I've been meaning to write this article for a while. Now news is out that Jason Calacanis resigned from AOL. This will probably speed up Netscape's demise, but the mistakes that led there were made much earlier. And no, they don't really have anything to do at all with being inspired by Digg.

It's easy to blame Calacanis for all kinds of stuff. He puts himself out there, he isn't afraid of harsh words. And he has this certain kind of East-Coast arrogance that people over here in California don't know how to deal with. But he had a good plan for Netscape: Social bookmarking and collaborative filtering for the masses, complete with editors to add some more background and in-depth information.

He also wanted to pay top contributors in order to get quality links and content. The way he pushed those things forward made many people very uneasy. It was all very well thought-through tho. It just wouldn't work.

I've refered to Alexa charts here before to show that Reddit is becoming more popular than Netscape. Alexa isn't very reliable at all and should only be seen as a sometimes little flunky trend indicator. But that's pretty much all we have publicly available today. Calacanis himself has stated that page impressons at Netscape.com are going up again - something that Alexa seems to echo. But page views aren't equal to participation.

Here's another flunky, anectodical trend indicator: I've been posting links to stories on this blog at Netscape, Digg and Reddit from time to time. I'm not submitting everything - just articles that I feel people might be interested in. It's a practice that Netscape openly encourages, as long as you don't spam or link-bait.

A few times I hit the front page and got lots of visitors. More often than not my stories didn't go anywhere tho. Fair enough, that's what collaborative filtering is all about. But I started to notice something curious early on: I usually ended up getting a few dozen hits for stories that I submitted to Digg or Reddit even when people didn't vote for them. Some users apparently wanted to check them out and make up their mind before they voted. Compare that with the fact that I have been getting close to zero referrals from Netscape.

Now I'm not saying this out of ill feelings against Netscape. Obviously the users that came from Digg and Reddit didn't really help me either in those cases, because they didn't appreciate the article in question. But the only logical explanation that I have for this phenomenon is that Netscape's users don't read newly submitted content and thus don't participate in the filtering process.

You can see other indicators for this by looking at the Netscape site, and especially the different channels. Many of the channels feature top stories with not much more than ten votes total. Even some of the anchor's picks have only been voted on five or seven times. The only notable exemptions are the news and the politics sections, where an article might get a few dozen votes more easily.

Compare that with Digg or Reddit: Right now the top science story on Digg has 600 votes. The top sports story has 235 votes, and the top video has 922 votes. Reddit is a little harder to compare, because it doesn't have that many subsections. Stories on the Reddit home page regularly get 200 to 300 points tho (which might equal many more votes, because you can vote down as well). Netscape's homepage usually only features double-digit stories.

Interestingly enough, Netscape recetly had a huge wave of participation when they asked their users about ways to make the site better. 65 people replied on their blog - and most of them said hat they wanted the old Netscape.com portal back. Here's what one user had to say:

"I really hate the new Netscape format, and want a return to the "old" formula that lets ME decide if we want to go into a story or not. If I want to watch the "News", I'll turn on the TV or Radio, not the Internet, for crying out loud. I resent other people's political biases filling up MY monitor screen. They irritate me, and ruin my day. Just give me a screen that allows ME to choose what I want to see!! Otherwise, Goodbye.....!!"


The comment thread should be considered a must-read for everyone working in online media. It makes you feel bad for the Netscape team that worked months on their new model, only to hear that the majority of users obviously doesn't appreciate it. But it also teaches us an important lesson: You can't force people to be part of a community.

Sites like Digg or Reddit have been building their community organically. They started small and reacted to the wishes of their users. Netscape on the other hand tried to convert millions of existing users to a new, unproven model while at the same time trying to attract new and technical more savvy users from other social bookmarking platforms. As a result they have been both too radical and too tame at the same time - and eventually poised for failure.

Could Netscape have succeeded with a different game plan? There were obviously some other options. Starting an AOL-owned collaborative filtering platform with a new name was one of them. Carefully introducing bookmarking and filtering options into the existing Netscape.com framework might have been another. But with Netscape set up like it is now and Calacanis leaving AOL we'll probably never know.