Founded: Pierre Omidyar, 1995, US
What is it? Auction and shopping site
You cannot buy fireworks, guns, franking machines, animals or lock-picking devices
on eBay, the internet’s premier auction site, but almost everything else is OK: sideburns,
houses, used underwear and of course Pez dispensers.
Pez is where it is said to have all begun for eBay’s ponytailed founder Pierre Omidyar
when he responded to his fiancee’s worries that she would no longer be able to expand
her toy collection when they moved to Silicon Valley. Omidyar developed a car boot
sale anyone could use wherever they were, and without the need for getting dressed.
The name sprang from Echo Bay Technology Group, Omidyar’s consultancy company, and
the first sale was a broken laser pointer.
Things have moved on a little since then. We spend more time on eBay than any other
internet site. There are more than 10 million users in the UK. And eBay is far from
just a second-hand stall. New items are sold by global companies; many people have
abandoned their jobs to eBay full time, and normally sane people fret about ‘negative
feedback’ and being outbid by ‘snipers’. eBay owns PayPal and Skype, making dealing
Founded: Jimmy Wales, 2001, US
Users: 912,000 visits per day
What is it? Online encyclopaedia
As a young boy growing up in Hunstville, Alabama, Jimmy Wales attended a one-room
school, sharing his classes with only three other children. Here he spent ‘many hours
poring over encyclopaedias’, and faced the familiar frustrations: their scope was
conservative; they were hard to navigate and often out of date.
In January 2001 he created a solution. Wikipedia was a free online encyclopaedia and
differed from its predecessors in one fundamental regard: it was open to everyone
to read, and also to edit. If you had something to add – from a pedantic correction
to an entire entry on your specialist subject – the Wiki template made this easy.
The software enables entries to be updated within minutes of new developments. There
is nothing you cannot find – how best to make glass, the use of the nappy in space
exploration – and if something isn’t there, you may wish to take matters into your
Like any fast-moving venture – the site attracts 2,000-plus page requests a second
– it has not been slow to attract criticism. Occasionally a libellous article will
lie undetected for months, as happened with an entry linking one of Robert Kennedy’s
aides with his assassination. But Wales says his creation is abused only rarely, and
swiftly corrected by other users. ‘Those who use Wikipedia a lot appreciate its true
value and have learnt to trust it,’ he says. ‘Sometimes a prankster will substitute
a picture of Hitler for George Bush, and within an hour someone would have changed
Founded: Shawn Fanning, 1999, US
Users: 500,000 paying subscribers
What is it? File sharing site
Shawn Fanning created Napster in 1999 while studying at Boston’s Northeastern University,
as a means of sharing music files with his fellow students. Of course, it was entirely
illegal (home taping kills music, remember) and was quickly attacked by a mainstream
music industry already struggling to make profits on its money-guzzling artists. Its
popularity reached a peak in 2000 with over 70 million registered users before Fanning’s
company was forced to pay millions of dollars in backdated royalties: a move which
bankrupted the original, free-to-use Napster the following year. By then, however,
the premature leaking and sharing of hotly anticipated albums by some of the major
labels’ most bankable artists had proved to be a stimulant, not a thief, of sales
once the CD version was released. The new Napster – effectively a renamed version
of a pay-to-download MP3 site owned by the original Napster company’s buyers, the
German giant Bertelsmann- has never recaptured its original cool, precisely because
it is now legitimate. What it did in its brief period of illegal notoriety was popularise
the notion that making music freely available on the internet – through MySpace, one-off
downloads or artist-sanctioned ‘leaks’ – does artists no harm at all; indeed, it’s
helped to launch the careers of many.
Founded: Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, 2005, US
Users: 100m clips watched a day
What is it? Video sharing site
When Chad Hurley and Steve Chen began working out of a garage in San Mateo in late
2004 to figure out an easy way to upload and share funny videos they’d taken at a
dinner party, they had no idea just how huge an impact their creation would make.
