An insight into the origins of Yahoo, on it’s final day

 Today, Yahoo is auctioning itself off to the highest bidder. The company, which has been in existence for over two decades, has reported dismal financial results for some time, and is now reaching its end.

Yahoo was founded in 1994, when Stanford students Jerry Yang and David Filo, saw the potential to fill a gap in the market in a time where search engines were rudimental and ineffective. Working from a trailer on campus, the friends began compiling websites into lists, organised by topic. After originally naming their venture ‘Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web’, they eventually changed the named to Yahoo; an acronym for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.

Setting up in Silicon Valley, Yahoo employed a group of people to visit websites and categorise them. Such a task would seem mad in the present day, with over 1 billion websites in existence – and it was pretty ‘out there’ back then.

The bunch of 20-somethings responsible for creating Yahoo’s directory of the world’s most interesting websites were known as surfers – and far from being tech wizzes, they comprised of a yoga-lover, an ex-banker, a religious studies student, and other graduates. The work of the surfers lead to the creation of the home page that was used by a generation, and helped define the early interest.

The work of the surfers was bizarre and difficult at times.  With a job which centred around how to label things and where to put them, the surfers were faced with questions such as ‘what to call a category that includes skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan’ and ‘what kind of pornography should be considered for inclusion’. Much was left to individual judgment; surfer Matthew Mustapick had the task of creating the cannibalism category, and opted not to include the sites he found explaining how to butcher a human body, on the grounds that they were too distasteful.

The directory survived until 2014. By this time, most of the surfers’ time already went to other projects, with many of them working to improve Yahoo’s search engine as it battled with Alphabet’s Google subsidiary. Despite it’s best efforts, Yahoo’s presence in the online world continually shrank, drowned out by the age of the smartphone and the increasing popularity of social applications like Facebook and Twitter.

Today, Yahoo goes to auction. A twenty two year lifespan is the equivalent to several life times in the world of Silicon Valley, yet Yahoo has remained a constant; even the office has the same life-size papier-mâché sculpture of Elvis that has been there since the company’s beginning. Whether it be by design or bad luck, Yahoo has long been eclipsed by other big names. The company currently commands just a tiny fraction of people’s attention and advertisers’ dollars, and most of the surfers have scattered across Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.

Ten of the original surfers still remain at Yahoo – it is not yet known what will happen to them, their co-workers, or the brand name. Even if Yahoo fizzles into nothingness, it’s legacy of shaping the beginnings of the way we search the World Wide Web will remain.

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