From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Wed Oct 11 2000 - 01:34:21 PDT
Finally, someone calls it right: "Giving away a product for free is
arguably just a marketing and distribution model."
Why the Open Directory isn't Open
Andrew's METAGUIDE #7 - March 5, 2000
[Warning: this article may contain links to adult content.]
The Open Directory is fast challenging Looksmart and Yahoo as one of the
most important means of searching for web content by category.
Consequently, it has become a vital part of the economy of site management.
Webmasters and companies ignore the Open Directory at their peril.
In what way is dmoz open?
What is it? And why is it said to be "Open?"
Since it was acquired by Netscape, The Open Directory has also been known
as dmoz. The name "dmoz" is a combination of "directory" and "mozilla" -
mozilla being a code name long associated with the Netscape browser. It's
not a stretch to see why Netscape employees, noted to be above average in
the idealism department, might embrace the Open Directory Project.
Before being acquired by Netscape, the directory was called Newhoo. It was
founded out of frustration with the limitations of Yahoo. Yahoo, the
leading web directory with a paid staff of category editors and surfers,
was seen as remote and distant and overwhelmed by the growth of good web
sites. As a result, many good sites were having trouble getting listed, and
link rot, went the legend, was setting in. Newhoo would leverage the
community spirit of the global Internet community: volunteer editors would
manage categories. As the web grew, so would this organization.
And grow it has. Today, this Netscape-owned directory has 1,547,388 sites
in its database, edited by 22,763 editors who maintain 234,846 categories.
Little wonder that this gang is being referred to, on the dmoz home page,
as an "army" of volunteers. An army?
When one scrutinizes the situation, one notices that this project has
adopted almost every possible flavor of feel-good terminology. The
"project" is "open." It's staffed by a "volunteer" group of editors. The
main dmoz site adopted a .org domain, conjuring up an association with the
realm of not-for-profit organizations. (Dmoz.com also works.)
Self-aggrandizing rhetoric... vs. reality
When they're not calling themselves an army, dmoz is also referred to as a
self-organizing global network of "net-citizens." As if this weren't
enough, we're told that it's also a "self-regulating republic" where you
can "make a difference." And just in case we're thinking they may be robots
or monsters, we are reminded that this is the largest "human-edited"
directory of the web. Largest! Right on! Human! Better than monsters or robots!
Perhaps a good reason for calling the directory open is that it's made
freely available to any web site or portal which seeks to offer a
categorized directory of web content on its own site. In the world outside
of the dmoz republic, this is commonly referred to as co-branding.
This giveaway model didn't hurt the popularity of the directory, clearly.
Many companies large and small subsequently took advantage of the
opportunity to add a directory to their own search offerings without paying
a dime. Indeed, Hotbot, Lycos, AOL, and dozens of other search sites and
giant net companies have adopted this as their underlying directory. Well,
why not? They can't use Yahoo, they don't care to build their own, and
Looksmart costs money. Some companies have adopted a hybrid approach.
Go2Net uses both dmoz and Looksmart in different ways. Excite, bless them,
have their own directory which presumably came about as a result of their
doing the respectable thing and acquiring Magellan.
But let's examine even this form of relative openness before turning to the
key reasons why the Open Directory really isn't open.
Giving away a product for free is arguably just a marketing and
distribution model. The Netscape browser itself was a groundbreaking
example of this. By making something ubiquitous by not charging for it,
Netscape gained a position of functional importance in the wired economy.
They had the eyeballs. Eyeballs, Internet analysts now believe, can
eventually be turned into profits, or at least revenues.
Hotmail did a similar thing, giving away its web-based e-mail tool for
free. In that case, advertising taglines in every Hotmail message led to
what came to be called "viral" growth and again, a huge market advantage.
Since then, it's hard to find a company which doesn't use some form of
"free" or "open" shortcut to getting big fast on the Internet. Isn't that
really what "NewHoo," dmoz, and the Open Directory "Project" are all about?
