Life after users: The Detroits of the Internet

They were once busy, bustling sites with lots of traffic and personal interaction. Then the users went away. What happened?

By , ITworld |  Software

Once famous Web sites: Where have all the people gone?

Image credit: Thinkstock

In the 23 years since Tim Berners-Lee's marvelous invention of the World Wide Web, we've seen plenty of Web pages come and go. Some suffer from irrelevance and end up dying out. Others go down because the person running it burns out or can't afford the hosting and traffic bill.

Others, though, linger. They are online but neglected. Their user base is gone. Updates are rare, if ever. They are, to put it bluntly, an online Detroit, a once-thriving community that suffered a slow trickle away that has left it alive but a mere shell of itself. (Stay with me here, Detroit's final chapter hasn't been written yet.)

Some of you may share my morbid fascination with the History channel series "Life After People." In that show, which documents what would happen to planet Earth if every human being disappeared, we see how nature would reclaim the cities, cover up our roads, and eventually clean up man's awful messes.

In the electronic world, there is no reclamation of a Web site/community by nature until someone takes it down. Then it all goes away at once. Let's look at 10 cases of online Detroits and their life after people.

Kuro5hin.org

Established: December 1999
Peak users: Tens of thousands
Current status: Barely a blip

Kuro5hin was inspired by the Slashdot community, which remains a vital force on the Internet and loved by journalists when our stories get picked. As for Kuro5hin? Not so much. The site, a collaborative discussion site, has fallen apart because it couldn't sustain itself.

Unfortunately, Kuro5hin never enjoyed Slashdot's popularity. In 2002, founder Rusty Foster published a notice entitled "We're Broke: The Economics of a Web Community." He went over the income and expenses and then asked readers to help him meet the site's $70,000 annual operating budget.

It worked, and the site raised $35,000 in less than a week. Since then, the site has limped along and been the subject of more death rumors than Abe Vigoda and Zsa Zsa Gabor combined. It struggled despite Rusty's repeated threats to have to give up running the site and get a job that paid. Finally, it seems, the site is done. Last updated May 11, 2013.

MySpace

Established: 2004
Peak users: 100 million worldwide
Current status: Struggling to reinvent itself

Probably the poster child for this article, MySpace was a site born out of the early days of a social Internet. It was only a little less primative and ugly than GeoCities, which it supplanted as the place to be for personal Web pages. The fact people could communicate with one another was what made it popular. Bands in particular began using their MySpace page as a way to chat directly with fans.

MySpace was built on ColdFusion and was very hard to expand, improve or modify. It also had earned a reputation as being a place "no one over 25 should be caught dead," as one Netizen put it. TeEnS wOuLd WrIte ThEiR dAiLy UpDaTeS lIkE tHiS, which is a real pain to read (and write). Then there were the unfounded claims of pedophiles lurking around.

Eventually, MySpace's clunky interface couldn't keep up with Facebook, which was seen as the site for adults. MySpace usership plummeted and News Corp., which bought it in 2005 for $520 million, sold it off to ad network, Specific Media, for just $35 million (with Justin Timberlake also taking an ownership stake). The site was relaunched in January 2013. As part of the relaunch, it wiped clean all of the old MySpace content without giving users a chance to recover their pictures or anything else, which has done nothing to help build goodwill for the new site.

LiveJournal

Established: 1999
Peak users: 39 million
Current status: Barely hanging on

LiveJournal is one of many sites that was a good idea, but too early for its time. It was the creation of one high school student as a place for people to have an online diary of their daily lives.

There was no single moment that led to LiveJournal's downfall. It was a slow bleed out. For starters, it became a pool of teen angst and whining, and who wants to wallow in that? It put people off and drove many users away. Its purchase by a Russian firm and closure of the U.S. office in 2009 led to a de-emphasizing in the U.S. Also, people just didn't like its clumsy interface. Blogger was simpler and more powerful.

LiveJournal has grown steadily in users but the actual use is minimal. The most recent stats available from November 2012 said there were 39,663,771 accounts on LiveJournal, but just 1,790,795 were listed as "active in some way." Traffic on Compete.com shows a continued downward slope for users. Its most popular page is a celebrity gossip page called "Oh No They Didn't," where submissions are contributed by LJ users, which accounts for about one-sixth of all LJ traffic.

The Well

Established: 1985 (as a BBS. 1992 as a Web community)
Peak users: Around 10,000
Current status: Barely hanging on

Formed as a bulletin board system in 1985, The Well (The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) became one of the earliest ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in the early 1990s. It was the hub of San Francisco online activity for a while.

Members of the Grateful Dead hung out there and interacted with fans, and The Well is where John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor met and formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It also played a role in the arrest of hacker Kevin Mitnick.

Unlike most sites, The Well died off because it never had ambitions to grow. Unlike fellow San Francisco ISP Netcom, which went national, The Well was content to be a small community of Bay Area iconoclasts and oddballs -- and these communities don't last very long.

Wired did a wonderful profile on The Well and the almost constant state of civil war among its members and owners. People began creating private discussion boards, which upset some early users, who felt everything should be out in the open. Others turned on the owner for some of his business decisions. Users drifted away, and when The Well went up for sale last year, it had just 2,693 users.

Usenet

Established: 1990
Peak users: Unknown
Current status: Hanging on

Before the advent of the Web and Web-based message boards, Usenet was the message board for Internet discussions.You could have serious computer science discussions in the comp.sci.programming hierarchy of groups and complete madness in some of the "alt" groups.

The problem with no central management was that there was no way to control content short of moderated groups, and very few groups were moderated. As the Internet was opened to the public in the 1990s, spammers slowly crept in. They ruined many groups, driving away users either to moderated groups or to Web-based message boards.

Worse, the alt.binaries hierarchy was loaded with copyrighted software, images, video and music. Fearful of lawsuits, ISPs dropped Usenet entirely. With virtually all of the ISPs shunning Usenet and spammers ruining the boards, it has lost a considerable amount of vitality.

Today, the only way for most people to get Usenet is through a paid subscription from places like Giganews and Supernews, which charge $9 a month and up depending on how much bandwidth you consume. Most groups are dead. Some hang on, ignored by spammers and mostly the home of old school Internet users who remember the glory days when you could have a signature file with your phone number in it and no one would prank call you.

Second Life

Established: March 2002
Peak users: 600,000
Current status: Hanging on

Launched initially as a multiplayer game site, Second Life was designed to give a shared experience with other people. This wasn't exactly new, as EverQuest and Ultima Online started that in the late 1990s. Those were games dedicated to adventure and killing things. Second Life was a place to ... hang out.

At first, the site took off like a shot as the shiny new thing that entertained everyone. Even IBM's CEO, Sam Palmisano, would crow about having two characters in Second Life, one that was his real identity and one fake so he could walk anonymously among the masses.

Second Life only failed, because there were better answers. TelePresence became far more advanced. Webcams improved and Skype let you talk to multiple people at once. In short, you didn't need Second Life, and it was somewhat klunky by comparison. Plus, its maker Linden Labs never embraced mobile devices, and that's your death sentence these days.

Having 600,000 active users is nothing to complain about. But that's the same number it's had for years. The hype has passed for Second Life. It's not shriveling up, but it's not growing, either.

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