Huffington Post and AOL: The End of Web 2.0

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 February 2011

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It’s easy to make fun of AOL’s pending purchase of HuffPo. Just like AOL’s purchase of TimeWarner, here we have a new media company – Huffington Post – fooling an old media company, AOL, into overpaying for something that has already peaked. Combined with the merger of Daily Beast with Newsweek, and Facebook’s primping for IPO, it seems as if the second great age of internet media, the fabled “Web 2.0”, is now going the way of Web 1.0 – that is, boom, sell, and bust.

But to many of us on the writer side of the equation, it feels like the turning over of something a bit more personal. Why exactly should AOL’s purchase of HuffPo feel so strange to many of us who have contributed to the site over the years?

It’s because we write for HuffPo for free, and – because it’s Arianna – we do it without resentment. There’s value being extracted from our labour, for sure, by advertisers or whoever, but the sense was always that we were writing for Arianna – contributing to an empire that spent its winnings bussing people to watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do their thing in Washington. Yes, there are compensating benefits – like getting links or hits or book sales – but it was a very soft quid pro quo based in a sense of shared purpose, and participation in a community beyond the mega-media-corporate sphere of influence.

On hearing of Arianna’s sale of HuffPo, my first impulse was to say “hooray for Arianna!” The site itself has served its purpose for her, forever removing the label of senator’s ex-wife and establishing her as one of the pre-eminent progressive voices of this decade. And the site itself had become so dense, it was no easier to find anything of value there than on the web itself – the sure sign that an aggregator has already seen its best days.

But, if the terms of the deal and her quotes are to be believed, Arianna didn’t zig, she zagged: she’s not leaving publishing for politics. Rather, she is taking the helm of AOL’s news properties, from Engadget to local webpaper amalgam, Patch. HuffPo and Arianna will now be part of AOL, for real.

We’re not really witnessing the demise of HuffPo – just the demise of the justifications for writing for free. I would do it for Arianna. I won’t do it for AOL.