The former PayPal employees launched the user-friendly site in February 2005 and it
has since become one of the most popular sites on the net, with YouTube claiming that
100 million clips are watched every day. Through the grassroots power of the internet
and good word-of-mouth, the site quickly went from a place where people shared homemade
video clips to users posting long-lost TV and film gems such as bloopers from Seventies
game shows to ancient music videos. It has also taken off as a place for amateur film-makers
to show off their talents – take David Lehre, a teenager whose MySpace: The Movie
became such a popular clip he’s already fielded job offers from major movie studios.
Not all television studios immediately embraced the idea of their archived copyrighted
footage being shared. ‘We’re not here to steal,’ insists Chen. ‘When [US television
network] NBC asked us to take something down, we did.’ In fact, NBC only last week
announced plans to work alongside YouTube, airing exclusive clips and trailers and
eventually hoping to post episodes of The Office and Saturday Night Live on it. The
company has had several offers to be bought out, but the pair swear they will not
sell out. They continue to work out of their San Mateo loft, overseeing 27 employees
and developing ways to make the site easier to use while whirling lucrative deals
Founded: Evan Williams, 1999, US
Users: 18.5m unique visitors
What is it? Weblog publishing system
There weren’t too many computers lying around in the cornfields of Nebraska in the
1970s when Evan Williams was growing up. But he was drawn to them when he found them.
He was also drawn west, to California in the 1990s. Williams founded Pyra Labs with
two friends. At first it made project-management software for companies. It was not
glamorous. Then it made Blogger and changed the world.
‘The funny thing was I actually hesitated before working on Blogger because I didn’t
see the commercial applications,’ says Williams. ‘We had started a company and we
needed to make money. We didn’t see how this little hobbyist activity was going to
make anyone money.’
The little hobbyist activity was blogging, the art of keeping a weblog – of diarising,
theorising, satirising, fictionalising your life and observations online. It had already
taken off among the tech fraternity in the Nineties, but it required building and
maintaining your own website; the luddites were excluded. Williams created a tool
that made self-publishing online as user-friendly as word-processing. It is hard to
exaggerate the importance of this innovation. It didn’t just create a new form of
creative expression, it turned the media upside down.
Content was once made by companies for passive consumption by people. After Blogger,
people were the content. They wrote about and read about their friends, their opinions,
their cats. (There was a lot about cats in the early blogs.) None had a huge audience
but collectively they were massive. ‘Now you see TV networks saying: “We’ve gotta
get on the web because that’s where the audience is,”‘ says Williams.
There is no accurate count of the number of blogs in existence now. There are millions.
One is created every minute. The revolution might have been possible without Blogger
but it would have taken everyone a lot longer.
‘Something like it would have existed anyway,’ says Williams. ‘And lots of things
like it do exist. It was a combination of helping push an idea as well as just being
in the right place at the right time when the idea was right.’
Founded: Steve and Julie Pankhurst, 1999, UK
What is it? School reunion site
In July 2000, as the dreams of the internet boom crumbled around them, a husband-and-wife
team were busy launching a rough and ready web phenomenon. Friends Reunited, which
was sold to ITV for £120m last December, was Julie Pankhurst’s brainchild. While pregnant,
she became obsessed with finding out what her old friends had been up to since they
left school. Her husband Steve, a computer programmer, had been brainstorming with
his business partner Jason Porter for an original internet-based idea, and Julie suggested
a website to cater for her newfound obsession. It took her some time to convince them.
‘In the end,’ says Steve, ‘I designed Friends Reunited just to shut her up.’
The site took off slowly, getting half a dozen hits per day, but everything changed
at the start of 2001 when its lone server collapsed. ‘The Steve Wright show on Radio
2 had made us their website of the day. Tens of thousands of people had tried to access
the site at the same time.’ Within a month membership rose from 3,000 to 19,000; the
couple were working 18-hour days. Friends Reunited quickly became a household name
and membership soared into the millions.
