GUEST COLUMN by David F. Prenatt, Jr. - June 1, 2000 - Until April 26, 2000, I was a volunteer editor with Netscape's Open Directory Project, and I enjoyed the coveted editall/catmv editing privileges that had been granted to me by ODP Staff Editor jiwasaki because I had "shown good editing ability."

However, when I tried to log on to the dmoz.org server that fateful Wednesday morning, I was informed that my ODP login had been inactivated. I then checked the ODP Categories where I had previously been listed as an editor in residence, and I found that my byline had been removed from each and every one of them. Basically, this is akin to coming to work one morning and finding out that your employer has changed the lock on your office door.

Once I realized that my editing privileges had been removed, I composed an e-mail to staff@dmoz.org asking for reinstatement and requesting that my e-mail be shared with whatever interested parties staff deemed to be appropriate. But equally important is what I did not do. I did not e-mail any of my friends who were still "on the inside" at ODP complaining of unfair treatment (as many XODP editors do), nor did I post a complaint in any of the discussion forums on the World Wide Web that I knew to be frequented by ODP editors. Rather, in light of the conflict of interest that I felt I had encountered with my removal from ODP, I resigned as the moderator of the "ODP Guidelines - Q & A" forum at SearchEngineDiscussion.com.

As rumors of my departure from ODP began to spread, I replied to curious inquiries with a simple confirmation that I was no longer with ODP, and that I was not at liberty to discuss the reasons or circumstances.

A Loyalist or a Rebel?

My history at ODP was long and involved. While I always considered myself to be an ODP loyalist, many people perceived me to be a rebel, begrudgingly acknowledging the need for someone to play the Devil's Advocate. Most of this is irrelevant in light of the fact that I was promoted to the position of editall in January of 2000. Apparently I did something right to obtain that promotion, which in the words of one meta editor was: "Dare I say, overdue?" Some would say the same thing about my departure.

Only ODP Staff and the Council of Metas know for sure the "official" reason and rationale for my termination, and they aren't saying. But I think that what ultimately got me fired was a bum rap that was pinned on me by ODP Meta Editor goldm at the end of April 2000. You see, ODP has strict rules about listing affiliate links in its directory. It also won't list sites comprised primarily of affiliate links. However, I openly questioned whether this policy was misguided or being misapplied after investigating an inquiry made at SearchEngineDiscussion.com by Jon Prunty, the owner of a high quality Web site known as the Adobe Shopping Mall. Once I realized that this topic was taboo, I did my best to defuse the situation, but this only hastened my removal as an ODP editor.

Normally, when an ODP Editor is removed from ODP, his or her category request logs reflect this fact. Mine did not, so my status with ODP remained a mystery to most people. The exceptions were a few of the moderators at Search Engine Discussion who were ODP editors themselves. I considered these people to be interested parties, so I confirmed that my ODP login had been inactivated and that I had e-mailed ODP staff requesting reinstatement. And when I got tired of waiting for a response, it occurred to me that I could start my own Internet directory and improve upon the ODP model. At the very least, I could contribute my time, talent, and ideas to one of the many pretenders to the Open Content throne that is currently held by ODP.

Not the First, But by Far the Best

ODP is not the first Open Content directory, but it is by far the most successful. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for improvement in ODP's organizational structure. Right now, it is essentially a feudal oligarchy in which certain dedicated and qualified editors are "knighted" by ODP's staff and given "meta" editing privileges; the position of "editall" is often a brief precursor to "meta-hood," as it were. Whilst I was an editor, I argued passionately for the need to create a "House of Commons" to balance the power wielded by the "House of Lords," or as I was wont to call it, the "Council of Metas." As well, I argued for the need to create a "Grand Jury" to investigate and oversee the Council of Metas. Such institutional reforms may actually take place at ODP sometime in the near future, but I will not be a part of it.

I truly enjoyed working with ODP, and I would probably return if I was given the opportunity to do so, but the perspective is much different being on the outside looking in. After a while, you begin to see that ODP is nowhere near as important as it seems to be, notwithstanding its phenomenal success. And you get tired of the silent treatment from ODP's staff and the Council of Metas. And getting the silent treatment is the norm.

Approximately 9 out of 10 new editor applications are now rejected, many of them without comment or feedback. And if you do receive notice that your application was rejected, it may or may not include the name of the meta editor who processed your application. Part of the reason for this silent treatment is because ODP's meta editors receive an astounding amount of hate mail, but the biggest reason is that many of the meta editors have no interest in helping people learn how to be competent editors. Rather, they are looking for editors who "know how to think for themselves." Provided, that is, that these editors who know how to think for themselves think the way that the meta editors want them to think. But if the meta editors like the way you think, you will most likely be put on the fast track for promotion.

With a few notable exceptions, you must apply for new editing privileges to move up through the ranks at ODP. And similar to being rejected as an editor applicant, being rejected for new editing privileges is usually very impersonal. The difference is that it is very easy to figure out who rejected you for additional editing privileges by reviewing your category request logs. Many editors make the mistake of assuming that this means that you can contact the meta editor who rejected you and ask for an explanation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the quickest way to get your ODP editing privileges completely revoked. But most editors who are rejected for new editing privileges don't just ask for an explanation via e-mail. Rather, when their e-mail is ignored (as it almost always is), they post a complaint in the ODP Editor Forum, the sharks begin to circle, and then the feeding frenzy begins.

