Backlash Update: Out With Stickiness and Kool-Aid

Several weeks ago this column compiled a New Economy Backlash Checklist. This week two new backlash victims have emerged.

First: stickiness. A “sticky” Web site is one where users spend a lot of time. The stickier the site, the better. But not anymore! On Monday, in the Wall Street Journal’s often-interesting “E-World” column, Thomas E. Weber declares, “Sticky was stupid.” Weber slags sites that invented foolish ways to more or less trap users with useless distractions in the short-sighted pursuit of stickiness—even if what a user was likely to want was a clean, quick experience. Stickiness gained credibility, basically, because it could be measured, and it came along at a time when there were few useful measures to determine the worth of a Web property. As Weber dryly notes, another measure has lately caught on, “It’s called net income.” Fair enough, with this caveat: As is often the case in a backlash, the thing being lashed here is not totally useless. For any site with ad-based revenue model, it’s still pretty important to figure out how to make your users stick around.

Second: Kool-Aid. This one has always been sort of curious: The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” was often employed as a clever way of saying “believe in the stock.” But I’ve always assumed that it was somehow a reference to the Jim Jones cultists who drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Guyana, which just doesn’t sound like a good thing. (Aside to those who were teen-agers in the Houston area in the 1980s: For this reason, the phrase always makes me think of the Judy’s song “Guyana Punch.”) Despite this, there’s no question that the saying—even when you figure in irony or Wall Street-ish gallows humor—came to be used by people who did not mean “embrace disaster.” For example, Jim Clark, explaining how investors flocked to Netscape’s stock after the profitless company’s public offering, once said: “People started drinking my Kool-Aid.” Maybe this was meant to suggest the on-the-bus-or-not-on-the-bus dichotomy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In any case, in a story in today’s New York Times on the expected IPO of Loudcloud (the new project of Clark’s old partner Marc Andreessen), a money manager recalls having been burned by his investment in Webvan. “I bought the story,” he says. “Fortunately, I realized very soon after that I’d been drinking Kool-Aid.” There you have it: In the post-bubble world, drinking the Kool-Aid, no matter who’s serving it up, is strictly for suckers.