Calacanis swivels on his chair, fires up his laptop, and gives me a lengthy demo of the answer to his bosses’ question. The new Netscape will look familiar to anyone who’s spent time on Digg.com, the ultra-trendy social-news site that focuses mainly on tech. Like Digg, Calacanis’s new baby lets users submit news stories or blog posts, then sorts and ranks them according to their popularity (as determined by users’ votes). But unlike Digg, Netscape will focus on all categories, from sports to entertainment, and it will also employ a clutch of commentators who will follow up on the most popular stories with fact-checking or analysis. Calacanis dubs these people “anchors,” not editors, “because they’re not editing people’s work,” he says. “They’re going to do metajournalism.”
Few will dispute Calacanis’s argument in favor of a layer of editorial involvement on top of pure social news: “The wisdom of the crowd often gives way to the madness of the mob,” with false stories rising ever higher in the popularity queue. (Whether bloggers on top of bloggers is the answer is another matter.) And the site that he and his team have hacked together is impressive, incorporating countless other au courant Web 2.0 features (user “tagging” à la Del.icio.us; video à la YouTube). But to take a brand as venerable as Netscape—which to most minds that still even recognize it will always be synonymous with Web browsers—and transform it into something new will not be easy.
Rather than scheming to topple the powers, they scheme to get bought and then dig in for the long slog to the top.
Yet Calacanis argues that these shortcomings are offset by Netscape’s reach. Even after years of atrophy, the site still has more than 11 million unique visitors each month. “It’s a monster,” Calacanis says. And he insists that he sees its revivification as a kind of holy quest. “The brand means a lot to me,” he says. “I sort of take it as a noble mission to bring it back.”
Even among Calacanis’s friends, noble missions are not routinely described as his stock-in-trade. I ask him whether doing something like this is why he decided to stay on at AOL. “When they bought Weblogs, they said to me, ‘There’s a real future for you here,’ ” he says. “I’m a senior vice-president, which is a pretty high title in this company; there’s only one title, EVP, that’s higher, and then after that you’re the president of a division. I have absolute access. I went to dinner with Jon Miller the other night in L.A., and I hang out with Leonsis, I go to Wizards games with him. [Leonsis owns the Washington Wizards.] So I’m pretty high up.”
Being high up has always appeared to matter a great deal to Calacanis. From the earliest days of Silicon Alley Reporter, his avid gadflyism has always seemed driven by a naked (and even refreshing) eagerness to shimmy up the greasy pole. What’s different about the current Internet boom, however, is that the old pole no longer exists. In the nineties, the dream for any self-respecting entrepreneur (a label that Calacanis is, with justification, quick to affix to himself) was to create an empire from scratch: start a company, take it public, build it into a behemoth. But since the crash, the IPO window has remained slammed shut (with the case of Google being the exception that proves the rule).
All of which is no problem if your goal is simply to get fat. Then you just sell out. But what is someone like Calacanis supposed to do? Someone who dreams of being the next Eisner or Diller but who’s smart enough to see that hurling himself into the old-media fray is obviously a losing proposition? In truth, the options are limited—which in itself is interesting. What’s been clear for a while now is that Web media is consolidating around a new Big Three or Four or (being generous) Five: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and Diller’s Ask. Sure, the blogosphere is teeming with energy and proliferating wildly. But if you want to be a bona fide mogul, with all it entails, the number of available avenues is severely constrained.
And so Calacanis’s decision to stay at AOL isn’t actually all that hard to grasp. Indeed, you might say it’s a sign of the times—times in which, in this respect, new and old media are looking ever more alike. As Google, Yahoo, and the other Web powers take their place as the big kahunas of advertising and marketing, they’re increasingly the repository of the strivers and climbers who used to flock to broadcast and print. Rather than scheming to topple the powers with some disruptive technology, they scheme to get bought and then dig in for the long slog to the top. Consider Calacanis’s stated rationale—calculating and needy in equal measure—for preferring AOL to Yahoo: “If I’d landed at Yahoo, I’d be hanging out with [Del.icio.us founder] Josh Schachter and [Flickr founder] Caterina Fake, debating the finer points of this stuff. But at AOL, I’m probably the most knowledgeable person on this area, so they really needed my help.” I ask Calacanis if he ever feared that AOL would buy Weblogs and then screw it up. “No,” he says. “And in the worst-case scenario, whatever, no reason to cry for me. I could start a company tomorrow.