Netscape’s digg-clone not doing so well?

I wrote about the new Netscape site a while ago (back then it was in beta), which was basically a Digg clone meant to replace their traditional news portal site that had been in its current form ever since AOL acquired them. The idea seemed great – copy the basic idea of such a supposedly popular website as Digg, but push it into the mainstream and add editorial control to prevent mob rule. However, as some would say, it looks like they may be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic over there.

It started as a rumbling

Things heated up yesterday, when it was reported that many of the fans of the old Netscape were voicing dissent at the imposition of this new style of news that was more community-oriented. Many didn’t like the new format – they wanted a tried and true format such as the previous portal, where things tended to be more organized. To many people (especially Digg fans), this may seem weird, even somewhat backwards – but whatever it is, it’s the mainstream. Evidently the community-oriented web 2.0-style news site touted by many as revolutionary, is in the minority.

The outspoken leader of the new Netscape, Jason Calacanis, made a quick response, which was also editorially promoted on the Netscape website. (Editors there have a say on which stories get pinned to the top, unlike Digg, where apparently there are no editors.) Here’s a nice quote that summed up his feelings.

Look at it this way: if Geocities could change itself to MySpace before losing it’s marketshare to MySpace you would do that right?

Same thing here, we’re in the middle of paradigm shift from top-down control to bottom-up participation, and when you make a radical change like that you’re gonna get pushback. In fact, I’m really excited to see the pushback because it let’s me know we are on the right track.

Ah, one of the fabled promises and features of web 2.0 – user participation. For some applications this really has succeeded, such as Flickr, and of course, blogging. But what many fail to see is that these trends are not mainstream – not by any total measure. While Flickr certainly is popular, it is by no means the most popular photosharing service, despite offering many web 2.0 features considered by many (including myself) to be useful, time-saving, nifty, or otherwise cool. The same thing goes for blogging – while it seems like the blogosphere is huge, it by no means comprises a significant section of all online users.

Calacanis’ own statements didn’t seem to carry much weight when, soon after, he appeared to be calling for a truce, offering a “professional”, alternate version of the site for the old school crowd. And now, today, he is offering $1000 a month to users of Digg (and other social news sites) to come over to Netscape and post their links to stories/news items there instead.

Making money in the web 2.0 world

At first, such an offer seems absurd. But when you hear some people’s explanations, it makes sense – after all, they would be paid for doing a service, and what’s wrong with that? However, after more thinking, the idea does turn out to be absurd. The new Netscape and Digg are sites that are meant to be community-oriented; supposedly by the people, for the people. If some are getting paid, and some aren’t, that makes things very absurd. At the very least, Calacanis’ offer makes the new Netscape seem very desperate to gain popularity, which it apparently has had trouble doing.

The problem here stems from several factors. Firstly, Netscape entered the game way too late – they are attempting to gain an advantage in a niche market dominated by Digg, Delicious and others – and for many in this market, the idea of “editorial control” turns them off. They want something like Digg, that at the very least gives the impression of full control by the people.

Secondly, while they didn’t fully copy Digg, the parts they did change were not for the better. Besides the aforementioned editorial control, Netscape also aims to serve up stories from all topics, not just technology as the original Digg did. This doesn’t match up with the niche market that the new Netscape is attempting to gain entry into. If Digg users are any indication, the average user is extremely tech-saavy, meaning they’re interested in, you guessed it, tech-oriented news. Even after Digg added other categories besides tech news, tech news still dominates almost all of the news that makes the front page.

Thus, the new Netscape is effectively orphaned some where in between web 2.0 and mainstream, appealing to neither and garnering criticism from both – a sort of “worst of both worlds” situation. This has evidently manifested itself in its less than impressive traffic numbers, and the seemingly desperate actions of Jason Calacanis.

AOL bearing down?

The actions of Mr. Calacanis may not be due entirely to himself. As the guy behind the idea for the new Netscape, which must have been born out of AOL’s desire to increase their ad revenue, he’s facing much pressure to get his baby to produce and be successful. He may be worried about having to take the fall if the site fails. With all the resources of AOL, perhaps it’s no surprise that he’s throwing money in every direction trying to solve the problem.

I sort of feel sorry for him – I do believe him to be an intelligent person, but perhaps just a bit misguided and obviously under a lot of pressure from AOL to produce something popular. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this unfortunate situation, it’s that offering snazzy web 2.0 features does not mean your website will be successful or popular in the mainstream, because, well, web 2.0 just isn’t mainstream.


  1. “worst of both worlds” describes it very well.
    In terms of content, I hate the new Netscape (and most other “bottom-up” news sites). I find that my interests are not well served by the masses, especially when it comes to the political world, where radicals are more present online, and where the left of centre virtually owns the media.

    This type of system allows small special interest groups to hijack the “news”. Take a look, for eg, at the story about the 9/11 “Truth” commission. This isn’t news. This is conspiracy theory. Right up there with Elvis, Tupac, the Moon Landing & Kenneth Lay (which I saw up there last week). Even look at the names of the 2004 presidential candidates named in the article: Libertarian, Green, Write-in and Ralph Nader (Independent). Those guys must be credible. They garnered what, maybe a million votes across the US?

    In terms of the web 2.0 stuff, I wouldnt know. I would definately not categorize myself as tech-savvy, all I can comment on is style. Poor. The ads are too prevalent. I’ve even changed my Netscape homepage. Not that I use netscape anymore. (go firefox)

  2. The problem (or some would say, advantage), of “bottom-up” news sites is that, like you said, they’re very specific to one topic or niche. For some areas, like technology/web stuff, this is good, since most of the stories covered wouldn’t normally be covered by a mainstream news site, so that makes it very interesting to those who visit/contribute to it.

    At the same time, the site becomes very much self-serving. This makes it a poor choice for mainstream news, since most people don’t want to contribute “interesting” stories, but are rather just looking for news media to give them the important stories. Netscape/AOL didn’t understand this; they only saw what could be a cash cow and wanted to milk it – you can see this by the multitude of ads on the site, and how they try very hard to keep you on their site to view those ads.

    You’re very right about groups “hijacking” sites like this as well. It’s been rumoured that Digg is basically run by a group of 60 or so hardcore users, who are the ones who consistently submit stories and usually get their stories to the front page. Once a story gets to the front page, it’s bound to get more diggs and become super-popular. Hence, this group is basically a set of defacto editors. Though, in this case, I don’t have a problem with it, since the quality of stories is fairly interesting in my opinion, so they’ve set Digg in the right direction. But the idea of “community-oriented” and “by the people” is merely a facade, not only because there’s a hardcore group in control, but because most people don’t even want to participate in the submission of stories and are content just to read.

    While I enjoy Digg for the multitude of interesting articles it provides, it suffers from mob-rule far too often – far too often, people who have legitimite opinions that differ from the majority get their comments “modded” down into oblivion as if they were trolls. On the upside, there does tend to be less immature discourse on the site, helping to keep a fairly high signal-to-noise ratio.

  3. My favorite social news site is It’s strictly for gaming, but puts a twist on voting by giving articles a Leet Percentage Rating. Really cool and innovative.

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