Netscape to community: You're evicted

As Netcenter's forums fall casualty to AOL-merger cutbacks, participants mourn.


Janelle Brown
April 6, 1999 10:03PM (UTC)

When Netscape officially launched the community area of its Netcenter Web site, just over a year ago, it proudly issued a press release proclaiming its dedication to fostering friendships. "Netcenter Professional Connections is designed to spark lively discussions and give people from all kinds of businesses, large and small, access to exciting and worthwhile dialogue," the release spouted. And: "The key to establishing community on the Web is to enable people to associate with others who have similar interests, concerns and careers."

Netscape's Professional Connections community employed "notable industry observers and consultants" -- well-known technology journalists, Web developers and community builders -- to direct conversation on topics ranging from "Sites That Work" to "Web Culture" to "Tech News Today." As a result, the forums fostered a tight community of tech-oriented chatters whose conversations were a bit more focused and close-knit than you'd typically find on open Web discussion boards.

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But last Wednesday, with no warning, the forums were abruptly turned off, the hosts let go, and the community members left to wonder what, exactly, happened to their home. The demise of the community is a byproduct of the AOL takeover of Netscape, but that doesn't help the community members whose online hangout has been suddenly shuttered.

"There's a lot of annoyed users out there. This is not a responsible way for a corporation to run online communities," says Elizabeth Lewis, who until last week was one of the Netcenter community hosts. "Those of us who are in community building for the long haul are concerned about how Netscape did this. It's not so much that they shut the community down -- although I don't think they gave the forums enough of a go -- but it's how they did it."

The Professional Connections forums have undergone several changes since they initially launched in March 1998 -- including a site redesign last November that widened forums so that they were focused on Web development ("Netscape was trying to broaden the scope of the community, trying to be more of a full-service portal, in order to more widely compete with Excite and Yahoo," posits Julie Polito, a former community host). The "Professional Connections" moniker was replaced with the more general "Netscape Community Forums," ostensibly in an attempt to draw a more diverse crowd of people. And some of the high-profile hosts, who were paid $500 a month for their efforts, departed.

Still, the members who chatted daily in the Netscape forums -- and host and member estimates put that number in the low thousands -- found it an exceptionally valuable place to hang out online. "It was more intellectual than most communities, in my opinion. The topics were quite deep," says Nellie Vrolyk, a microbiologist from Canada who participated in the forums for over a year.

"I learned quite a bit from the hosts and was able to take some of those skills and implement them on my site," says John Einhorn, an information systems manager from Indiana who used tips and connections he made in the e-commerce forums to build his online store, The Cap Shack. "This was the first type of online community that I was interested in -- most seem to degrade to sexual innuendos after three questions. It was a refreshing change."

When AOL purchased Netscape in November, however, most of the community members and hosts suspected that changes were inevitable. As expected, Netscape soon decided that it would be letting some of the hosts go and consolidating the forums from 20 specific topic areas to just 6 general ones. That redesign took place on Friday, March 26, and though many of the community members grumbled about the changes, a lot still stuck around.

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Just six days later, however, the entire forum system closed its doors without warning. On March 31, the remaining six hosts were informed that the communities were being shut for good. Netscape issued no press releases or newsletters informing members of the change; instead, the hosts had to scramble to post quick notices in the forums telling the Netcenter members what was happening before the bulletin boards became inaccessible. (Right now the front door to the forums is not working, but determined members can still get to the forums by using Web addresses that bypass the site's frames. However, ex-host Lewis says she's been told the forums will be completely shut down on
April 9.)

"The shutting down took us totally by surprise," complains Vrolyk. "There was no warning ahead of time -- I think Netscape should have said, months ago when AOL bought the company, that the forums might be shut down. Then we could have prepared for it."

Instead, the community members were suddenly homeless. Netscape made no attempt to redirect them to a new space to continue their community or friendship; in fact, Netscape gave no official explanation for the decision at all. And although two former community members immediately launched a private bulletin board system elsewhere on the Web -- poignantly named "A Place for People Who've Lost Their Nethomes" -- to house the bereft community, it has proven difficult to locate all the old members and lurkers from the Netscape forums.