Founded: Matt Drudge, 1994, US
Users: 8-10m page views per day
What is it? News site
What began as a gossipy email newsletter has, since its first post in 1994, developed
into one of the most powerful media outlets in American politics. Today the Drudge
Report has evolved into a website, drudgereport.com, and its threadbare, no-frills
design belies the scale of its influence. It received an estimated 3.5 billion hits
in the last 12 months; visitors regard it as the first port of call for breaking news.
Fedora-wearing founder Matt Drudge monitors TV and the internet for rumours and stories
which he posts as headlines on his site. For the most part these are direct links
to traditional news sites, though occasionally Drudge writes the stories himself.
In 1998 he was the first to break news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Named this year as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, the 38-year-old
regards himself as a maverick newsman working free from the demands of editors and
advertisers. Others, particularly critics from the left, view his reportage as biased
towards conservatives, careless, malicious and frequently prone to error.
A report in 1997, alleging that White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal physically
abused his wife, generated a $30m lawsuit against Drudge, which was dropped in 2001.
In June 2004, Drudge apologised for a February ‘world exclusive’ claiming that John
Kerry had had an affair with an intern.
Drudge has been labelled a ‘threat to democracy’ and an ‘idiot with a modem’ as well
as ‘the kind of bold, entrepreneurial, free-wheeling, information-oriented outsider
we need more of in this country’ (by Camille Paglia); his importance in the US media
Founded: Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, 2003, US
What is it? Social networking site
When business-school alumnus Chris DeWolfe set up the social networking site MySpace
with his partner, ex-band member and film studies graduate Tom Anderson, three years
ago, there was little indication that the one-stop online friend-making shop would
soon boast 100 million members and more page visits in Britain than the BBC. The pair
envisaged a site that would bring together all the qualities of existing online communities
such as Friendster, Tribe.net and LiveJournal, with added features including classified
adverts and events planning.
They got the formula just right: the MySpace-opolis is growing by 240,000 a day, making
it the fourth most-visited website in the world. DeWolfe believes that the key to
the site’s success is its founders’ rapport with the people who use it. ‘We looked
at it from the point of view of how people live their lives,’ he says.
One of those features is the ability to upload and listen to music, which has attracted
2.2 million new bands and artists to the site, some of whom – most famously Lily Allen
and Arctic Monkeys – can attribute their chart success to having spread the word through
MySpace’s parent company, Intermix, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp last year
for $580m, causing consternation among some of the music world’s more politicised
acts, but no large-scale boycott. The site is simply too valuable and effective –
and ubiquitous – to ignore.
Founded: Jeff Bezos, 1994, US
Users: More than 35m customers in over 250 countries
What is it? Online retailer, primarily of books, CDs and DVDs
The earth’s biggest bookstore was originally called Cadabra, but Jeff Bezos thought
again after his lawyer misheard it as ‘cadaver’. He chose Amazon as something large
and unstoppable and so, with current annual revenues of $8bn, it has proved. It was
just a trickle to begin with though: the first office was in a Seattle suburb with
desks made out of old doors. But it quickly became the headline act of the dotcom
miracle and Bezos was Time magazine’s man of the year in 1999. Amazon’s continued
dominance rests on price-slashing that would make Wal-Mart wince, and a reputation
for reliability. Though selling books (and now almost everything else) on a vast scale,
it has tried never to forget the value of intimacy.
Founded: Rob Malda, 1997, US
Users: 5.5m per month
What is it? Technology news website and internet forum
‘I’m just a geek that likes to poke around with hardware,’ says Rob Malda. His site,
Slashdot.org, hosts news and discussion for techies and is one of the most visited
websites in the world. Time magazine included him in its top 100 innovators, stating:
‘Malda has taken the idea of what news can be, hacked it open and rebuilt it for the
Most of the site is written by users; posts include a short synopsis paragraph, a
link to the original story and a lengthy discussion sometimes running to 10,000 comments
a day. Slashdot pioneered this user-driven content, and influenced sites including
Google News, Guardian Unlimited and Wikipedia. In 2002 the site leaked the ruling
of a court case involving Microsoft before the verdict had even been delivered to
Microsoft or the US government. There is also the Slashdot effect, where a site is
swamped by heavy traffic from a Slashdot link and its server collapses.
