The dream of the 1990s internet is still alive if you look in the right corners.
According to data from research firm Comscore, more than 17 million Americans regularly use MapQuest, one of the earliest digital mapping websites long ago overtaken by Google and Apple. The dot-com-era internet portal Go.com closed 20 years ago, but its spirit lives on in the “Go” that is part of the web addresses of some Disney websites.
Ask Jeeves, a web search engine that started before Google, still has fans and people who type “ask Jeeves a question” into Google searches.
You might scoff at AOL, but according to numbers from SimilarWeb, it’s still the 50th most popular website in the US. The virtual world Second Life from the early 2000s never went away and now has a second life as a proto-metaverse brand.
Some former online stars have stayed much longer than we might have expected, showing that it’s possible to live online long after fame has faded.
“These are almost roach brands,” said Ben Schott, a brands and advertising columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. “They’re small enough and tough enough that they can’t be killed.”
A comparison with scurrying beetles maybe not appear be a compliment. But there’s something heartwarming about pioneers who shaped the early internet, lost their cool and dominance, and eventually carved out a niche for themselves. They’ll never be as popular or as powerful as they were a generation ago, but musty internet brands could still have a fruitful purpose.
These brands have managed to stay alive through a combination of inertia, nostalgia, the fact that they made a product people like, digital moneymaking, and oddities of the shaky internet. If today’s Internet powers like Facebook and Pinterest also lose relevance, they could remain around for decades to come.
System1, which owns MapQuest and HowStuffWorks, among others, has a strategy to use advertising messages or other techniques to attract people to its collection of digital objects, convert them into loyal users, and monetize their clicks or other sales. It’s not far from the early 2000’s web strategy of turning “eyeballs” into revenue.
Michael Blend, System1’s chief executive officer and co-founder, said his company spent money on Internet advertising to lure people to MapQuest and also improved its mapping capabilities. Since System1 bought MapQuest from Verizon in 2019, it has added a feature that allows delivery couriers to plan long routes with many stops.
Blend said that Generation X nostalgia or online marketing might get people to try MapQuest once or twice, but that the company wanted to make the site useful enough to keep them coming back regularly. He also said that more than half of the people who use MapQuest are young enough that they might never have known it in its heyday.
Blend is proud that MapQuest has been around for so long. “There are a lot of internet brands that have come and gone and you never hear from them again,” he told me.
I don’t have a good explanation for the resilience of some 1990’s internet properties. People search for Ask Jeeves, even though its owner, internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp, abandoned the English butler name in 2005 and stopped competing with Google Search more than a decade ago. The site, now called Ask.com, is primarily a compilation of entertainment and celebrity news.
A spokesman for Disney, which formerly owned internet portal Go.com, had no solid explanation as to why some of the company’s websites still have Go fingerprints. (The Onion poked fun at Disney years ago.) In general, today’s websites are often built on remnants of the old Internet, like a modern mansion built on the foundations of a 19th-century house.
Schott mentioned something I can’t get out of my head. He said when a once-popular restaurant chain or industrial factory closes, the typical public reaction is sadness at what people have lost. But Schott said that when Internet properties like Yahoo and Myspace collapse or die, it’s often dismissed as a joke.
“There’s an odd glee when tech companies fail that I don’t think happens in other industries,” he said. “I’m not sure what it’s about.”
Maybe that’s starting to change. Nostalgia set in when Microsoft retired its 27-year-old web browser, Internet Explorer, this month. As the Internet ages—and so do those of us who remember its early days—we may feel more emotion for what came before.
Before we go…
China’s eyes on its citizens: An investigation by the New York Times found that surveillance by Chinese authorities is more extensive than previously thought. Police want facial recognition cameras in places where people eat and shop, and even in private spaces like apartment buildings and hotels. Authorities buy equipment to build extensive databases of iris scans and DNA. The goal, my colleagues reported, is “to maximize what the state can glean about a person’s identity, activities, and social connections, which could ultimately help the government maintain its authoritarian rule.”
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Complaints about a decoy and switch: Small business owners say Google convinced them of the company’s free, customized email and other workplace software and is now demanding payment in a process they found clumsy. “It felt unnecessarily petty,” one business owner told my colleague Nico Grant.
Other car companies are jealous of Tesla: Established automakers like Ford, like Tesla, want to sell more of their cars directly to buyers online. One problem: Laws in many states require cars to be sold through dealerships, writes Paul Stenquist for The Times.
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