Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tribute to Yahoo's Jerry Yang

Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, has severed his connections with the company, pushed out by advocate stockholders and others fed-up with his poor leadership. And they're right. He's done little good for a very long time, and his company has, under his watch, squandered vast potential. He's been made a fool of. But I want to discuss an earlier time.

It is impossible to explain to anyone who wasn't online in the early 90s how critically important and amazing and trailblazing and invaluable Jerry Yang's Yahoo was at the dawn of the web.

The Internet evolved from a loose aggregation of academic computers which were, for years, gleefully scaled by tech-ish people in a spirit of sheer geeky brio. There was a gradual transition to the Internet we know today: an inviting glossy service where everyone we know dives in and gets anything anytime. Tim Berners-Lee's browser was the technological key, but Yahoo was the human key.

Back in the mid 1990's, non-geeks would ask me what I actually do on the internet. Until Yahoo, there was no satisfying answer. Then Yang and David Filo built a directory of interesting places to go and stuff to do on the Information Highway. We take for granted such online directories these days. But at that moment, it had never been done before. Online people didn't need it; they had their nerdy agendas. And newbies weren't exactly flooding into cyberspace. The Internet was still a cold and forbidding environment, and Yahoo made it warm, inviting, and super-cool. This is what you can do on the Internet! Very soon after, the flood of newbies commenced. The two phenomena were not unrelated.

If Yahoo hadn't built their directory, someone else surely would have. But Yahoo was spectacularly early. And spectacularly good. I'd been using telnet and usenet and all the other fragmented online tools, and could see how the Web would integrate them all, but Yahoo staked out the first big-time user-friendly point of orientation. And it was so cool. You can't imagine how cool it was, especially in light of how extraordinarily uncool Yahoo eventually became.

Yes, the company badly lost its way at some point. But that takes away nothing from its awesome importance. Einstein's career didn't exactly light the world on fire after his early relativity work. But we revere him, and I revere Jerry Yang.


Dave said...

Loved this post. Remember Yahoo Internet Life, Yahoo's print magazine? It fought the good fight, trying to recommend the best sites in scores of categories. Of course, it was a losing fight, but that doesn't minimize Yahoo's importance at a particular point in time.

Jim Leff said...

I wrote for an even earlier print magazine, NetGuide, published by CMP.

Back in...gack...1994. Shortly after Yahoo was first launched.

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