By Adrian Chen
Sure, with its sprawling server farms, Google is probably the web’s most powerful entity. And everyone knows about the influence of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. But to us, powerful means changing what we eat, how we vote, and the ways we kill time at the office. In no particular order, here are the 25 Most Powerful Websites.
The first successful webcam wasn’t sexy, funny, or even all that interesting. It was a low-resolution camera pointed at a coffeemaker. In 1991, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge were tired of trekking upstairs for a cup of Joe only to find the coffeepot outside the Trojan Room lab empty. They set up a live video feed connected to a local network. When they made the page public, in 1993, it became Internet famous. As traffic swelled, the lab even added a lamp so international visitors could peek in after hours.
By luring millions of visitors, the coffeepot proved that anything can be hypnotic on the web. That opened the floodgates for slightly more engaging live streams: from the voyeuristic JenniCam to feeds of live panda cubs. But by 2001, the coffeepot’s 15 minutes had long passed. Researchers packed up the camera and moved to a new facility. The pot? It sold for $2,300.
Amazon has changed the way Americans shop, but its most powerful offering doesn’t come in a box. Over the past few years, Amazon has quietly laid the groundwork for a cloud-computing takeover that could be even more far-reaching.
In 2006, Amazon started leasing out storage space on its massive server farms, saving companies the hassle of setting up expensive in-house systems. Amazon Web Services (AWS), as it’s known, helps some of the world’s biggest businesses run. Netflix uses it to stream billions of hours of video to consumers, while banks rely on AWS to crunch numbers from their massive databases. As Borders can tell you, don’t bet against Amazon’s ability to completely transform an industry.
In 1999, writer Gail Simone noticed an unsettling trend in comic books: a disproportionate number of female superheroes were being killed, maimed, or depowered, compared with their male counterparts. So she created Women in Refrigerators, a database of heroines who had met untimely demises. The name comes from the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, who was stuffed into a fridge after being murdered by one of his nemeses.
Simone did more than just chronicle these grisly ends. By giving writers the opportunity to respond, she created an important forum for discussing sexism in the art form. The site opened the doors to similar critiques about the disproportionate attacks on gay and lesbian characters. Soon, the phrase “women in refrigerators” became shorthand for problematic depictions of women across pop culture. It also helped Simone become part of the solution. In 2007, she became the first female writer to helm DC’s Wonder Woman in the title’s 66-year history.
Before the Internet, getting a medical diagnosis required consulting a trained professional. That changed in 1996, when WebMD debuted the Symptom Checker, a catalog of conditions that nervous web browsers could peruse for hours. The problem, of course, is that self-diagnosis isn’t quite the same as visiting someone who owns a stethoscope. As a result, the site fomented a brand-new malady: cyberchondria—Internet-induced hypochondria.
Just how needlessly alarming can the web be? Fewer than 1 in 50,000 people have a brain tumor, but according Psychology Today, enter the word headache into a search engine and you’ll find that 25 percent of the results point to brain tumors as a probable cause. That explains why a 2008 study confirmed that 40 percent of people who use the web to self-diagnose end up suffering increased anxiety.
What makes WebMD stand out from the pack? As The New York Times noted, its click-friendly alarmist tone makes it chum for cyberchondriacs. And the strategy pays—in 2010, the site generated more than $500 million in advertising profit. Great for WebMD. For the sufferer of the common cold? Not so much.
As a tiny island nation with just 300,000 residents, Iceland’s gene pool is dangerously shallow; discovering that your hot date is a not-too-distant cousin is a distinct possibility. In 1997, a team that included deCODE Genetics solved the problem with the site Islendingabok.
Citizens enter a potential mate’s name into the Book of Icelanders, and the site parses 1,200 years’ worth of genealogical data to determine how closely related they are. But what if you meet someone at a bar and don’t want to spoil the moment by firing up your laptop? Islendingabok has an app for that. Just tap phones with your prospect, and wait for the all-clear. As the tagline cheerfully advises: “Bump the app before you bump in bed.”
According to a Harvard Business School study, a one-star increase in a restaurant’s Yelp rating boosts the eatery’s profits by five to nine percent.
Russia’s Alexei Navalny can ruin a politician’s career with a single blog post. Known for his bold exposés—including leaking internal documents from crooked state-run companies—Navalny’s incendiary writing helped spark the biggest antigovernment protests Russia has seen in years. Just as the Drudge Report rocked American politics by picking up the Monica Lewinsky scandal before mainstream outlets would touch it, Navalny will do whatever it takes to keep Moscow’s elite honest. What’s surprising is his weapon of choice: LiveJournal.