Major portals and small webmasters alike are acting as an "army" (if I may
borrow a term) of distributors for dmoz.
Dear AOL: Is this the kind of "openness" you wanted?
AOL, as mentioned, uses a version the Open Directory to add "category
search" to its search offerings at AOL.com. It's soon going to come under
fire from some customers who trust AOL to keep their kids safe from
pornography, however. An Open Directory category for "Adult Image
Galleries," including "fetishes" and even "teens," is easily accessible on
the AOL.com site.
You can access it here:
or more to the point, here: http://search.aol.com/cat.adp?id=532
Right below the various sub-categories under "teens," including "oral" and
"lesbian teens," I was awed to find additional search options in general
for the AOL.com site: "Also Search In: Web Articles - Personal Home Pages -
Downloads - Encyclopedias - Newsgroups - Health - Kids Only"!!!
I'm not much into censorship, but I admit I was bemused to see the AOL.com
logo hovering above so much controversial smut, followed by a link to
something called "Kids Only." I don't imagine this will stand for long,
even though, in reality, you can't easily find this stuff on the ODP unless
you go looking for it. It's just that companies like AOL have to grapple
between the stuffy public image they try to uphold and the reality that a
lot of what people use them for isn't consistent with that image.
So much for openness. Here are some reasons why the Open Directory is
anything but open.
Open Directory Category Editors are volunteers -- indeed, an army or
self-governing republic of net-citizens -- but their numbers are,
nonetheless, finite. It's not open to all comers. A recent scathing
commentary by one disgruntled ex-editor described the army of editors as
"as a horrible mix of corrupt generals and untrained privates," since
"there are only two kinds of 'guide' volunteer: The passionate, often
self-interested, 'subject spammer' and the virtuously motivated, but
That just about says it all, but let's examine some more considerations on
this issue of openness at a volunteer-edited directory:
· Lack of representativeness and lack of transparency. Unlike the
federal bureaucracy in a democratic nation, you don't precisely know what
the criteria for acceptance are. Criteria for progress through the ranks is
similarly unknown. The Open Directory's procedures for accepting new
editors or accepting site submissions are no more open or transparent than
they are at private companies like Yahoo or Looksmart.
· Incentive for corruption and excessive categorization of
low-quality sites. Yahoo and Looksmart (presumably "closed shops") have
employees performing similar functions to the Open Directory Category
Editors. Think about this. Looking at it from the point of view of
organizational sociology (yes, I must), the underlying reality is that
these three are all organizations with rules and structures whose main
output is the opinionated categorization, and importantly, rejection, of a
vast number of submissions of web sites and Internet content. The key
difference seems to be that dmoz category editors aren't paid. What is the
likely result of this? Think about the analogy of a country whose
bureaucrats are poorly compensated. Any textbook can give you examples. All
moralizing aside, extremely low pay creates an incentive for the postal
inspector or the traffic cop to engage in petty forms of corruption. What's
my city health inspector's incentive to REALLY crack down on all the
bug-infested restaurants downtown? And what might motivate a dmoz category
editor to prevent their buddies' lower quality sites from getting one or
even several listings? And are they likely to think about the whole mess
all fits together, or is that someone else's problem? In fact, there are
considerable incentives in volunteer directories to pump up one's numbers
of site submissions, since that is the key criterion for advancement
through the ranks. The web's best resources, therefore, are impossible to
find, buried under a mountain of minutiae.
· The "open" directory is owned by a $300 billion company. Most
importantly -- and I hate to bring this to the attention of the
self-governing republic of dmoz -- the relatively benevolent overseer of
its operations, Netscape, was acquired by AOL, which recently merged with
Time Warner, creating a $300 billion behemoth. To repeat: the Open
Directory Project is owned by AOL Time Warner. The "project" now has
marketing executives assigned to it, though you won't see that openly
admitted on the "About us" page. AOL Time Warner: a bastion of openness?
