You may have missed it in the publicity surrounding America OnLine’s acquisition of Netscape, but just before that Netscape purchased a little-known Web directory (or subject guide) called NewHoo!. Offering an alternative to the world of Yahoo! (run by one company and its staff), NewHoo!’s mission was to create the same kind of directory guide but do so in a very unique way. NewHoo!, now re-badged as the Open Directory Project, uses thousands of volunteers around the world to keep its directory updated and useful. The directory resides (and appears that it will continue to reside) on Netscape’s Open Source development Web site, mozilla.org.
The most amazing thing about this project is that it works! Some people would instantly assume that you couldn’t possibly have thousands of people all working on the same thing at virtually the same time without people overwriting each others’ work, getting into heated arguments about the value of X resource, etc. Yet the Humans do it better attitude seems to not only work, but works relatively well for this startup. While it may take a few more months and thousands of more hours on the volunteers’ part to flesh out its categories, most are becoming well-rounded and full of the kind of useful information people are seeking online.
The NewHoo! Community Directory Service was founded in 1998 by Rich Skrenta, Bob Truel, Chris Tolles, Jeremy Wenokur and Bryn Dole to provide the largest and most comprehensive directory of the Internet. It currently lists over 105,151 sites in 24,455 categories compiled by a volunteer staff of over 4,740 international editors. That’s a lot of people working to try to help categorize and better index the Web. A lot more than any single organization or business could muster to do the same job. Ideally, this will make the directory much more current than other online directories (which sometimes have weeks and even months of lag before one is included). More current information means higher-quality Web browsing.
This directory, and its placement in the Open Source part of the Netscape organization, should help ease some concerns about Netscape’s Smart Browsing feature (which can be easily turned off) and help supplement Netscape’s own portal site, Netcenter. (Smart browsing allows a person to type in a single word into the location field of their Web browser and find what Netscape claims are the most relevant sites related to that word. There has been some controversy over this feature, leading Netscape to allow users to disable it if they choose.)
What does AOL do with this kind of directory? Hopefully keep its hands off of it and allow it go about its business, to see whether it is successful on its own, or dies by lack of interest, editor infighting, or some other unforeseen means. Nor should Netscape seek to simple extend its Netcenter site into the directory, or dilute the power of its volunteers. Instead, both companies should work to keep the directory free, open, and noncommercial. It is through innovative ideas like NewHoo! that the Web continues to grow and surprise even the most cynical online users.
Perhaps a model for other future successful online endeavors? I think so. Delphi has been working with this model for over a year now, allowing ordinary users to build extensive online “communities” through their site. Others seem to want to join suite, including search powerhouse Excite. Such empowerment of ordinary folks who have some free time to contribute and collaborate is another step toward the Web fulfilling its human, not technological, potential.