I happen to like Jason McCabe Calacanis, although back in my Netslaves days
, having anything nice to say about Jason was a prescription for a group flame attack from the angry hordes that used to populate Netslaves.com
Why do I like Jason? Well, he's a tough character who's taken his share of hits in the last ten years. He could have sold Silicon Alley Reporter for a big chunk of change before the bust that wiped Silicon Alley off the map in 2001, but he stuck it out, even though it practically ruined him.
I last met up with Jason in 2003 at one of those low-rent "indie media" events that used to be held in the basement of CBGB's. There were a lot of New York luminaries there, and there was one heavy hitter: Michael Moore. Jason was supposed to go on stage right before Moore, but at the last minute the conference organizers changed the program so that Moore went on before Jason.
The result was a disaster for Jason. 30 seconds after the flashbulbs stopped popping at Moore (who exhorted all of us to do so something radical, although I don't recall what that something was), the room cleared out, leaving Jason alone, on the stage, addressing an empty room.
I felt so bad for him that I moved to the front of the room, sat down in a chair, and spent a half hour listening to what he was saying. I don't remember the specifics of his speech, but he was optimistic about the future, and he wasn't about to give up, which was just about 180 degrees out of phase with what the other presenters had said during that long day. Just about everyone was fed up, broke, and disgusted by the New Economy, which had wrecked most of our careers. Jason, on the other hand, was trying to figure out what went wrong, and how to move ahead, which was a heretical style of thinking back in those dark days.
Today, of course, we're in the middle of a boom again, and this new boom is fueled less by speculation and utopian cyber-mania than in a cold fact: dollars are being sucked out of traditional advertising and winding up on the Web, especially on search engines (I know this for a fact because I am gainfully employed for a SEM agency). The old order is crumbling, and there are plenty of jobs for people, in New York, and elsewhere, stoking the furnaces of this new machine. Sure, there's a bubble component to this now: most video sites won't survive, most search engines won't survive, there will be consolidations, layoffs, and lots of lost money in the future. But the essential component of this era is realism and reality, not fantasy. Real dollars are flowing out of the dumb broadcast networks and the dumb ad agencies, and they're being directed toward smarter networks and smarter agencies.
Which brings us to Jason's new project: a "human-edited search engine" called Mahalo
. Maybe I'm crazy and this new thing will be a huge success for Jason, but I have my doubts, starting with its mission statement: "Mahalo is the world's first human-powered search engine powered by an enthusiastic and energetic group of Guides. "
Jason - you've been around the block a few times and should know better than to authorize this poppycock copy. What was Magellen-McKinley but a "human-edited search engine?" How about Lycos (a human-edited directory and a search engine), or About (formerly The Mining Company, now owned by the New York Times)? If anything, Mahalo is a throwback to the mid 1990's, when everybody under the sun was going after Yahoo, chanting the "excellence in content" mantra, and going broke, or at least "going flat," after a few months.
Second, who on earth has the time to "hand-write" SERPs these days? I went to Mahalo, typed in the text string I use to gauge the accuracy of every search engine ("wild parrots in Brooklyn"), and saw nothing except an invitation to hand-code a SERP. Do you really think that people are going to just start contributing their content to you because you need it?
A more important question is this: why are you reinventing a creaky wheel? "Human-edited search engines" are notoriously hard to maintain (spend some time examining broken links in Yahoo's directory if you don't believe me). They only made sense back in the pre-AltaVista days when search engines truly sucked. Why turn back the clock?
Jason, you're a smart guy and everybody knows it. But I really don't understand what's unique about Mahalo, why people should use it, or why you you're pushing this property right now. Eschewing algorithms and automation in favor of "hand-crafted" results may have nostalgic appeal, but it's neither new nor wise, and I often wonder whether you've been spending too much time with those awful Web 2.0 zealots.
Still, it's probably unfair to judge Mahalo right now (the site is in Alpha). What's there might well morph into an interesting synthesis of human and machine decisions. Jason will certainly have no shortage of outsiders (myself included) crowing about what's wrong about it, and because Mahalo is is his baby, will be working hard to make it better in the weeks and months ahead. Jason knows as well as anybody that content development on the Web is an interative process, and my hope is that whatever tech platform he's chosen to build Mahalo on is flexible enough to accomodate any necessary changes that he and his team conclude will deliver on Mahalo's promise.
One more thing: just because an idea is old doesn't mean that it's bad. If you've ever spent poking around The Museum of Electronic Failure
, you've probably discovered that many of today's "runaway Web 2.0 successes" weren't new ideas or even particularly superior executions. They just came along at precisely the right time, neither too soon nor too late.
Timing is critical on the Web: perhaps more critical than capital. And as I learned that day back in 2003 at that long forgotten conference, just because Jason is perceived to be out of step with his times doesn't mean that he's wrong. Who knows: maybe the guy can see a hell of a lot further than most of us can.
Labels: Jason Calacanis, Mahalo, Michael Moore