In the U.S., the online diary site is best remembered as a cache of bad poetry and Star Trek fan fiction. But in Russia, where the nickname for the site, ZheZhe, doubles as the word for blogging, it’s a vital broadcast system. Thirty-five million people have accounts, including celebrities, politicians, and even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and it’s seen as one of the few places where citizens and journalists can publish without censorship. Unfortunately, all that free speech has hurt Navalny. After four years of rabble-rousing, the government slapped him with trumped-up embezzlement charges, the legality of which is no doubt being debated on LiveJournal.
Pets.com was literally flying high on November 25, 1999. A 36-foot balloon version of the site’s famous sock-puppet dog mascot soared over New York City in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A few months later, the company would rake in $82.5 million in an initial public offering.
The sock puppet—voiced by Michael Ian Black—cemented its status as a pop culture icon by appearing in a $25 million Super Bowl ad. The puppet was interviewed by People and appeared on Good Morning America. When Pets.com began offering sock puppets, it sold 10,000 in the first week, more than all its pet-related products.
That fact alone should have raised red flags. No ad campaign could fix Pets.com’s unsustainable business model, which required shipping heavy bags of food at huge losses. This strategy led to $62 million in losses in 1999. Despite partnering with Amazon, the site had to be put to sleep in November 2000.
“The only thing I ended up with out of that investment is a sock puppet,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Vanity Fair. And the rest of the Internet-commerce industry? It learned that the value of having a catchy mascot is second only to having a solid business model. As for the puppet, the critter now serves as the mascot for 1-800-BarNone, a Michigan-based car loan company for drivers with bad credit. BarNone’s slogan: “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before Reddit unearthed its first meme, Slashdot was the center of the nerd universe. The collection of tech news, opinion, and inside jokes was required reading for geeks, who flocked to any site Slashdot endorsed with a link.
Unfortunately, these plugs were a catch-22 for burgeoning sites. Slashdot’s vast audience was so enthusiastic that it flooded and crashed target sites’ servers. Users even coined the term “Slashdotted” to describe these outages.
Paradoxically, the durability of today’s sites is a direct result of the “Slashdot Effect.” Programmers knew they needed more robust sites to survive Slashdot’s high-volume love, so they invested in improving software, caches, and servers to handle large quantities of traffic, making great websites better and harder to crash.
You can’t click on too many sites without running into a troll, the folk devils of the Internet who live to spout mean-spirited nonsense. If you want to trace the behavior back to its source, there’s only one place to look: 4chan. When 15-year-old Christopher “Moot” Poole (pictured) started a seemingly innocent anime fan board in 2003, he didn’t realize he was opening the web version of Pandora’s box. 4chan quickly grew into one of the darkest corners of the web thanks to its anarchic “/b/” section, where anonymity gave rise to a culture of bullying and harassment.
But strangely, even as 4chan has grown as a staging ground for flame wars, it’s also been a hive of positivity. The site incubated many of the web’s silliest memes, including Lolcats and Rickrolling. 4chan’s most powerful legacy, however, is the hacktivist collective Anonymous. The group first organized in the mid-2000s to campaign against Scientology, but today the masked hackers often rally around social causes, taking down government websites to protest censorship or hounding animal abusers.
When college freshman Aaron Peckham launched Urban Dictionary in 1999, he used the site to catalog the ridiculous lingo he and his friends made up. But as people from across the web began contributing and voting on the accuracy of definitions, what began as a goof self-corrected and transformed into a valuable resource.
Today, the crowdsourced database contains more than two million definitions of slang words and phrases—a godsend to less-than-hip parents. (For the record, Mom: “nom: 1) The act of eating. 2) An act of affection.”) But the site’s greatest beneficiary might be the U.S. legal system.
According to The New York Times, courts are increasingly leaning on the online dictionary to define slang. And while it’s both hilarious and uncomfortable to think of lawyers reading elderly juries the site’s definition of twerking—“when a woman slams her bottom on a man’s pelvic area while dancing”—it makes all the difference in cases involving sexual harassment, where decisions often hinge on parsing linguistic intent.
couch syrup: “The liquor one hides in a couch while pretending to be sober”
hungs: “A shortened way of saying one is hungry”
textretary: “A sidekick who texts for the driver”
almost-quaintance: “A person to whom one has at one point sent a successful social networking friend request”
on blast: “To embarass [sic] someone or to make someone look stupid”
In April 1993, the particle-physics lab CERN changed the digital world forever by launching the world’s first website. It was refreshingly minimalist—actually, it was dreadfully boring—just a straightforward presentation of information. It was the content and the fact that CERN was making it available royalty-free that was revolutionary. The site shared basic technical information about how to code a web page, how to search for information on the web, and the source code for setting up a web server. It also provided instructions for building sites and browsing the web. Like an invasive species, the information spread, and websites began popping up everywhere. By the end of the year, there were 500 sites. Today, more than 630 million make up a huge part of the digital universe as we know it.
