Dear Chief Mayer,
I was thrilled to hear that you had taken the Yahoo post. Not only because, like so many other women in tech, I’ve followed your career, but because Yahoo!—a company that contains so much of what has made the internet meaningful over the past 20 years—needs a really decisive leader who understands the value it holds for its users.
I have a suggestion, building on those Alexis Madrigal made earlier. Do something radical: Hire an archivist. Not just someone to shuffle around papers in case someone needs them or someone to keep records for your next audit, but someone to help conceptualize Yahoo! for what it truly is: a dynamic and valuable archive that people trust and return to. People have long relationships with Yahoo!, which, in terms of internet properties, this is extremely rare. In order to steer Yahoo into the future, you need to figure out how to treat its past. ( To quote Jason Scott, of ArchiveTeam “History is our future, and we’ve been trashing our history.”) As the Geocities debacle of 2009 showed, Yahoo! Has an ambivalent relationship to the past. It can’t anymore, not if it’s going to succeed.
Three products are still particularly resonant at Yahoo!,despite what seems to have been years of neglect and mismanagement: Fantasy Sports, Yahoo!Groups, and Flickr. Each is an old-timer, internet-wise, and each keeps building in value (what archivists call enduring value) by virtue of its consistency and its constituency.
First, let’s consider Fantasy Sports, and unlikely archive if there ever was one. While everyone will admit that Fantasy Sports is a pervasive part of modern life, an office timesuck and a metaphor for what it means to be a sports fan in a networked age, no one seems to realize that Fantasy Sports is both a legacy product and one that is still relevant.
For example, my partner and his college friends have had Yahoo Fantasy Sports leagues since 2000 or so. (When I asked him, he said he couldn’t remember, because it had been so constant). Their Fantasy leagues have been where they communed despite scattering after college and going to grad school, starting careers, changing jobs, getting married, getting divorced, and having kids. Theirs is an exemplary case, as their Fantasy Basketball message board spawned a blog and two books. As an archivist who has worked with literary collections, I’d appraise the boards, the rosters, and the stats generated in this group as key to understanding the origins of their work.
But even in less exemplary cases, Fantasy Sports leagues are still things that people hold dear. I’m sure you could find thousands of folks who have similar archival relationships with Fantasy Sports, and just as many personal, family and community histories written in message boards, rankings, stats, and trades.
Next, let’s look at Yahoo Groups. My neighborhood in Seattle is home to Madrona Moms, and everyone knows that it’s the go-to place to get the word out about something or find the answer to almost any question. Madrona Moms has been around since 2001, and its archive is its strength. People ask for recommendations for schools and babysitters, they announce their garage sales and block parties, they post during major news events, when their house has been broken into or when the house next door is for sale. Eleven years of these posts results in the most comprehensive neighborhood history you’ve ever seen. It’s the sort of thing historians would kill for.
Yahoo Groups isn’t trendy, nor is it particularly functional. I’ve bemoaned Yahoo’s lack of a decent mobile interface as long as I’ve been a member of Madrona Moms. A Facebook group would have had a cooler set of features, but losing the archive would strip the group of its context. Madrona is full of developers and people in the software industry, people who have worked on local search on Bing and neighborhood-centric products such as Zillow and NextBlock. But I’d bet that all of them turn to Madrona Moms if they actually need to connect or consult with their own neighbors. And once again, there are countless other Yahoo Groups that are as intricate, evocative, and intrinsically valuable as this one.
Finally, the most obvious example is Flickr, a property that Yahoo acquired and then waffled on. Some may argue that Flickr is dead, but I disagree. Although my Flickr stream has thinned out over the past few years, I still see (and am regularly delighted by) uploads from the Seattle Municipal Archives. Not so long ago, in 2008, The Library of Congress itself agreed to partner with Flickr, and henceforth, so many other archives, libraries, and museums have followed suit.
Here’s the thing: in 2008, we were all less conscious of how fragile our digital environs were. In 2012, things are different. Not to mention that our cultural heritage sector has been pretty underserved by tech companies. Libraries, Archives, Museums, and other cultural organizations want to build trusting partnerships. Flickr is unique in that it established trust and cooperation with such a major cultural heritage institution and actually had success with it. Google Books has been an interesting experiment, but it’s been disastrous on many levels, in large part because Google didn’t deliver the leadership the project desperately needed. Cultural heritage institutions are slow on the draw when it comes to internet platforms, but they still trust Flickr over any of it’s much flashier competitors. This trust is hard to build, and if you can salvage it, it will ultimately be beneficial to Yahoo!
Not to mention, Flickr still has the trust of its diehards. For my dissertation, I examined the Wardrobe Remix community as a case study. Established in 2005, there’s 180,000 photos. 7,000 members. It’s a beautiful example of long-term meaningful engagement. It is also, to keep singing the same song, a collection of unquestionable enduring value.
How do you redesign properties that already hold so much meaning and have been a part of your users’ lives for over a decade? How do you design for the future while valuing the past? How do you reengage users who have come to expect only consistency, and how do you bring the message across that consistency is actually no small feat? What’s more, how do you recognize the key role that Yahoo has played in building the social internet and preserve this legacy while still recognizing privacy and maintaining a degree of contextual integrity?
You need an archivist to sit at the table during these discussions. Call me any time.
P.S. Congrats on the baby!