Quite the opposite. AOL loves to be proprietary. It dislikes the "open"
Internet, but just now it probably wants as much PR as it can get which
juxtaposes the word "open" with "AOL." This could help a lot in smoothing
things by the regulators. Fair enough. But when that's all done with, AOL,
how about some truth in advertising?
Coming soon: some unsolicited suggestions on how AOL can overcome the
present hypocrisy of the Open Directory Project. With the money it makes
from my plan, maybe it will even be able afford to pay a few of these people.
This sounds downright scientologisty:
Life After the Open Directory Project
GUEST COLUMN by David F. Prenatt, Jr. - June 1, 2000
Until April 26, 2000, I was a volunteer editor with Netscape's Open
Directory Project, and I enjoyed the coveted editall/catmv editing
privileges that had been granted to me by ODP Staff Editor jiwasaki because
I had "shown good editing ability."
However, when I tried to log on to the dmoz.org server that fateful
Wednesday morning, I was informed that my ODP login had been inactivated. I
then checked the ODP Categories where I had previously been listed as an
editor in residence, and I found that my byline had been removed from each
and every one of them. Basically, this is akin to coming to work one
morning and finding out that your employer has changed the lock on your
Once I realized that my editing privileges had been removed, I composed an
e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org asking for reinstatement and requesting that my
e-mail be shared with whatever interested parties staff deemed to be
appropriate. But equally important is what I did not do. I did not e-mail
any of my friends who were still "on the inside" at ODP complaining of
unfair treatment (as many XODP editors do), nor did I post a complaint in
any of the discussion forums on the World Wide Web that I knew to be
frequented by ODP editors. Rather, in light of the conflict of interest
that I felt I had encountered with my removal from ODP, I resigned as the
moderator of the "ODP Guidelines - Q & A" forum at SearchEngineDiscussion.com.
As rumors of my departure from ODP began to spread, I replied to curious
inquiries with a simple confirmation that I was no longer with ODP, and
that I was not at liberty to discuss the reasons or circumstances.
A Loyalist or a Rebel?
My history at ODP was long and involved. While I always considered myself
to be an ODP loyalist, many people perceived me to be a rebel, begrudgingly
acknowledging the need for someone to play the Devil's Advocate. Most of
this is irrelevant in light of the fact that I was promoted to the position
of editall in January of 2000. Apparently I did something right to obtain
that promotion, which in the words of one meta editor was: "Dare I say,
overdue?" Some would say the same thing about my departure.
Only ODP Staff and the Council of Metas know for sure the "official" reason
and rationale for my termination, and they aren't saying. But I think that
what ultimately got me fired was a bum rap that was pinned on me by ODP
Meta Editor goldm at the end of April 2000. You see, ODP has strict rules
about listing affiliate links in its directory. It also won't list sites
comprised primarily of affiliate links. However, I openly questioned
whether this policy was misguided or being misapplied after investigating
an inquiry made at SearchEngineDiscussion.com by Jon Prunty, the owner of a
high quality Web site known as the Adobe Shopping Mall. Once I realized
that this topic was taboo, I did my best to defuse the situation, but this
only hastened my removal as an ODP editor.
Normally, when an ODP Editor is removed from ODP, his or her category
request logs reflect this fact. Mine did not, so my status with ODP
remained a mystery to most people. The exceptions were a few of the
moderators at Search Engine Discussion who were ODP editors themselves. I
considered these people to be interested parties, so I confirmed that my
ODP login had been inactivated and that I had e-mailed ODP staff requesting
reinstatement. And when I got tired of waiting for a response, it occurred
to me that I could start my own Internet directory and improve upon the ODP
model. At the very least, I could contribute my time, talent, and ideas to
one of the many pretenders to the Open Content throne that is currently
held by ODP.