In a medium where unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire, verifying information takes on a special significance. David and Barbara Mikkelson run Snopes, the web’s foremost fact-checking site, from their California home, and they’ve allayed our collective anxiety by debunking some doozies. Thanks to the Mikkelsons’ meticulous research, we are no longer burdened by urban legends like the ones above.
By allowing anyone to contribute lines of code, the open source movement was able to tackle some of computing’s thorniest problems. GitHub, a kind of Facebook for programmers founded in 2008, made open source even more democratic by allowing its 1.3 million members to introduce fixes without having to go through a project manager. Because GitHub catalogs all the iterations of a code, sites like TechCrunch have hailed it as a modern Library of Alexandria, a catalog that beginners and experts can use to better understand coding and develop ever more elegant solutions. And as TechCrunch also notes, GitHub has one distinct advantage over its ancient forebear. Because users write and edit by copying existing patches of code onto their own computers, there’s little danger this incredible resource will be lost to the sands of time.
Back in 2000, South Korean journalist Oh Yeoh-ho was fed up with his country’s mainstream media, so he launched Oh My News. True to its slogan, “Every Citizen Is a Reporter,” his online newspaper allows anyone to submit stories, which are then read and edited by paid staffers. Two years later, Oh My News rose to prominence with its coverage of a story other outlets wouldn’t touch: the deaths of two schoolgirls crushed by a U.S. Army truck. When a user posted a heartfelt plea to protest the deaths, 10,000 Koreans flooded into Seoul’s streets for a massive candlelight vigil. The rally highlighted Oh My News’s power as an organizational tool, and supporters of Roh Moo-hyun, an idealistic presidential candidate, took note. Although Roh had been a dark horse, Oh My News helped him squeak out a win. Roh was so appreciative of his digital army that he snubbed the major media and gave his first postelection interview to the people’s paper.
In 1999, Napster turned any computer into an infinite jukebox. But Metallica couldn’t just be cool about it, and court orders laid the service to rest two years later. For the record industry, the damage was done—the notion that music was something that could be possessed was gone forever.
In Napster’s wake, file-sharing hubs popped up around the world, sparking lawsuits and debates about intellectual property. One of these sites, the Swedish hub Pirate Bay, came to embody the international movement to reform copyright laws through its loose affiliation with the burgeoning political group, also Swedish in origin, the Pirate Party. Founded by tech entrepreuneur Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate Party—which stands chiefly for civil liberties, freedom of information, and copyright reform—quickly spread through Europe. It found particularly strong traction in Germany and Iceland, where this year voters elected three candidates from the Pirate Party to parliament. The party is now organized and campaigning for copyright reform and the free sharing of information in more than 43 countries.
Ask anyone who’s ever desperately needed a roommate, a last-minute concert ticket, or a used ukulele: We would be lost without Craigslist. What started as a Bay Area email list in 1995 has grown into a massive hub of more than 100 million ads a month.
Humans have been trading goods forever, of course, but through the 20th century we had to rely on newspaper classfied ads. That method was time-consuming and relied on a lot of luck and patience (and your hands got grubby from the newsprint). Craigslist revolutionized that equation with convenience, speed, and a much wider draw—all at no cost to most users.
Strangely enough, Craigslist has proved that free can pay. For all its grassroots charm, the site has backing from serious investors, and they’re making serious money. In 2012, the site made $126 million in revenue, primarily from the nominal fees it charges for posting help-wanted ads in certain markets. That’s enough to buy a lot of used coffee tables.
Saving the world is hard work. Or at least it was until John Breen revolutionized social justice in 1999 by creating an ingenious charity that appealed to lazy do-gooders. All someone had to do was click a button, and, as if by magic, ¼ cup of food would be donated to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
Breen’s click-to-donate model was wholly original. He sold day-long sponsorships to the site, convincing big-name advertisers to absorb his costs. It was a win-win for everyone—people were fed, companies looked good, and users added a little satisfaction to their days. As the dot-com bubble burst and maintenance rose beyond his capabilities, Breen sold The Hunger Site to a shopping portal, which soon ran out of money. (Today the site is part of CharityUSA.com.) The Hunger Site laid the foundation for a new generation of creative capitalism, inspiring entrepreneurs to find new ways of getting people to do good without having to do much.
At the other end of the spectrum, Alex Tew needed tuition money, so he did something audacious—he asked for it. In 2005, he started a site, Million Dollar Homepage, sold the pixels to advertisers for a dollar apiece, and in just six months, Tew cleared the million-dollar hurdle. All of which proved that when it comes to crowdsourcing funds, no cause is too selfish.
