Escaping Siberia: How Netscape's boss exploits controversy and paid users

After just a few months, the new head of Netscape wants out. That's why he's fomenting controversy over his newest job offer — paying his competitors' top users to seed Netscape. When the smoke clears, the site will have a shot in the arm, and Netscape's boss will be closer to leaving for a better gig at AOL.

Just a month after Jason Calacanis launched his user-driven version of AOL's Netscape.com, he offered to hire away the top (unpaid) users of competitors like Digg. He predicted an outcry at the idea of paying users to do what they usually do for free — just like the outcry, he said, that he caused years ago by paying his bloggers at Weblogs, Inc. Jason decided to make this offer controversial, knowing the buzz would boost Netscape just long enough to impress AOL.

Immediately, bloggers bit his bait.

"What's the going rate for a community?" asked one blog. Others congratulated Jason on recognizing some revolution and the end of free "crowdsourcing" from power users. But the blogging debate is just Jason's way of spreading the news about his job offer, as well as further branding himself as a forward thinker.

Right now, Netscape is a ghost town. An item can hit the front page with just six user votes (compared to about 40 votes on Digg). Jason knows he needs a Digg-like core of power users to liven up the site. With enough buzz and a quick surge in traffic, he can impress the higher-ups at AOL and get the hell out of Netscape.

Jason got hired into AOL when he sold Weblogs, Inc. His deft management showed AOL that he can handle a large paid staff. (That's why they left him in charge of the network while giving him this new project.) Netscape was a new test: could Jason manage a rowdy user base?

So far, no one's had time to find out. Jason's too busy fielding critics — both Digg fanatics and disenfranchised Netscape vets. Jason's fighting a two-front war, and he's desperate for mercenaries.

Now, Jason's not the first to have a hard time with Netscape. Back in March, when a Valleywag guest writer confirmed rumors about the new Netscape, he sniped at ex-Netscape head Jeremy Liew for "running the brand into the ground." Liew's colleagues replied, saying Liew gave Netscape a brief respite from ten years of revenue decline. While no one agreed on who fucked up Netscape, everyone agreed the brand is so five years ago.

Even AOL knows this. Former Netscape employee Susan Mernit wrote today:

AOL's never made the commitment to Netscape as a brand [...] instead, every 18 months they've handed it over to some impatient executive who doesn't realize—yet—he's being sent to the high-class version of corporate Siberia—where, if he slays the dragon, they might let him come back and run something they consider really important.

In other words, Netscape is just a testing ground for execs, and being put in charge is almost an insult. But Jason, eager to prove his worth at AOL, refuses to sit and slowly bleed away the brand like his predecessors. He knows that while a mild failure will just waste his time, a spectacular failure is almost as good as a success.

That's why he took Netscape from beta to front-page in two weeks. That's why he publicly engaged his critics. And that's why he'll take the first chance to dump Netscape and do some real work.

Paying the top DIGG/REDDIT/Flickr/Newsvine users [Jason Calacanis Weblog]
Photo: Jason Calacanis [Scott Beale on Flickr]
Earlier: Yahoo pays people $150 to use Meebo, AOL pays people to use Netscape [Valleywag]