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Future Tech: 

12 dead websites that exploded then faded

You can tell times are tough. Who puts their traffic on a chalkboard?

You can tell times are tough. What kind of internet company puts their traffic figures on a chalkboard?

Sunrise, sunset. The internet is a fickle beast, and today’s champions can be forgotten in no time at all.

While Google, Buzzfeed and Amazon seem untouchable today, here’s a walk down Memory Lane to remind you of some other sites that were too big to become also-rans… or worse. The fact you might need to jog your memory emphasizes that that objectively wasn’t the case.

Here are 11 dead websites… while some may not be dead yet, they’re certainly on their way to breathing their last in traffic terms.

1. Digg

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Can you digg it? Yes, but your website probably won’t notice the effect nowadays.

Remember Digg? You probably do, given it still exists – but its a much weaker force than it once was. In the mid 2000s the term ‘Digg Effect’ was coined to describe the phenomenon of ill-prepared websites collapsing under the sheet weight of Digg referral traffic. In 2008, Google nearly bought it for $200 million, yet in 2012 after years of decline it was bought by Betaworks for just 0.25 percent of that.

What went wrong? Some blame that old website friend the advertising dollar, some a truly terrible redesign that hemorrhaged traffic overnight. There was also a fairly prominent scandal involving widely spread gaming of the system for political and financial gain.

Others say Facebook and Twitter stole the social news thunder, but that doesn’t explain the continued success of its main 2000s rival, Reddit. Still, speaking of sites that blame Facebook for their decline…

2. MySpace

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That guy looks familiar. (image: Rivistastudio.com)

Were you a friend of Tom? Quite literally the face of MySpace would add you as soon as you joined the social network to ensure you weren’t alone and friendless in the brave new world of friends lists and posting photographs.

At its peak, it attracted 75.9 million monthly unique visitors, and used to be owned by News Corp who purchased it for $580 million.  For a brief period in 2006, it got more US traffic than Google, but that… didn’t last. Newcorp sold it to Specific Media Group and Justin Timberlake for just $35 million in 2011, and it’s still regarded as a relic of the early days of social media, no matter how many redesigns it takes.

Even everyone’s first friend in 2005 Tom (real name Tom Anderson – a co-founder) doesn’t use the site anymore. Don’t worry though, his social days aren’t over:

Et tu, Tom?

3. GeoCities

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Remember when every site on the internet looked a bit like this? That font and color palette takes us back.

If you wanted to build a website in the 1990s, GeoCities provided hosting and easy tools to make your mark on the web. And most of the marks made were pretty damned gaudy. Popular though: in 1999, Yahoo bought GeoCities for $3.57 billion… in stock. Knowing how Yahoo has faced a similar decline, they probably would have preferred the cash.

GeoCities was closed in 2009… except in Japan, for some reason, where it’s still available. GeoCities just got a lot more localized.

4. LiveJournal

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Dear Diary…

For those with even less technical coding skill, there was LiveJournal. A sort of hybrid blogging platform and social network which allowed you to share your thoughts with the world… or at least people who added you as friends.

It’s still alive now, but much smaller than it was. Even an invite-only system when it launched in 1999 couldn’t slow its initial growth. Nowadays it wishes it had that problem. Blame the growth of other social networks, WordPress and the introduction of adverts in 2006 for its slow leaking of members.

5. AltaVista/Lycos/Excite

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Interestingly, Alta Vista’s own BabelFish translates the name as ‘High View” from Spanish and ‘High Sight” from Italian. WHICH IS IT GUYS?

Remember when the phrase ‘googling something’ wasn’t synonymous with search? If not, consider yourself lucky. Early search engines were pretty poor at finding things. They also didn’t believe in minimalism, as the screenshot above proves.

AltaVista itself only closed down in 2013 – about five years after most people had last paid it a visit. At that point it was owned by Yahoo, due to an acquisition of another company that owned it. There’s a certain symmetry to that: in 1996, Yahoo made AltaVista the exclusive provider of search results for Yahoo. Sunrise, Sunset.

6. del.icio.us

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Mmmm. Bookmarking.

Social bookmarking is kind of a forgotten term now, but del.icio.us was an early runner in doing it well. It allowed you to bookmark webpages publicly, to share them for others. In some ways Reddit and Digg are the same thing, but this was less news focused.

It’s still around, but has been sold on a number of times. Yahoo purchased the site for somewhere between $15 and $30 million back in 2006, but sold it to AVOS Systems in 2011, who in turn sold it to Science, Inc. last year. They plan to keep the site “largely as is”, which means it’s unlikely to reach the highs of the 5.3 million members it boasted back in 2008. But hey, at least they won’t redesign it to a faster death.

7. Google Answers

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I mean, yeah, sure I could do that. But I could just… Google it?

