen, one of the leaders of the Yahoo Groups Fandom Rescue Project, told me. If Yahoo Groups was a burning building, she ran out with thousands upon thousands of pseudonymous stories from the Lord of the Rings, Sims, and X-Men communities. Then she helped other fans save 300,000 more groups. (She asked to remain anonymous, because she is a teacher and doesn’t want her students to know her fan-fiction pen name.) “This is our history. We created this information in all this detail.”
The whole situation is kind of funny, but only because it is so bleak. Yahoo made its first fortune from ads placed on its own static webpages, then attempted to make its second fortune off of ads placed next to the things that people posted. Opinions may vary on whether that means Yahoo owes it to those people—or to posterity—to maintain those posts forever. But even if the company has chosen to abandon all the material on Yahoo Answers, Yahoo Groups, and GeoCities, you’d think it might at least do something to help the archivists who are trying to preserve that content in their free time.
That’s not the case. Yahoo could provide basic information to the archivists, such as how many posts or pages there are in total—but it doesn’t. It could also try to stop the volunteers from getting automatically blocked. When hundreds of computers start pulling up pages that haven’t been accessed in years, Yahoo could see that as an attack, and a drain on the company’s resources. In practice, the archivists often find themselves locked out for big chunks of time as they rush to do their work. This was a particularly bad problem with the Yahoo Groups rescue project, because Yahoo Groups was made up of millions of different sites, Scott said. “It slowed down our process, and we were on a tight deadline.”
A Verizon Media spokesperson declined to tell me why the company has been unwilling to address the volunteers’ concerns, and pointed me back to the need to focus on “premium trusted content.” That’s understandable, in a sense. Scrolling through the percolating conversations on Yahoo Answers confirms that much of this material is less than premium, at best. But the company has now decided that it’s junk. People like Andy Baio can’t forgive that casual disregard for the historical value of the stupidest stuff, mixed in with the sublime.
To Yahoo, a question—“How is babby formed?” or “Can babies see ghosts?” or “Am I too old to have a baby?”—is the same thing as a moment on the stock ticker, or an AP headline popping up in a sidebar, or a weather widget, or an ugly font. “To them it’s indistinguishable,” Baio argued. “If people aren’t looking at it anymore, then you shut it off.”
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