In 1998, Canadian art student Deidre LaCarte started a friendly competition with a classmate to see who could drive the most traffic to a website. LaCarte offered up Hampster Dance, a page featuring dozens of poorly animated hamsters dancing in an infinite loop to a sped-up version of the Roger Miller song “Whistle Stop.”
LaCarte didn’t know it, but she had unleashed an Internet plague. A remix of “The Hampster Dance Song” charted in countries around the world, and LaCarte’s critters were licensed for a children’s television cartoon. LaCarte’s greatest legacy? Proving Internet popularity is often directly proportional to silliness—an equation that cats and Chuck Norris have ridden to great fame.
Inspired by classifieds, Match.com founder Gary Kremen, started registering domains like Autos.com and Jobs.com in 1994. Those domains were worth a pretty penny, but during the domain-name gold rush, Sex dot com was El Dorado.
Unfortunately for Kremen, the domain also caught the eye of con man Stephen Michael Cohen. In 1995, Cohen used forged documents and incredible chutzpah to convince a registration company to transfer the domain to him. He quickly outfitted Sex dot com with a slew of porn ads that began amassing millions of dollars.
Kremen sued for control of his domain, but Cohen’s now-deep pockets funded a protracted legal battle. After a five-year fight, Kremen was awarded the domain and a $65 million settlement. But Cohen wasn’t ready to give up his freedom, so he hid out in Mexico until 2005. When Kremen finally got the name back, he sold it for a then-record $14 million. Today, Sex dot com is an X-rated clone of the social bookmarking site Pinterest. The legal system works!
According to a 2012 Stanford study, 22 percent of heterosexual couples met online. And Match claims responsibility for 30 percent of all marriages that began online. That’s 12 engagements or weddings per day—in other words, an awful lot of chicken dancing. Match didn’t rise to the top of the pile without competition, though. Only the strong survive in the online dating business. Just look at these rival sites it dispatched along the way:
Attempted to pair off couples by the things they disliked
For people with IBS or Crohn’s disease
A dating site for Bozos
The web has a woefully short memory. Links die, codes go bad, and sites are pulled down in an instant. Luckily, Brewster Kahle’s nonprofit Internet Archive tirelessly preserves huge swaths of the web’s history before it vanishes. Kahle first had the idea for cataloging the web while designing the web crawler Alexa Internet. As his spiders indexed the web, he realized he could store all that information. In 2001, he made all of those cached websites available to the public with The Wayback Machine, a massive database of snapshots of millions of websites through time. How powerful is this tool for online researchers? This list wouldn’t have been possible without it.
From practically the day they sprang into existence, blogs have been denigrated as trivial, inaccurate, and derivative. Untrained writers could never match the accuracy and depth of newspapers and network news. Power Line, a scrappy right-wing blog, turned that perception on its ear when it took down one of old media’s most venerable figures: Dan Rather.
In September 2004, Rather and CBS News aired an explosive story about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report used military documents to show that Bush had received preferential treatment and performed poorly while failing to meet his service obligations. Just two months before Bush came up for reelection, the report was a bombshell.
Or it would have been, except the documents weren’t authentic. Power Line cofounder Scott W. Johnson thought something seemed fishy, and, thanks to tips from Power Line readers, it took him only a few hours to expose the critical documents as forgeries. The Internet’s self-taught experts had proved to be more reliable fact-checkers than the traditional elite in CBS’s news department. As the scandal erupted, Rather resigned from CBS, and even stalwarts like Time hailed Power Line’s meticulous work. Score one for new media.
Image Credits: Getty Images; Thinkstock; Putin, Roh Moo-Hyun, Dan Rather, Dunk, Fireworks, and Tarzan via Alamy; Richard Dawson via Corbis.
You can learn how to French braid on YouTube, but deciphering the lyrics to hip-hop songs? That was nearly impossible before Rap Genius came along. Started by three Yale alums in 2009, the site has harnessed the knowledge of rap fanatics to create the web’s most exhaustive database of lyric interpretations.
But Rap Genius is no mere Wikipedia of samples; the magic is in the richness of the annotations. Users have filled the site with clear but colorful footnotes backed by links and additional sources, and rap superstars occasionally drop by to spill additional knowledge. Now that the site has proved its value—and nabbed $15 million in venture capital—the founders want to bring the model into the classroom by extending into everything ever written. If Rap Genius can unravel dense lyrics, why can’t it break down legal documents? Or historical speeches? Or the Bible? Silicon Valley’s investors are betting that the Rap Genius model can make sense of any text. We can’t wait for Ghostface Killah to finally explain Ulysses in language we can understand.