This one wasn’t anywhere near as big as the others, but remains an interesting curiosity. For a time Google, the owner of the search engine that allowed you to research anything in the world at the tap of a keyboard, had a service where you could pay others to research something for you. Bounties ranged from $2.50 all the way up to $200, and Google limited the number of people who could answer questions to an approved network of Google Answers Researchers – of which there were ‘more than 500’.

Astonishingly, when it closed in 2006 it was still getting around 100 questions per day, though how many of these were nonsense or spam is anybody’s guess.

8. Second Life

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Where the media thought everyone on the internet was in 2005. Spoiler: they weren’t.

For anyone reading scare stories on how Oculus Rift will send people hurtling into addictive virtual worlds that take over their real life, just remember that lazy feature writers have been drinking from that well for some time. First there was Second Life, which did exactly what the title suggests, although, in truth, not as brilliantly as the journalists writing about the dangers of it would claim. It was written about so much that it often popped up in popular culture – including in an episode of The Office.

All this exposure hasn’t really translated into active users though, and while 15 million people have signed up, in 2008 Kotaku revealed the real number of simultaneous users was just 68,000. In 2013, the company reported 1 million monthly users, but Gigaom noted that 400k of those were new sign-ups who invariably give up pretty quickly.

So while online gaming is booming, Second Life is not. Which is why references to it in popular culture are slowly drying up.

9. Heat.net

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The heat is…. On.

Speaking of online gaming, here’s Sega’s early foray into multiplayer gaming, which CNET described as one of the ‘greatest dotcom disasters’. Using the technology that would later be bought by GameSpy, players would pay $10 per month to play the likes of Quake 2, Kingpin, Balder’s Gate and Red Alert. Players would also earn ‘degrees’ (like degrees of heat, y’see) for various things which could be spent on games, computer bits and pieces and magazine subscriptions.

And that’s where the problems possibly started.

As recorded by Wikipedia, one of the ways players accumulated degrees was for spending time connected to Heat. Players would leave their computers connected, not playing games all day and night, scoring $4 per day. The site tried to police it a little more looking for ‘idling players’, but clever ones got around this by using Starcraft over a fake LAN, meaning the admins wouldn’t be able to tell if they were playing or not.

Even reducing the value of degrees by 80 percent couldn’t save the site, and it was rolled into SegaNet. Which itself wouldn’t last too long after the Dreamcast died.

Nowadays the domain is nothing to do with online gaming, and deals with air conditioning and ventilation. Which… makes a lot more sense.

10. BabelFish

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Translate up to 150 words! It might take a while to check whether War and Peace was done right.

Today, Google will translate pages for you while you wait in Chrome, but back in the days of AltaVista (see above), the search engine tried to set itself apart by releasing BabelFish, which would translate small portions of text instantly.

Instantly, not perfectly. And small portions meant 150 words (apparently so as to avoid copyright claims from lawyers the world over, outraged that their clients’ intellectual property had been translated into barely readable prose). The BabelFish, of course, is a reference to Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – in the book, the Babel Fish was a literal fish you’d put in your ears to instantly translate any language.

When Yahoo absorbed AltaVista, it became Yahoo BabelFish, but translation alternatives became pretty common and more effective. Even Yahoo accepted this eventually, and redirected BabelFish to Microsoft Bing Translator, leading Wikipedia to stamp it with ‘Defunct’. It’s safe to say BabelFish has been given the traditional pet fish burial: flushed.

11. Ask Jeeves

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Ah Jeeves, there you are. Can you tell me when Siri will be ready?

Remember when the internet was a more genteel place, and your inquiries for knowledge could be directed to a well meaning British butler, rather than broken down into likely keywords? That’s Ask Jeeves, you’re thinking of.

It was never the most popular search engine because… well, there’s no nice way of saying this. Jeeves wasn’t very good at his job, as this hilarious interview with the man himself shows.

Ask is still around – it dropped the Jeeves part of the name in 2006, retiring the venerable butler, before dragging him back kicking and screaming in the UK three years later. So much for the quiet life.

12. Million Dollar Homepage

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That’s what a million dollars looks like. A bit garish, really.

In 2005 a student and aspiring entrepreneur came up with the ultimate ‘Get Rich Quick’ scheme. Alex Tew built the Million Dollar Homepage, and sold each pixel of the 1000×1000 homepage for $1 each. Astonishingly, people did and Tew made $1,037,100 in gross income. That’s not bad accounting – he sold the last 1,000 pixels on eBay. As you do.

The site is still there, and you can go and marvel at the range of advertisers you may or may not have heard of who literally bought into the craze. Interest has died down now, but Tew will doubtless not care. He made his million and if there’s ever been anyone who literally ‘laughed all the way to the bank’, it was probably him.

Last year, The Guardian ran a piece on the Million Dollar Homepage revealing that 675 of the 3,066 links point to dead sites. If that’s not a warning tale about the follies of throwing money at fads, we don’t know what is.

All images via Way Back Machine, unless otherwise stated.

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