speaker notes for Philip Greenspun; revised January 2019
Site Home : Teaching : Short Talks : One Element
What You'll Learn Today
- how passionate the average person is about becoming a better photographer
- the power of peer-to-peer education mediated via an Internet application
- how not to run an Internet business
I want to work on Internet applications. The MIT faculty says
that nothing interesting or new is happening with the Internet. I
do the big Boston-to-Alaska-and-back drive that I always wanted
Worried about being lonely, I emailed friends and family a weekly
letter, hoping to get thoughtful responses back. I had cameras with me,
but the trip was more about the experience and the writing; the photos
were just snapshots for a slideshow upon my return.
Set up the Web site for friends who couldn't attend the slide show,
scanning the negs and chromes with Kodak PhotoCD, converting the letters
from MSFT Word into HTML. I decided that a Web book could be much more
interesting than a printed book since you could gather alternative
perspectives from readers in the form of posted comments. Wrote a
little software to let people type in a comment and have it added to the
pages. Took about three days.
Huge response from the general public, usually in the form of "how did
you get that photo of the bear?"
Wrote tutorial articles, which generated more questions than they
Question and answer forum, trying to save myself from having to answer
the same question twice. Reader B would answer Reader A's questions; my
role reduced to moderation.
Built classified ad system for Hearst Corporation, which owns newspapers
around the U.S. Said "let's have everyone in the U.S. in one big
database, placing ads that can be for a fixed price or subject to
auction; after the sale, Reader A can rate Reader B's credibility in a
reputation system." (i.e., every feature of eBay) They said "that's a
terrible idea; we would never want to use that." I asked "Can I use it
on my photo.net site?" The response: "sure".
Taking a lot of ridicule from friends, family, and colleagues about
wasting time on my personal Web site. With no ads or other obvious
revenue source, what was the point? I responded that I enjoyed teaching
and that it didn't cost much to operate.
Packaged up the software behind photo.net and gave it away as a free
open-source product to other publishers to help them get started, saving
them several programmer-years of work. Culminated in the name
"ArsDigita Community System" and a company, ArsDigita Corporation, to
provide support and service for the free product.
Added a photo sharing service so that people could upload their best
work and/or work that they wanted critiqued.
Spun off photo.net to a team of MIT-affiliated friends who hoped to
turn photo.net into a successful dotcom business. The timing was
unfortunate, with money borrowed from friends and family shortly
before the dotcom crash. The team commercialized the site with ads and
subscription fees for service tiers, but revenues were not sufficient
to pay their salaries. Everyone wandered off except Rajeev Surati,
who had the vision to keeps the site alive.
Sold ArsDigita Corporation to some business-minded folks and retired.
(Like every other leftover computer nerd from the 1990s, went down to
the local flight school and learned to fly airplanes and helicopters.)
Google's entry into the Internet advertising market with contextual
ads boosts the value to advertisers and publishers, proving that
Rajeev was either prescient or lucky (or both?).
I'm officially on the Board of a company that has been largely dormant
for years with no Board meetings, no shareholders meetings, etc. I
decide that I need to resign or take it over as CEO and clean it up.
Bright side: a lot of readers. Dark side: a lot of debt. Core
decisions: bring Jin S. Choi back to lead software development; get
Rajeev Surati to redouble his efforts on business development and
monetization; get advice from Neil Mayle, Doug Robinow, and Shimon
With traffic steady at 60+ million page views per month and 3 million
unique visitors per month, even with a new Internet boom going it will
take years to pay off the friends-and-family debt plus
interest. Rajeev, Neil, Doug, Shimon, and I, decide that the most sensible path
to retaining our sanity and paying off the original creditors in full
is to sell photo.net to NameMedia, a local enterprise that owns a ton
of domains and a handful of "organic" sites such as photo.net. They
have a better revenue split with Google and are able to double the ad
revenue immediately. So photo.net had a lot more economic value to
NameMedia than it could have had to us as small-scale publishers with
no power to negotiate a better deal with Google.
NameMedia hasn't met its own investors' expectations. Internet
advertising revenue for smaller web sites has been devastated by
competition from Facebook. Photo.net sold for a tiny fraction of its
purchase price to Creative Live, a VC-funded company that seeks to
promote tutorial videos.
Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2007-2019 Philip