Quick, what was the most important internet company of the 1990s? There are several legitimate contenders, but any list that didn’t have Yahoo at or near the top would be woefully incomplete. In the pre-Google era, Stanford pals and Yahoo cofounders David Filo and Jerry Yang organized the teeming World Wide Web into an easy-to-use directory. Then they turned their hobby into a company and built it out into the definitive “portal” site, with email, news, games, and a whole lot more.
In 1998, Yahoo introduced Yahoo Clubs, an easy way to create a community about any topic. Two years later, the company acquired a competitor called eGroups, which had beeen cofounded by Google cofounder Larry Page’s brother Carl. Yahoo merged it with Yahoo Clubs and called the results Yahoo Groups.
A Yahoo Group let its members share photos, polls, and files, create a mailing list, and—above all—commune with kindred spirits. And people did, in vast quantities. In 2001, there were 3,194 Yahoo Groups about food and drink, 1,968 about musical instruments, 4,685 about movies, and 2,159 about alternative medicine. Looking back at my archived email from early in this century, I see that I joined a bunch of Yahoo Groups, including ones about pop music, cartooning, and apps. I still belong to one about classic comic strips.
But having created something popular, Yahoo did something that has long been typical Yahoo: It didn’t do very much with it. In fact, I hadn’t thought about Yahoo Groups in years, until I read a story yesterday by Vice’s Jordan Pearson. It reported that Yahoo will freeze Yahoo Groups in its current state on October 28. Then, on December 14, it will do a wholesale deletion of content uploaded to Groups over the years.
Yahoo Groups won’t vanish entirely. According to Pearson’s article, Yahoo says that basic mailing-list functionality will survive—and that, in fact, the whole move is an attempt to focus on the features users care most about. But all public groups will be made private, preventing the kind of inviting exploration that was once part of Yahoo Groups’ appeal. The service won’t ever be what it once was, and much of what it once was will be gone from the historical record. (Administrators do have the ability to download archives of their groups before the lights go out.)
As a business decision, this is the most logical move imaginable. Since 2017, Yahoo has been owned by Verizon, which probably didn’t stop to think that it was acquiring Yahoo Groups along with an array of other Yahoo services. Verizon has sold Flickr and Tumblr and generally lost interest in large chunks of Yahoo that had far more vibrant communities than the already borderline-moribund Yahoo Groups. The time to devote attention to Yahoo Groups was 15 years ago, when it could have been the basis of a plausible rival to Facebook—which, thanks to its own Groups feature, is now home to the special-interest communities that once gravitated to Yahoo.
But by not only cutting off Yahoo Groups from new uploads but also deleting a couple of decades of existing material, Verizon is eradicating a meaningful chunk of the internet’s collective memory. The Yahoo Groups archive is an irreplaceable record of what people cared about in its heyday. If it survived, it would only grow more valuable with time. Even if it’s an albatross, it’s one that deserves to exist, frozen in time.
To be fair, even if Verizon is being irresponsible, it’s just doing what big companies have always done to user-generated content when it becomes a distracting hassle. Eleven years ago this month, AOL killed its Hometown website hosting service, and a year after that, Yahoo got rid of GeoCities. Those two services, which predated Yahoo Groups, were similarly rich repositories of stuff created by real people. Now, the only proof we have that they ever existed are pages rescued by the Internet Archive and other admirable folks. (I fully expect to live long enough to see Facebook announce that it’s pushing the delete button on at least some of its old content.)
Of COURSE Archive Team is going to go after it. We will take a huge-ass snapshot, and people will lose ALL the functionality of access, search, reference. That's the price that's paid – we turn things into snapshots instead of reference books and living things.
— Jason Scott (@textfiles) October 16, 2019
The good news is that Jason Scott, who would deserve the Nobel Prize for Internet Preservation if there were one, is talking about trying to save Yahoo Groups content. Still, the fact that Verizon-owned Yahoo sees its own history as waste material worthy only of disposal makes me terribly sad. I vividly remember the first time I logged onto the World Wide Web, circa late 1994, and the first site I visited: Yahoo. I have been grateful to the company ever since, which is part of why I take this so seriously.
In the brick-and-mortar world, we don’t let businesses demolish landmarks just because they own them. I don’t expect there to ever be similar historic preservation laws for the internet. But it would be nice if a big, profitable outfit like Verizon—which can surely come up with the bucks to subsidize Yahoo Groups’ continued existence—acted like it cared.