What does it take to make a buck off of Usenet?

Unable to turn a profit as a geek hangout, Deja.com has recast itself as a consumer-oriented community.

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's a woe familiar to anyone who has ever redesigned a popular Web site: As soon as that sparkling new look goes live, a cacophony of complaints from disgruntled users begin. For every fan that loves the redesign, there will be two who feel it is their duty to inform you just how much the new site "sucks."

This is certainly what the venerable institution of Usenet access, Deja News, discovered when it unveiled a new look and name last Monday. Besides dropping "News" from its name -- and thereby ditching a clever pun for obliquity -- Deja.com has redefined its purpose. No longer satisfied to serve as a nifty Usenet interface, the new Deja.com is angling for a more commercial identity, combining discussion areas with a participatory product ratings service a la Consumer Reports. As the site's introductory page posits the goal: "Discuss ... decide ... purchase. These are the most powerful uses of the Internet and no one else offers them to consumers in an integrated, democratic environment. Power to the people."

The make-over was instantly skewered on geek-centric mailing lists, Web sites and -- of course -- Usenet newsgroups. On the Slashdot "news for nerds" site, the changes spurred more than 200 posts lambasting those in charge for turning Deja News into just another "portal," with the "look, feel, and functionality of AOL's newsreader." On alt.fan.dejanews, the "fans" went berserk, complaining that the redesign "makes it more difficult to actually do the one thing they're good at -- retrieving Usenet information."

These posts were, of course, from some of the most tech-savvy (and reliably nit-picking) of Web citizens: the Usenet users, programmers, and geeks who have for years used Deja News as the best way to search a deep archive of Usenet postings. It was these hard-core Usenet junkies who made Deja News so popular -- but they are not necessarily the target audience of the new Deja.com.

"Our goal is to be meaningful to any Web user," says Deja.com vice president of marketing Deborah Newman. She concedes that the company's best efforts to drive the site's core visitors to proprietary community areas has not enticed them beyond the Usenet archives. And community is what Deja.com is now pushing.

Long based on an advertising model, Deja News hasn't been profitable. And after observing the rampant growth and investor enthusiasm for online communities like theglobe.com and GeoCities, the company decided to shift its strategy.

In December 1998, Deja News hired a new CEO -- Tom Phillips, the former president of several Starwave ventures -- and moved its headquarters from Austin, Texas, to New York. It doubled the number of employees and promptly began an evolution from "a technology-driven company to a media company," as Newman describes it. One of the top items on the company's new "to do" list was to expand the number and type of visitors -- to appeal to the kind of mainstream crowd that has made America Online the most successful service online.

"The Usenet core group is a pretty well-defined group," says Newman, "but there are millions of new Web users every day who don't know what Usenet is." Since Deja News was founded in 1995 by Steve Madere -- a Usenet junkie who wanted to create a more convenient entryway to these public domain bulletin boards than downloaded news-reading software -- the site's aim has been to make the tangle of discussions easy to navigate. Today, it boasts four years worth of Usenet discussion archives -- innumerable pages of content, messages, and postings comprising an indescribable wealth of information.

Now Deja.com wants to take its traditional ease-of-use one step further, turning the site into something less geek-centric and more consumer-friendly. The front page is now framed with the motto "Find it. Rate it. Discuss it." And the Usenet discussions areas are less prominent than the new "ratings' area, which encourages visitors to rank online brokers, sports stars and -- yes -- hair growth products. Currently highlighted is: "Rate your dog: love your golden retriever, lab, or border collie? Tell us why, or rate other breeds."

Most references to Usenet have been eliminated, and although certain technology functions have been improved -- including message trackers and thread diagrams that help you follow specific discussions -- the main interface has become more opaque. In order to get to an actual Usenet post, you now have to click through page after page of search boxes and untitled messages. To post to Usenet at all, you'll have to become a Deja.com member. The pages are stuffed with ads and marginally relevant rating boxes -- visitors to alt.politics.homosexuality, for example, are asked to rate the late-night TV show "Politically Incorrect." Most ratings are designed to drive traffic to e-commerce partners; in the Palm discussion group, ratings boxes lead potential buyers straight to a "Deja Shopper" area where they can pick up new or used personal digital assistants.

"From a business standpoint, I have to straddle that line between making the site a consumer-friendly mass appeal site, and not losing our traditional users," says Newman.

But can such a plan -- appealing to both hard-core geeks and mainstream Web shoppers -- succeed? For anyone who traditionally turned to Deja News for a quick and easy search interface for Usenet, the new Deja.com is kludgey and commercial. No surprise, then, that the old Deja News fans are displeased by the changes.

"People go there to view Usenet articles; now it's mired in these areas called forums, community, threads, etc.," says Jason Tiscione, a daily Deja News user and programmer who has criticized the changes in alt.fan.dejanews. "Is a forum a newsgroup, or one of Deja.com's own communities or what? There's 10 different terms they use for different things, and it's all their own terminology."

Many of the technology lovers complained about the new "Power Search" interface, a redesign of Deja News' svelte search function, which allowed you to hone and refine specific searches. The new search page is cluttered with ads and polls. Displeasure with it was so great that within days of the redesign, several different users produced Web-based interfaces to Deja.com that mimicked the former Power Search interface.

"At its core Deja News is still an excellent Usenet archive and a very useful tool for me," explains Marco, a Ph.D. student of atmospheric physics who publicly posted a new interface to Deja.com. "I just wanted to bypass all the crap, which I did to some extent by making my own personal 'gateway.'"

What's to prevent disgruntled Deja News users from departing Deja.com and heading to its competitors -- such as RemarQ or Talkway? In alt.fan.dejanews, many posters -- including several staffers from these competitors -- have posited the benefits of turning to these alternative Usenet access sites. But Deja.com's advantage is quite simple: it has the most comprehensive archive of Usenet articles out there.

"There simply is no other service like it anywhere," explains Jeremy Nixon, a systems administrator from New Jersey, who also produced an alternate interface to the site. "If there were, I'd be trying it out right now. Deja will keep their users simply because they have that archive."

Are the Deja News fans who are protesting the changes simply reactionary geeks who resent any kind of commercial clutter on their favorite sites? Maybe so. But who can blame them for resenting the commercialization of a sleek utility service? Their ire is also indicative of the tension between geek credibility and mainstream profits that is likely to afflict any site trying to make it big in this money-obsessed Net industry.

Although Deja.com claims to have 4 million daily users, that's still nothing like the bigger portals. And, if a story recently reported by MSNBC is true, Deja.com wants to go public -- an endeavor which might be difficult for a niche site catering to Usenet users.

Arguably, Deja.com is still making an effort to cater to its core constituency of tech-heads. Deeply buried in the new Power Search page is an option to display your search results in "Deja Classic" format, an exact replica of the old interface. Newman insists that Deja.com is still "built by Usenet users for Usenet users" -- despite the fact that the site doesn't refer to itself as a Usenet service in any way.

"If we can give the existing users what they want, and add new features that the other users are responding to, why would our existing users be angry that we're expanding our user base?" she asks. "We're a business; the way Web sites these days make money to stay in business is through advertising revenue or ... through compensation for being a resource that links to other commerce sites."

Try explaining that to the peeved Deja News fans. Sure, they can still access Deja.com through their own hacked interfaces, but it doesn't disguise the fact that even the most geeky of hangouts are going commercial. These days, very few online services are immune to the money bug -- but it's how you transition towards profitability that counts.

Sighs Marco, "I can understand that Deja News needs the advertisements, but I'm sure there is a more sensible way of doing this. Others have done it! What they did was not only overkill, but badly designed overkill at that."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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