Yahoo Answers has informed millions about the wrong thing to do in any situation, but it cannot answer its own questions: What now? The company sold itself to Verizon Communications on Monday, and somewhere Alanis and the rest of the Nineties are crying. The deal is already fait accompli: the company whispered “Why not” in the mirror and threw itself onto the meat hook of purchase. Reflecting on the fact of Yahoo, and the nature of its decline, may reveal facts about our own era, and the way we use the Internet now.
What makes the deal especially resonant is that Yahoo and AOL are both going under the same umbrella. Verizon bought American Online for a cool $4.4 billion in 2016. That’s two of my 1996 Internet Explorer shortcuts now dwelling under the same roof.
“Yahoo,” writes Brian Solomon for Forbes, “was once the king of the Internet …”
“King of the Internet?” Why in the fresh, ice-strewn hell anybody would covet that title unironically amazes me—but it is one of many mad transactions from the Yahoo back-catalog. Solomon goes on, telling us that Yahoo was “a $125 billion behemoth as big in its time as Facebook or Google are today. Now it’s being sold to Verizon for comparative chump change.” $4.8 billion, to be precise. (Their estimated assets are $48 billion.)
Yahoo had a longer life than AOL, and the more enduring relevance. Years ago, as Forbes reports, “At the height of the [tech] bubble, [Yahoo] spent $4.5 billion to buy GeoCities and $5.7 billion to buy Broadcast.com, but would later reportedly squander the chance to buy young versions of both Google and Facebook.” Its glory days coincided with the moment Americans bought modem-having computers, which is similar to being Rockefeller when oil became necessary. And yet here we are. The what-happened aspect is too big to pass over in silence.
Yahoo is the Kissinger of web companies: it refused to pass away, even when everyone knew its time and power had passed. Of course, as a portal, the Web company is still popular and well-known; Yahoo News is, according to reports, the most widely-read news website in the world. It ranks sixth in the globe, they say. Three members of my family have Yahoo mail accounts. Without thinking much about it, my life is intertwined with Yahoo and its child companies. I won our Fantasy Football League on Yahoo Sports. Yahoo is a relevant concern for me and millions of people. But for a company that was once the Internet company in the heady days of the Clinton Presidency, Yahoo being slotted into another multinational’s mosaic is the last hoedown of the Nineties.
You might ask, why would anyone, including the theoretically sober investors backing Verizon, fork over legal tender for the distressed and faded remnants of yesteryear’s online? This is like sending Chuck Berry to Coachella—right now. Why were the garage-bound hard drives of Prodigy and CompuServe not bought as well? Would you sell your eyeteeth for Webinars? Is ICQ not open for auction?
But the difference here is that Yahoo is still a viable company, with traffic numbers which competitors would murder for. It’s just not what it was. Prodigy has the virtue of not existing, so there can be no comparison. Yahoo is a company worth billions, but those billions are in the shadow of its old potential, which somehow seems more drastic than non-existence. It’s the ancient Star Wars Prequels paradox: is it better to not have and never know, or to have and be disappointed by imagining what could have been?
Solomon called Yahoo “iconic” and “pioneering,” and it was. It was the only portal worth mentioning before everyone else got in the game. The first marriage of functionality to friendly, non-horrible design. Somehow, Yahoo got there first.
Nostalgia is death, and must be avoided at all costs. But it’s worthwhile to consider where Yahoo came from. Whatever Windows 95-epoch jokes you can make about Yahoo, the company has you beat: they bought the Frappuccino, they did the Webinar. Yahoo is one of those zeitgeist-bearing pillars which is so firmly entrenched in a time and place that it is beyond parody.
Yahoo had a magazine at one point: Yahoo Internet Life Magazine. Did you know that? The honest-to-God acronym was YILN. That’s where we were, at that point in 1995. Now? Four years ago, Yahoo had to buy Tumblr to retain hipness—they purchased it, headcanons, otherkin, and all. For $1.1 billion. Yahoo was a powerhouse that used to have Shaq on YILN’s front cover. Shaq. You all know the kind of pull it took to bring in all fifteen yards of Shaq: ample. Yet only eighteen years later, and they’re buying nested comments about Superwholock.
There are two basic facts to keep in mind about Yahoo. One, it was the first runner in the Web portal dog race that was worthy of attention. Second, only the Nineties could have taken Yahoo seriously. Whatever work went into building the first directory, Yahoo wasn’t a triumph of art or programming: it was just the most trustworthy face at the right time. Their cash let them buy their way into good companies, but at the start, it was the phone book with better graphics. Yahoo wasn’t even much of a search engine, just a long list with a “Control + F” button attached. There is something stupendous in the original success of Yahoo, something Bushian and inexplicable.