In 1997, 21-year-old Malda started what we would now call a blog, hosted on his user
account at university. As the site picked up users he divided his time between college,
paid work and the site. ‘It was a blur. There were many nights when I did not sleep.’
Two years later Andover bought Slashdot for $5m, shared between Malda, co-founder
Jeff ‘Hemos’ Bates and other partners. They also shared $7m in stock between them.
In 2000 VA Linux (now VA Software) bought Andover for $900m. Slashdot now has 10 employees
dedicated to maintaining the site, most of them based in California. Malda has remained
in Michigan, where he grew up and went to college. He is director of Slashdot. He
proposed to his wife Kathleen on the site in 2002.
Founded: David Talbot, 1995, US
Users: Between 2.5 and 3.5m unique visitors per month
What is it? Online magazine and media company Salon grew out of a strike. When
the San Francisco Examiner was shut for a couple of weeks in 1994 a few of its journalists
taught themselves HTML and had a go at doing a newspaper with new technology. They
found the experience liberating, and David Talbot, the Examiner’s arts editor, subsequently
gave up his job and launched the kind of online paper he had always wanted to work
for. Salon was originally a forum for discussing books, but the editors quickly realised
it had to be more journalistic than that. They aimed at creating a ‘smart tabloid’,
not afraid to be mischievous while maintaining a rigour with news. Talbot believes
that online journalism came of age with the death of Princess Diana and the Lewinsky
scandal. It proved with those events that it could be nimbler and more gossipy, it
could update itself continually and, crucially, let readers join in. Salon’s Table
Talk forum established a new relationship between a news outfit and its audience,
letting readers write themselves into the story.
Salon was not afraid of muck-raking. When Talbot decided to run a story about Henry
Hyde, who was to sit in judgment of Bill Clinton after the Starr report, he was roundly
criticised not just by the entrenched Washington media but also by some on his own
staff. The story concerned Hyde’s extramarital affair of 30 years before, and the
more august sections of the American media, not to mention the right-wing impeachers
of the President, thought this was beyond the pale. Talbot recalls how Salon ‘got
bomb threats, I received death threats… [but] I think if as a new organisation that
comes into the world, a new media operation, you don’t take risks with stories that
no one else does, then what’s the point?’
For all its journalistic success, Salon has always struggled financially. A couple
of times the site has nearly gone under; on one occasion Talbot was forced to fire
his wife who ran a women’s page. A subscription system saved it, along with the growth
in online advertising. These days Talbot sees Salon’s competitors as the big news
organisations, the New York Times and so on, who have strong online presence. Having
shown a few of them how it’s done, Salon now faces a daily battle to stay ahead of
Founded: Craig Newmark, 1995, US
Users: 4bn page views per month
What is it? A centralised network of online urban communities, featuring free
classified advertisements and forums
Craigslist is one of the most deceptively simple websites on the internet. It is also
one of the most powerful. It is – pretty much – simply a free noticeboard. But its
astonishing popularity has given it immense power. Want to rent an apartment? Sell
a car? Find a job? Meet someone to spend the night with? Craiglist will provide the
answers. For free. It has revolutionised urban living in America. It has also undercut
one of the main reasons for newspapers: classified advertising. As nearly all Craigslist’s
content is free, it rarely censors ads and its readers number in the millions, it
is far more useful to post an advert on the site than in your local newspaper. Thus
a huge decline in newspaper ads and revenue, triggering cost-cutting which will see
reporters tossed on to the scrap heap… and the end of a free press and democracy
as we know it (if the critics are to be believed).
