Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2001 / 28 Shevat, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "WE set out to build a fully integrated political communications and consulting company, and we succeeded."
So says Voter.com CEO Justin Dangel in a press release that makes clear his definition of success isn't dependent upon actually staying in business. "Voter.com, the premier political portal on the Web ... is closing its doors, effective immediately" reads their death notice cum press release (never mind that there are no doors in cyberspace).
Now, this is something of a bittersweet moment for me.
On the one hand, during its two short years, Voter.com - a political Web site that constantly seemed to be changing its "mission" - had many decent, talented employees, some of them friends of mine. Indeed, Voter.com was a "strategic partner" (or some equally impressive-sounding phrase) of the Web magazine I edit.
On the other hand, Voter.com was an awful idea, and there is always some joy in watching bad ideas swirl down the bowl.
At first, Voter.com operated on the assumptions that A) there are millions of political junkies out there and B) all those junkies would give up visiting their favorite sites in favor of one-stop shopping at Voter.com. But political junkies by their very nature want to know what a lot of different sources have to say. No politics addict (or sports freak or Wall Street obsessive) ever subscribed to just one newspaper, so why would he subscribe to just one Web site?
So, after trying and failing to be the Wal-Mart of cyberpolitics, Voter.com adopted the maxim "those who can't do, consult." I still have no idea how my strategic partner's Web consulting business was supposed to work.
And neither, evidently, did they.
The moral of the story, however, does not lie in the fact that Voter.com's failings were unique, so much as that they were commonplace. Voter.com was certainly no less-misconceived than the hundreds of dead or dying dot-coms strewn about cyberspace like the wounded in the rail-yard scene of "Gone with the Wind." It shared with its deceased dot-com brethren a misplaced faith in a bizarre economic fallacy: the idea that the market doesn't operate in cyberspace.
To understand this delusion, imagine living in Boston when the telephone was invented. If you're the first store to get a phone, you've got a huge advantage. You can take orders for deliveries, book reservations, get a better sense of how much of your inventory you need to maintain etc. This newfangled invention might even make the very idea of having a store seem obsolete. You could just rent a warehouse somewhere and hire people to man the phones.
There's only one hitch: This huge comparative advantage lasts only so long as nobody else gets a phone . As soon as Macy's and Filene's get phones, your advantage evaporates.
For a real-world example, consider eToys.com, whose management announced this week that the Web-based toy seller will be taken off the respirator and allowed to die a quiet death. eToys just couldn't compete with a Toys "R" Us Web venture with Amazon.com.
But don't give Amazon much credit - it's Toys "R" Us that's been selling toys for decades. It's a lot easier for a giant company with stores, trucks, warehouses, suppliers and factories to hire some kids to make a Web site than for a bunch of kids who run a Web site to buy and run stores, trucks, warehouses, suppliers and factories.
Don't get me wrong. I'm still a huge Web booster. It couldn't be more obvious that the Internet promises huge changes, but sometimes it takes a while for the market and technology to jibe. For example, the first crude fax machine was invented in 1842. But newspapers didn't start using them until around 1924, and it took about 65 more years for the rest of us to catch on. (I am convinced that one of the reasons why the fax machine took so long to catch on is that, unlike the VCR and the Web, the porn industry never made use of it.)
But last I checked, the fax machine wasn't capable of making bad ideas good - and neither is the Web. As the Web changes, it's strengths and weaknesses will become more obvious, but the rules of the market and common sense still apply.
"There is no question," says Voter.com's Dangel, "the politics-Internet union will one day be profitable, and at that time we will take pride in having blazed this trail."
Maybe. But whoever makes the "politics-Internet union" - whatever that is - work will have done so because they avoided Voter.com's example, not because they copied