Swimming with the Sharks

On more than one occasion, the ODP sharks began to circle around me, but not because I was an incompetent editor seeking promotion. Rather, the first time it happened was when I spoke up about the need for a volunteer editor's organization to promote quality control at ODP. This was seen as a power play by those who enjoyed being part of the ODP Lynch Mob, and I found myself defending spurious accusations that I had abused my editing privileges until ODP Staff intervened on my behalf. A short time later, I found myself on the same side as the former leaders of the lynch mob when ODP Staff introduced the controversial policy of giving Professional Content Providers (PCPs) high level access as ODP editors.

Professional Content Providers: The ODP Sell Out

Many ODP editors are also Web site owners. In fact, one of the perks of being an ODP editor is the ability to manage your own site listings. Notwithstanding the potential conflicts of interest that could arise, this is seldom a serious concern among ODP's more active editors because it takes too much time and energy for people to achieve a position of trust within ODP where they can do any real damage. By that time, most editors realize that there are intangible benefits to being an ODP editor that are not worth the small advantage that you might obtain by shameless self-promotion. All of this changed, however, when ODP jumped into bed with the PCPs.

Quite some time ago, PCPs such as Rolling Stone Magazine and (surprise!) America Online approached the top management at ODP and suggested that it would be a good deal all around if the PCPs could manage their own site listings within ODP. After all, many ODP editors were also Web site owners who managed their own listings. The difference was that the ODP editors had to work their way up through the ranks whereas PCPs were given the proverbial key to the Emerald City from day one. To add fuel to the fire, many trustworthy volunteer editors were "counseled" for deleting or modifying inappropriate listings that had been added to ODP by PCP editors.

For the record, I had no problem working with PCP editors, but I think that ODP could have and should have put them on a much shorter leash with a cadre of more trustworthy volunteer editors as the handlers. In retrospect, however, it is now very clear to me that while all ODP editors are equal, some are more equal than others. Never was this more true than when the Council of Metas took over the day-to-day management of ODP.

The Council of Metas is Formed

Slowly but surely, ODP staff has delegated almost all editing privileges to volunteer editors. First it was "editall" privileges, then it was "catmv," finally it was "meta." At this point, the only meaningful powers that staff editors have retained for themselves are the ability to grant meta and editall editing privileges and to inactive editor logins. Virtually everything else is now in the hands of the metas and editalls.

There is a sound argument to be made for delegating the day-to-day management of ODP to volunteer editors who have shown their commitment to the directory and their ability to work as part of a team. However, the fact of the matter is that some of the meta editors are control freaks. Not all or even most of them are out of control or drunk with power, but it only takes one or two control freaks to do a great deal of damage to the morale of the rank and file editors.

No Editor Owns a Category

Imagine that you are an expert in your field and that you have volunteered as an ODP editor in your field of expertise. Days, weeks, even months pass before anyone says anything to you other than an occasional e-mail to invite you to the ODP Editor Forum to discuss some sort of improvement to the overall category structure, then one day you log on to ODP to find that someone has reorganized your category, adding sites that don't belong, deleting sites that do belong, and changing every single title and description. This is akin to walking into your office one day to find that a high ranking executive in your company, someone whom you have never met, has rearranged all of the furniture and files in your office to suit his or her own tastes.

This situation is all too common at ODP, and the bottom line is that no editor owns a category. As an active and high ranking editor from fairly early on, I was guilty of running roughshod over low level editors myself on three occasions of which I know, but it was never intentional: I always made an effort to consult with anyone who might be affected by my actions and wait for feedback. The first occasion involved the deletion of a single site that was owned by a problem editor who was subsequently removed from ODP for abusing his editing privileges; the second involved an active editor who has never forgiven me for moving too quickly for his tastes in the reorganization of ODP's Society: Law hierarchy; and the third was a simple misunderstanding involving one site that was quickly resolved by relisting the site in question. Ironically enough, the editor who has never forgiven me for the way I handled the reorganization of Society: Law has risen to the ranks of ODP metahood and ranks as one of the top five ODP control freaks of all time. He seldom if ever consults with an editor-in-residence before reorganizing the contents of a category to suit his own tastes.

The Future of the Open Content Movement

It is somewhat self-evident that there is room for improvement in the ODP organizational model, and it is only a matter of time before one of the many up and coming user-contributed directories takes the lead position from ODP. Given my druthers, I would have stayed at ODP until the bitter end, doing my best to stick up for the little guy and work for change within the system. In fact, as I stated earlier, I would probably return to ODP if I was given the opportunity to do so. But there are alternatives. There is life after ODP. And to that end, I have formed the XODP eGroup as a forum for ODP expatriates, malcontents, and other critics to discuss these alternatives. Anyone is welcome to join.

I have my own ideas about what direction the Open Content movement should take. Specifically, I'd like to create an Internet directory that is not only Open Content but Open Source, as this would restore free market competition to a market that is in dire need of it. I think that this is the best way to keep ODP's management honest and responsive to the concerns of the Internet community which it purports to serve, and I am still looking for the talent to help me make this happen. But more important: I'd like to hear any and all other ideas that people have about the possibility of life after ODP and the future of the Open Content movement.

David F. Prenatt, Jr. is an independent consultant who provides confidential Web site evaluations and critiques for attorneys. His business takes him all over the United States and Canada. Comments and questions can be posted to the XODP eGroup or emailed to netesq@dcn.davis.ca.us .


June 1, 2000





Andrew Goodman is co-founder and Editor of Traffick.com, a popular guide to search engine and portal trends. He has published articles in publications such as Internet Markets, The Globe and Mail, and Yorkshire Post Magazine, and is regularly cited in business and technology publications such as Business Week. In 1999, Andrew left his burgeoning academic career in political theory and policy studies to found a private consultancy, Page Zero Media, which offers search engine marketing services and strategic advice to companies seeking an online presence.



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