How Yahoo Became an Internet Villain



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.


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