Not the First, But by Far the Best
ODP is not the first Open Content directory, but it is by far the most
successful. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for improvement in ODP's
organizational structure. Right now, it is essentially a feudal oligarchy
in which certain dedicated and qualified editors are "knighted" by ODP's
staff and given "meta" editing privileges; the position of "editall" is
often a brief precursor to "meta-hood," as it were. Whilst I was an editor,
I argued passionately for the need to create a "House of Commons" to
balance the power wielded by the "House of Lords," or as I was wont to call
it, the "Council of Metas." As well, I argued for the need to create a
"Grand Jury" to investigate and oversee the Council of Metas. Such
institutional reforms may actually take place at ODP sometime in the near
future, but I will not be a part of it.
I truly enjoyed working with ODP, and I would probably return if I was
given the opportunity to do so, but the perspective is much different being
on the outside looking in. After a while, you begin to see that ODP is
nowhere near as important as it seems to be, notwithstanding its phenomenal
success. And you get tired of the silent treatment from ODP's staff and the
Council of Metas. And getting the silent treatment is the norm.
Approximately 9 out of 10 new editor applications are now rejected, many of
them without comment or feedback. And if you do receive notice that your
application was rejected, it may or may not include the name of the meta
editor who processed your application. Part of the reason for this silent
treatment is because ODP's meta editors receive an astounding amount of
hate mail, but the biggest reason is that many of the meta editors have no
interest in helping people learn how to be competent editors. Rather, they
are looking for editors who "know how to think for themselves." Provided,
that is, that these editors who know how to think for themselves think the
way that the meta editors want them to think. But if the meta editors like
the way you think, you will most likely be put on the fast track for
With a few notable exceptions, you must apply for new editing privileges to
move up through the ranks at ODP. And similar to being rejected as an
editor applicant, being rejected for new editing privileges is usually very
impersonal. The difference is that it is very easy to figure out who
rejected you for additional editing privileges by reviewing your category
request logs. Many editors make the mistake of assuming that this means
that you can contact the meta editor who rejected you and ask for an
explanation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the
quickest way to get your ODP editing privileges completely revoked. But
most editors who are rejected for new editing privileges don't just ask for
an explanation via e-mail. Rather, when their e-mail is ignored (as it
almost always is), they post a complaint in the ODP Editor Forum, the
sharks begin to circle, and then the feeding frenzy begins.
Swimming with the Sharks
On more than one occasion, the ODP sharks began to circle around me, but
not because I was an incompetent editor seeking promotion. Rather, the
first time it happened was when I spoke up about the need for a volunteer
editor's organization to promote quality control at ODP. This was seen as a
power play by those who enjoyed being part of the ODP Lynch Mob, and I
found myself defending spurious accusations that I had abused my editing
privileges until ODP Staff intervened on my behalf. A short time later, I
found myself on the same side as the former leaders of the lynch mob when
ODP Staff introduced the controversial policy of giving Professional
Content Providers (PCPs) high level access as ODP editors.
Professional Content Providers: The ODP Sell Out
Many ODP editors are also Web site owners. In fact, one of the perks of
being an ODP editor is the ability to manage your own site listings.
Notwithstanding the potential conflicts of interest that could arise, this
is seldom a serious concern among ODP's more active editors because it
takes too much time and energy for people to achieve a position of trust
within ODP where they can do any real damage. By that time, most editors
realize that there are intangible benefits to being an ODP editor that are
not worth the small advantage that you might obtain by shameless
self-promotion. All of this changed, however, when ODP jumped into bed with
Quite some time ago, PCPs such as Rolling Stone Magazine and (surprise!)
America Online approached the top management at ODP and suggested that it
would be a good deal all around if the PCPs could manage their own site
listings within ODP. After all, many ODP editors were also Web site owners
who managed their own listings. The difference was that the ODP editors had
to work their way up through the ranks whereas PCPs were given the
proverbial key to the Emerald City from day one. To add fuel to the fire,
many trustworthy volunteer editors were "counseled" for deleting or
modifying inappropriate listings that had been added to ODP by PCP editors.
For the record, I had no problem working with PCP editors, but I think that
ODP could have and should have put them on a much shorter leash with a
cadre of more trustworthy volunteer editors as the handlers. In retrospect,
however, it is now very clear to me that while all ODP editors are equal,
some are more equal than others. Never was this more true than when the
Council of Metas took over the day-to-day management of ODP.