Coming of age as an American corporation is a rough business, no matter who you ask. But the legend of Yahoo was deep and wide, a river flowing half of the lifetime of the Internet. In so many ways, Yahoo was the Smashmouth of its time: a company we all look back on with some fondness, born from its cultural ubiquity and innocent charm: what in the hell was the world thinking, in other words? The engine poured out of Stanford like mall cologne from a pickup artist’s top hat. Jerry Yang and David Filo didn’t invent search, but they had a hierarchy of sites. Yahoo launched in April 1994. Since this was the nineties and ADD diet-speed medication was being airdropped across the country according to Federal mandate, Yahoo’s stock price Everested. Which is why we’re still talking about it today.
It was an age of flush cashmoney, and the derangement of coin is restless violence to the rational faculty. Visions and wild oaths about the info-superhighway abounded. If there was a documentary about the Nineties Internet, this is the point where the narrator would intone: “… It was the time of Yahoo.” In the era before BuzzFeed, we weren’t aware of the one simple trick to do anything. There were no listicles: we didn’t know thirteen things: we knew two, maybe three things, tops. Dogs and cats founded corporations together and made millions. At that time Pets.com was a viable stock and Goldman Sachs was “respectable.”
Yang and Filo and their company were ambassadors to the future, and the future cut them in twain. The remedy for Yahoo’s high-ass stock price turned out to be time. Just as swiftly as they’d been lifted up by the market, they were unloaded: the stock hit bottom in 2001. In 2008, Microsoft had a real fever for Yahoo—they may have seen the company in a flattering trick of the light—and propositioned them with all kinds of flowery language and filthy monies. Deliverance!
But 2008 was a year of hideous mistakes for everyone everywhere; so naturally Yang fought them off, since Yahoo had such a perpetual big future ahead of it. Google had been digging their grave for years, but the owners of Yahoo decided the hole wasn’t nearly deep enough and decided to hug the abyss closer. Years of groovy dissolution would follow, as the company—like the Von Trapp children—desperately sought after a good boss. CEOs were traded out, then just as quickly tossed on the meat pile. Executive science is the craziest of all business sciences, and so the process did not go well. They wanted something else, to get them through this semi-charmed kind of life. And so on, until Verizon.
What Yahoo offers us, looking back, is both a sense of how the Internet was—never innocent, but certainly clueless—and it shows us the directions the online world might have taken, before it became the second captive moon of Earth, and the darling of Wall Street.
David Weinberger, an evangelist for Internet Triumphalism since the old days, wrote two years ago that in the early days of the Net, “if the march of the Internet’s new values were not unstoppable, then it would surely be stopped by our age-old inclinations and power structures.” Today, he says, “In short, my fear is that the Internet has been paved. You can spend an entire lifetime on the Internet and never feel its loam between your toes.” Facebook and cultivated gardens of its ilk are Weinberger’s chief antagonists in his story. It is not that Yahoo is a fossil of a wilder frontier—Yahoo, after all, was one of the original pavers. It was that back then, sites like Yahoo didn’t know what they were doing. Every couple of years, a new search engine came by to supplant the old. You could imagine a world where one set of companies didn’t predominate.
In a Vice oral history of the original Weird Internet site Something Awful, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, the founder, said that most of his original writing was:
Parodies of wonks who were saying the internet was the future without saying, ‘Well there could be a possible downside to the internet.’ I’m obviously not a visionary, but I predicted that the internet would be shitty back in 1999. Everybody was talking about how the internet was going to revolutionize everything and everything was going to be great, but nobody ever talked about how shitty the internet could also be.
Kyanka wasn’t exactly right: the Internet isn’t shitty, it’s just much different than we thought. Maybe it was inevitable that the Internet became a combination of ironic humor, hub of information and shameful gossip passing as news, shameless shill-haven, gaming node and weird church. Perhaps it’s even best that these things happened; that’s the nature of democracy—it has room for everybody. The Internet is the reason I’m typing these words, so I have no reason to scorn it. But Yahoo caught in amber a gee-whiz moment of sincere bafflement over what the online world could be, and do, and promise, that is hard to explain (and certainly difficult to separate from the Nineties, which, after all, were only twenty years ago) but is easy to remember. Don’t get me wrong: by 1997, the Internet was already a huge train wreck of everything wonderful and unspeakable in the human heart, but there was nothing obvious and institutional about it. Even the posting of ancient Dickens novels was an occurrence worthy of Gutenberg being born anew. Yahoo, as much as any other group of toilers in that digital field, represent the early days of overrated money and wide possibility. We’ll always have GeoCities.