The life and soul of the internet party; Face value The Economist October 8, 2005
David Sifry, the founder of Technorati, is betting on a change in the nature of the internet
Technorati is a pioneering search engine for blogs
DAVID SIFRY'S epiphany occurred when he read "The Cluetrain Manifesto", a book published in 2000 that quickly became a bible in certain Silicon Valley subcultures. Its main thesis is that "markets are conversations" among humans who use language that is "natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking" and above all "unmistakably genuine", whereas companies and governments are stuck in "the humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal." But liberation is at hand. The internet, by amplifying the genuine conversations, will make a laughing stock of all those using the monotone.
The manifesto struck a particular chord with Mr Sifry, as he pondered the shortcomings of his then passion-an electronic mailing list that he was sending around, tailored to ultra-geeks. "Mailing lists suck," he says, with the benefit of hindsight. They don't let the sender or the readers see what is being said about them; they provide no window into the conversations that follow. Then, in 2002, Mr Sifry discovered the then-new medium of blogs-personal online journals, linked to other blogs and information on the internet. He dumped his e-mail list and started blogging. But he was frustrated because the most popular internet search engine, Google, was no help, when he "wanted to find out who was linking to me." So he started a new company.
Technorati is a pioneering search engine for blogs, which allows the surfer to connect to online chatter on topics that might interest him-top topics this week, included Harriet Miers and Ajax football club. Like all search engines, Technorati makes money by selling little text advertisements next to the results of relevant searches. But, as Mr Sifry sees it, his firm is much more than a new sort of search engine-it is an expression of a change in the sociology of the internet. Most people have over the past decade learned to think of the world wide web as a gigantic sort of library, with "pages" and "directories". This explains the dominance of Google and Yahoo!, which have become the world's preferred librarians. In fact, both are making this role increasingly explicit. This week, Yahoo! joined several universities and archives to begin digitising old books in (physical) libraries so that they can be searched online. Google has similar plans.
As librarians, Mr Sifry acknowledges, Google and Yahoo! are "brilliant"-he has no intention whatsoever of competing with them in general web search. His idea for Technorati is subtly different, but has huge implications. Mr Sifry starts out with a metaphor for the web not as a library but-slipping into some technical argot common in Silicon Valley -"a big-ass threaded conversation". Or, more poetically, a "river of human chatter", constantly joined by other creeks and brooks and ever flowing. And whereas a library is by tradition a place where people whisper, Mr Sifry's internet is a cheerfully noisy place.
Technorati is therefore very different from ordinary search engines. Google and Yahoo! operate by "crawling" as many web pages as possible, making copies and putting them into an index, scoring and ranking them, and finally pushing them to web surfers who have typed search keywords into their browser window. Because of the time this takes, any snapshot of the web available through these search engines is between one and two weeks old-hopelessly late in the context of ongoing conversations. Technorati, however, does not crawl blog pages but listens for notifications-"pings", in the jargon-from the blogs whenever they are updated. This means that Technorati's window into the subculture of blogging is only seconds or, at worst, minutes out of date. Technorati currently tracks about 19m blogs in this way, with an average of ten new "posts" (ie, updates) and one entirely new blog added, every second.
Mr Sifry's web-as-conversation metaphor is no longer eccentric. In fact, it is receiving the sincerest form of flattery (imitation) from the big librarians. In September, Google also unveiled a search engine for blogs (to decidedly mixed reviews), and Yahoo! is poised to launch its own. Mr Sifry says he is unintimidated by the arrival of these giant competitors. "Architecture follows from metaphor," he proclaims grandly, and Google and Yahoo! just started out with the wrong metaphor. Tracking the web's conversations has only so much to do with algorithms, which is Google's prowess, and more with sociological insight-who responds to which blog, who recommends or snubs whom.
This, in fact, is what may give Mr Sifry a competitive advantage. He is that very rare thing, a geek who can use his right brain (social interaction), in addition to his left (computer code). On the left side, his geek credentials are impeccable. He has a degree in computer science and has been founding start-ups in Silicon Valley for a decade, dealing mostly with such nerdy obsessions as open-source software and radio-spectrum allocation. But rather than sporting a pocket protector and buck teeth, Mr Sifry has hints of a beer gut. While getting that computer degree, he boasts that he was "on and off academic probation" because he "always partied". After college, he somehow found himself as the only gaijin in a Mitsubishi Electric factory in Japan. His speech is amiable Californian, peppered with "fucking" this and "fucking" that, in the excited tone of those surfing the nearby beaches, rather than the internet.
Mr Sifry has reason to be excited. Technorati's popularity is growing, as more and more bloggers get hooked on following the trail of their own conversations. Rivals are popping up with colourful names-IceRocket, DayPop, Bloglines-while Google and Yahoo! work on not being left out. Like everyone in Silicon Valley, Mr Sifry grows suddenly discreet when asked whether he would consider selling to one of them if the price were right. He may or may not. But whether or not Technorati will become the Google of the web's post-librarian era, Mr Sifry can at least rightfully claim that he started that particular conversation.