The Council of Metas is Formed
Slowly but surely, ODP staff has delegated almost all editing privileges to
volunteer editors. First it was "editall" privileges, then it was "catmv,"
finally it was "meta." At this point, the only meaningful powers that staff
editors have retained for themselves are the ability to grant meta and
editall editing privileges and to inactive editor logins. Virtually
everything else is now in the hands of the metas and editalls.
There is a sound argument to be made for delegating the day-to-day
management of ODP to volunteer editors who have shown their commitment to
the directory and their ability to work as part of a team. However, the
fact of the matter is that some of the meta editors are control freaks. Not
all or even most of them are out of control or drunk with power, but it
only takes one or two control freaks to do a great deal of damage to the
morale of the rank and file editors.
No Editor Owns a Category
Imagine that you are an expert in your field and that you have volunteered
as an ODP editor in your field of expertise. Days, weeks, even months pass
before anyone says anything to you other than an occasional e-mail to
invite you to the ODP Editor Forum to discuss some sort of improvement to
the overall category structure, then one day you log on to ODP to find that
someone has reorganized your category, adding sites that don't belong,
deleting sites that do belong, and changing every single title and
description. This is akin to walking into your office one day to find that
a high ranking executive in your company, someone whom you have never met,
has rearranged all of the furniture and files in your office to suit his or
her own tastes.
This situation is all too common at ODP, and the bottom line is that no
editor owns a category. As an active and high ranking editor from fairly
early on, I was guilty of running roughshod over low level editors myself
on three occasions of which I know, but it was never intentional: I always
made an effort to consult with anyone who might be affected by my actions
and wait for feedback. The first occasion involved the deletion of a single
site that was owned by a problem editor who was subsequently removed from
ODP for abusing his editing privileges; the second involved an active
editor who has never forgiven me for moving too quickly for his tastes in
the reorganization of ODP's Society: Law hierarchy; and the third was a
simple misunderstanding involving one site that was quickly resolved by
relisting the site in question. Ironically enough, the editor who has never
forgiven me for the way I handled the reorganization of Society: Law has
risen to the ranks of ODP metahood and ranks as one of the top five ODP
control freaks of all time. He seldom if ever consults with an
editor-in-residence before reorganizing the contents of a category to suit
his own tastes.
The Future of the Open Content Movement
It is somewhat self-evident that there is room for improvement in the ODP
organizational model, and it is only a matter of time before one of the
many up and coming user-contributed directories takes the lead position
from ODP. Given my druthers, I would have stayed at ODP until the bitter
end, doing my best to stick up for the little guy and work for change
within the system. In fact, as I stated earlier, I would probably return to
ODP if I was given the opportunity to do so. But there are alternatives.
There is life after ODP. And to that end, I have formed the XODP eGroup as
a forum for ODP expatriates, malcontents, and other critics to discuss
these alternatives. Anyone is welcome to join.
I have my own ideas about what direction the Open Content movement should
take. Specifically, I'd like to create an Internet directory that is not
only Open Content but Open Source, as this would restore free market
competition to a market that is in dire need of it. I think that this is
the best way to keep ODP's management honest and responsive to the concerns
of the Internet community which it purports to serve, and I am still
looking for the talent to help me make this happen. But more important: I'd
like to hear any and all other ideas that people have about the possibility
of life after ODP and the future of the Open Content movement.
David F. Prenatt, Jr. is an independent consultant who provides
confidential Web site evaluations and critiques for attorneys. His business
takes him all over the United States and Canada. Comments and questions can
be posted to the XODP eGroup or emailed to email@example.com .
All this time I've been makin' deals, Shades of black and white on a Hollywood reel. All this time I've been missing something so real, So real... All this time I've been a face in a crowd, Now I'm living in color and laughing out loud. All these names for just foolin' around, It's a new breakthrough, it's an old breakdown. -- Shawn Colvin, "Round of Blues"
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