Yesterday, AOL/TimeWarner; today, Twitter and…

There’s a ridiculous amount of chatter in the tech blogosphere about who’s going to buy Twitter. And if the right offer comes along with enough zeros behind it, I don’t doubt that Twitter will sooner or later sell itself. But I doubt its founders are going to do it any time soon. Industry veterans understand that the day you sell your company is the day that innovation ends and “value extraction” begins.

Evan Williams knows that since he lived it. When Google acquired Blogger it secured the service’s future and insured its growth to the household name it became. (One of the many tales told in Say Everything…) But you didn’t exactly see Blogger pushing the boundaries or adding exciting new wrinkles. The innovation was done.

Google, being Google, didn’t rush to extract value. But that’s what we’re seeing now with MySpace and News Corporation. Having invested in the social network because of its market share and buzz but with little idea how to make money with it, Rupert Murdoch is now impatient to ramp up the revenue. The competition over at Facebook — still independent and still run by founders — is more focused right now on adding features and figuring out what their service is all about than in raking in the dollars. If they sell now, they know they’re likely giving up further explorations of what Facebook is (explorations that today are underwritten, to be sure, by investors who hope someday to cash out).

Meanwhile, the granddaddy of this sort of deal — the great AOL/Time Warner merger of 2000 — is receiving its final interment this week with the announcement that Time intends to fling the old albatross off its neck in a spinoff. When it was first announced, that combination was hailed as “the deal of the millennium,” but none of the people involved really had a clue about the future — not the AOL executives who shrewdly sold off their business at the peak of its market value, and certainly not the Time Warner execs who very quickly realized the two companies had absolutely no business combining forces.

AOL was never a hugely innovative company, but it was good at getting people online quickly and easily in the early days of the Web. Maybe it had a future doing the same thing in the broadband era. But from the moment AOL sold itself to Time, it ceased being a force of any consequence on the Net and began a long, slow downward slide from which it has never recovered, and from which I doubt it ever can — even with ex-Googler Tim Armstrong at the helm.

Reading about the spinoff this week reminded me of one of my most amusing experiences during the dotcom bubble. In January 2000 I was a new dad with three-month-old twins at home; elated but sleepless, I was running on caffeine and adrenaline. When I woke up to news of the AOL deal I rubbed my eyes and banged out a very quick column raising some questions about it.

Later that day I got a call from some producers at CNN asking if I would go on the air to talk about the deal. I thought, yeah, sure, as long as I can keep my eyes open… What I realized once the anchorperson started asking me questions was that I’d been cast as the deal’s Dr. Doom. In retrospect I think I was perhaps the only pundit they could get in front of their cameras who wasn’t convinced that the deal was going to reshape the Web world.

I saved video from the show. Here it is:

“What’s the problem?” indeed! I can’t claim any astute prescience; I couldn’t foresee just how quickly the boom would go bust and the deal would turn sour, and I worried more about big companies trying to strangle the Web than, in retrospect, I needed to. But I knew a fear-driven deal when I saw one and was in no mood to cheer what looked like the blind mating dance of clueless media barons.

It’s good to remember that today as the chorus on the sidelines starts chanting for new matches. They rarely work — and even when they do, they usually mean that the fun is over.

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Comments

  1. I agree with everything you say here except for one thing… AOL bought Time Warner, not the other way around. I was in Dulles the day it happened and remember coming in that morning, hearing the news and creating a little mental list of all the things “we” owned now (Batman, Superman, etc). The old guard at Time Warner staged the coup afterwards.

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    Right: They called it a merger but technically AOL was “taking over” Time Warner since it had over 50% of the deal; its stock was — at that brief shining (hah!) moment — worth so crazily much.

    However, that moment passed quickly, and the net effect of the deal was that AOL ended up owned by Time Warner, so from today’s vantage I think it’s reasonable to say that TW bought AOL. They traded enormous amounts of their company’s net worth for AOL. Much of it ended up getting written down in subsequent years.

  3. Jonathan

    just pre-ordered say anything. congratulations on getting it out! looking forward to more from you here now :)

  4. Richard Jones

    I too remember the AOL / TW merger ( if you call some numbers at Fortune magazine today the voice mail still answers Aol / TimeWarner) The merger would have worked if that April in 2000 Levin and Case would have taken Time Warner Cable and said you are now AOL CABLE.
    AOL would have a future and an answer to the question : What is AOL ?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] As I’ve written, during the dotcom bubble I was a father of newborn twins, and I spent much of the era in a haze of caffeine and adrenaline. Meanwhile, the pace of decision-making at Salon at the time was crazy — we were one small precinct of an entire industrial outbreak of madness. One conclusion I’vew drawn from that experience for myself is: never rely on a vehicle that’s moving too fast to steer. [...]

  2. [...] As I’ve written, during the dotcom bubble I was a father of newborn twins, and I spent much of the era in a haze of caffeine and adrenaline. Meanwhile, the pace of decision-making at Salon at the time was crazy — we were one small precinct of an entire industrial outbreak of madness. One conclusion I’vew drawn from that experience for myself is: never rely on a vehicle that’s moving too fast to steer. (And no, to answer a question some will probably have, I never made a cent on the offering myself: insiders weren’t allowed to sell stock at first, and by the time we were allowed to, the price had already begun to plummet. Besides, I really did believe in the company’s future.) [...]

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