"I'm really disappointed, but I know it was a business decision on AOL's part," says Polito. "The problem with community is that it's a personal thing, but when it's done by a company it's also a business thing. People get hurt."

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Why did Netscape suddenly shut down the forums, only six days after relaunching them? The official response is a non-answer. "The forums have been a great first step in the community area. We're looking to move towards the next level of creating community on Netcenter," says Julie Herendeen, director of programming at Netcenter, who promises that more "robust" communities will be announced in upcoming months. "We want to provide a better platform for providing community on Netcenter. To do that we need to transition from what we have today to our next generation."

Others are more blunt about the reasons for the removal. "It would compete directly with AOL; that's probably why Netscape killed it," says one former Netscape executive. In fact, he says, the community areas were a neglected portion of Netcenter since day one. "They just thought, 'Oh, we'll build a community.' But a community has to be integrated into the total system -- it became orphaned as a concept. They couldn't hook it into anything else on Netcenter."

The former hosts agree with this assessment. "Netscape liked the idea of community until it realized how much it costs. It didn't realize that if you just put up a forum without hosts, it will end up like Usenet, just junk," says Lewis. "The company wanted to have something that attracted professionals, and to do that it hired hosts -- but it put up the forums, and never advertised them, and never promoted them. So how the forums are supposed to have grown is beyond me."

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If Netscape never learned how to take care of its community areas, it's now looking to AOL for inspiration. Herendeen says of AOL, "They were community pioneers. We are looking at leveraging the resources and expertise of AOL, together with what we have with Netcenter, to create new community offerings." Any new Web forums that Netcenter develops will likely be integrated with AOL's new online community efforts, which were previewed last week; although AOL is famous for the chat rooms and bulletin boards on its proprietary service, it still lacks any cohesive community areas that are open to the entire Web.

But not everyone is thrilled to hear that Netscape plans to mimic the community-building techniques of AOL.

Many of AOL's chat rooms, for example, are famous for their breeziness and sex-heavy conversation. And unlike Netscape, AOL hasn't paid the majority of its community hosts; instead, thousands of volunteers coordinate the chat rooms and bulletin boards, and serve as community leaders that offer specialized advice to the members -- a tactic Lewis calls "strip-mining idealism." Netscape's former community hosts suspect that the cost of their salary may have been a factor in the community's demise. (Herendeen denies this: "That really didn't factor into the decision ... there may be areas [in future communities] where we will want paid hosts or guides or moderators; you do get a higher quality of interaction in that situation," she says.)

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Besides the simple issue of reimbursement, community leaders from AOL have other gripes about AOL's lack of respect for its communities, as documented by sites like observers.net, a news outlet for disgruntled AOL community leaders. More than once in recent years, AOL has abruptly shut down big community areas without any warning. After all, what are a few thousand disappointed community members when compared to the millions of people who come through AOL's systems every day? The departure of Netscape's idealistic community would be a tiny fraction of the member churn that AOL regularly undergoes.
And the community areas, after all, are just one victim of the AOL takeover of Netscape. Over 500 Netscape employees were let go on April 1, and countless projects were brought to a halt. "Netscape is killing everything, everyone is really upset. People there are so depressed they can't even think about anything," says one observer who visited the offices last Thursday.

One of the most prominent complaints about the changes afoot at Netscape was written by Jamie Zawinksi, the force behind Netscape's Mozilla.org project. He quit the day of the Netscape layoffs and immediately posted a scathing critique of the changed Netscape on his Web site.

"The company stopped innovating. The company got big, and big companies just aren't creative. There exist counterexamples to this, but in general, great things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is," Zawinski wrote. "The company I helped build has been gone for quite some time."

Apparently, many of the disappointed members of the community forums now agree with Zawinski's assessment. Although both Einhorn and Vrolyk aren't boycotting Netscape -- Vrolyk laughs that she is still using the Netscape browser -- and say they would consider returning to Netscape's communities if they reappeared in the future, Einhorn says he isn't hopeful that positive communities would return. He worries that any future communities would end up resembling the teen- and sex-laden chat rooms of AOL.

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Sighs Einhorn, "To me, the forums were the heart of the Netcenter. It's like they had open-heart surgery and yanked it out. The pulse is gone."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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