The website was founded by Craig Newmark, an ubergeek with a hippyish mentality. It
started as a simple email that he would send around listing various events going on
in San Francisco. From such humble beginnings Craigslist has grown into a multi-million-dollar
business. Yet Newmark refuses to sell his company or charge for every ad.
Why should you care? Craigslist is all over the world – and coming to your home town
Founded: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, 1998, US
Users: A billion search requests per day
What is it? Search engine and media corporation
Its name is listed as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. It commands the largest
internet search engine in the world. It is the fastest-growing company in history
and its founders are worth almost $13bn each.
The search method devised by Larry Page and Sergey Brin was instrumental to Goggle’s
success. Rather than ranking results according to how many times the search term appeared
on a page, their system measured the frequency with which a website was referenced
by other sites. Another key factor was the site’s stripped-down design, which made
it speedier and more accessible than its competitors.
From such plain foundations a gigantic empire has sprung and is branching out into
email (with Gmail), news (Google News), price comparison (Froogle), cartography (Google
Maps), literature (with the much contested Google Book Search), free telephony (Google
Talk), and, most strikingly, Google Earth, an incredibly detailed virtual globe. Google
styles itself as a laidback, hippyish organisation but its founding motto, ‘Don’t
Be Evil’, is already being tested: the compromise it reached with China over censorship
has proved particularly contentious.
Founded: David Filo and JerryYang, 1994, US
What is it? Internet portal and media corporation
It receives an average of 3.4bn page hits a day, making it the single most visited
website on the internet, but in recent years Yahoo! has been eclipsed by Google. Both
companies were launched on a very small scale by Stanford University graduates and,
very soon the portal that Jerry Yang and David Filo had started as a hobby was en
route to becoming the most popular search engine on the web. On the back of its early
success, Yahoo! (an acronym for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle’) branched
out into email, instant messaging, news, gaming, online shopping and an array of other
It also started buying up other companies such as Geocities, eGroups and the web radio
company Broadcast.com. Yahoo! survived the internet collapse at the start of the decade
and brought former Warner Bros chief exec Terry Semel on board in 2001 to navigate
the difficult waters of the post-boom period. Semel began to address the challenge
of making money out of the internet without relying on advertising revenue alone.
Google notwithstanding, Yahoo! is still very much a contender.
Haji-Ioannou, 1995, UK
Users: 30m passengers last year
What is it?: Budget airline
It’s easy to forget what it was like back in the old days, when we didn’t just pay
a tenner, pitch up at Luton and pop over to Rome for the weekend. We mini-breaked
in Bournemouth. Travelling to Scotland was an all-day affair. Airlines issued quaint
old-fashioned things such as meals. And tickets. And seats.
And then along came Stelios. That’s Stelios as in Haji-Ioannou, although he now, alongside
Delia and Jamie and Sven, belongs in that rare category – the surnameless celebrity.
He’s also that other elusive British beast – the celebrity entrepreneur. In 1995,
after borrowing £30m from his dad, a shipping magnate, he leased two second-hand Boeings
and began selling flights to Scotland for £29 each way.
EasyJet was the first low-cost British airline and, presciently, the first to start
taking bookings over the internet, although, as Stelios admits, he wasn’t won over
‘We started off as something very obscure like 1145678.com. And I said: “This is never
going to fill the planes. It’s just for nerds.” Then some time in 1997 we bought the
domain easyjet.com for about £1,000 and put up a proper website. At that time we had
the telephone number in big letters on the side of the plane. And we put a different
telephone number on the website. Week after week I watched how quickly the numbers
were growing and that gave me the confidence in April 1997 to launch a booking site.’
It was, he says, the neatest and simplest way: ‘you outsource the work to the customer’.
And it turned him into an internet evangelical. The first company he set up after
easyJet was easyInternetcafe and all 15 companies in the easyGroup have some sort
of web component.
Vote for your favourite over at the Observer