The Changing Fanweb Editorials
Some historical perspective on what happened to the anime scene on the web shortly after the dot com crash.
[Editor's Note: This historical overview dates back to 2002; the "state of the web" has changed drastically since then, but it offers some historical perspective on how the dot com crash affected anime fandom.]
If you've been an anime fan for a few years, you've probably noticed some pretty significant changes in the anime industry. But if you've been surfing the anime web for even a couple of years, then you'd have to be blind to have missed what's been happening. Major sites shutting down, thousands of little fansites fading away, the death of the MP3 site, the rise of Hotline and its spawn, and most recently the thing nobody thought they would ever see: anime.com finally got their giant robots delivered. (For those unfamiliar, for years anime.com was nothing but a placeholder page that looked like this.)
A lot of people ask "What happened?", and although the trite answer is "the Dot Com bubble burst" or "free hosting sucks," it's interesting to look at what those really mean, and it's not quite that simple anyway. I'm hardly the first to write an editorial along these lines, but just for the heck of it, since I've been watching this whole process over the last few years, I'm going to offer my take on what happened and why.
The Dot Com Crash and the Death of Free Hosting
Let's start with the Dot Com bubble. Basically during the mid '90s, the birth of the Web as we now know it started making the Internet look like a really cool thing. Combined with a strong US economy, this caused a lot of people flush with cash to go looking for a quick way to get even richer. These Venture Capitalists (a word for optimistic people with more money than sense) started giving money (and lots of it) to any company that had some creative idea to dominate some area of the Internet--selling toys online, virtual newscasters, whatever. These companies, in turn, usually had some variation of the same business plan: Give something really cool away for free to earn "Mindshare"--get people to love their service and associate their name with service X. Then, when they became ridiculously popular and dominated whatever their little 'Net niche was, they would miraculously start making loads of money. If that doesn't make sense to you, I never got it either, but that didn't stop people from giving these companies billions of dollars.
The end result was a lot of cool websites that were very good at giving something away and losing lots of Venture Capitalists' money, but not much else. Eventually, something was bound to give, and around 2000 it finally did: The Internet startups started running out of their big wads of venture capital, and the venture capitalists ran out of either patience or money. This lead to a downward spiral and just about every company that didn't have a business plan that involved actually making money going kaput. (If you're wondering, the remaining venture capitalists are all throwing their money at nanotech now--look to hear more about it in the future.)
Ok, now for how this all relates to anime. One of the side effects of all this money floating around and all these companies trying to gain Mindshare was that people were willing to pay quite a bit of money to advertise on other websites. This, combined with yet more venture capital, lead to a category of websites whose entire purpose was to get lots of people to look at them, and in turn look at lots of ads, thereby making lots of money. Basically the same idea that network TV operates on: People watch the show, get some ads along with it, the ads pay for the show, and everybody goes away happy. One of the things this produced were the great Free Webhosts, foundation of the Great Information Exchange--Geocities, Tripod, and so many more. They would host your cool website for absolutely no money at all, and by sticking a few ugly ads on each page, would make money from your popularity. Everybody wins.
There were only two problems. First, at some point people realized that, unlike the multimillion-dollar TV ads that are the main reason people tune into the Superbowl, banner ads are about as loved as athlete's foot and the TV version of Mihoshi. Better yet, the TV version of Mihoshi with athlete's foot (you get the idea). So, as the realization that banner ads didn't generate a whole lot of money started to get through, the amount of money that companies were willing to pay for them plummeted. The other problem was that all these rich internet start-ups suddenly got very un-rich. The last thing the few left in business want to do is spend money on banner ads that are as likely to get people to hate them as to do anything useful. This combination of factors meant that the only ads anybody was willing to pay for are for porn and internet gambling, and even companies who deal in those things don't pay much (it also produced the loathed pop-up and pop-under ad, with even more intrusive technologies yet to come).
This was bad enough for all those companies giving away free webhosting. At the same time the Internet was increasing in popularity at a huge rate, leading to millions of new surfers (many with shiny new ultra-fast connections), and ever increasing hosting costs. This combination of factors caused the demise of many free hosts, and the near-demise of the entire business. So, although a lot of fans gripe about how much Geocities sucks now and how it's impossible to find a decent free host these days, it's not exactly their fault--they're only able to spend money to host sites for free (and, believe it or not, hosting does cost real money) if they are earning any, and things just aren't working the way they used to. That's just the way it goes.
The end result has, for the anime community, been the death of thousands of small fansites and quite a few larger ones hosted on formerly free servers. A lot of these sites weren't being actively maintained, but were still sitting there being available, so when the free host changed a policy nobody bothered to move the site or preserve the content; in other cases, finding a new host just wasn't feasible. Still more sites never came to be in the first place due to the lack of a home. And as if all that weren't enough, most of the free hosts started by targeting the sites that cost them the most--the most popular ones. So the good stuff went first. There's one factor.
Popularity Explosion--Bandwidth Costs Money
Part two of the equation is similar, but slightly different. There were a lot of big, cool anime sites (say, the Serpent Anime Project way back when, or more recently places like Planet Namek) that weren't hosted on free servers, but have disappeared nonetheless. A significant factor in that shakedown was the increase in popularity of the internet and high-speed connections I mentioned before. It's a simple fact that when you send data from a server to somebody's web browser, it costs money. Not a lot, but something. When you try to send data to thousands of web browsers every day, that adds up, and eventually starts costing quite a bit. Add to that the fact that a lot of those surfers now have fast connections and can suck massive amounts of data out of your site in a short period of time, and things get even worse.
Early on, web hosts (the paid kind) could afford to charge a low flat fee for as much data as you wanted to let people download. That worked fine when there weren't a lot of people, but eventually the hosts just couldn't handle it, and had to start imposing restrictions and charging more for sites that generated vast amounts of traffic. And unfortunately, the biggest and coolest sites (especially the ones with high-bandwidth goodies like pictures and MP3s) also generate the most traffic.
Initially, some of this increase in cost could be met by banner advertising, but of course the bottom dropped out of that market too, and eventually you've got huge sites that cost their creators too much to keep up. Even AAW's early image galleries fell victim to this too-popular-for-your-own-good effect.
So there went some of the big sites, and quite a few smaller ones that were hosted on paid servers. Above all else, the one-two punch of huge popularity and high-speed 'Net access all but killed the MP3/multimedia download site.
Life Goes On
But the Dot Com Crash and the growth of the Internet aren't the only things responsible for the contraction of the online anime world. Although I haven't seen them mentioned much, I believe some of the reasons are a lot less technological.
One significant factor, if you ask me, is simple change in taste. A lot of first-wave anime sites were created by people who loved anime and saw the opportunity in this new Internet to create something great. Years of work as the Net gained popularity led to some very impressive sites, and thousands of smaller ones. But tastes change, and a lot of the people who slowly built up huge anime resources moved on to other interests after a few years, or just got burned out after maintaining a site for so long--people are apt to do that. When they did, their creations mostly just disappeared in their absence.
This effect is exacerbated with those sites that were the be-all information resource for a specific series. Most people only stay obsessed about a particular anime series for so long before they just get tired of it. And when they eventually do, some of the resources for other fans of these series dry up.
Similarly, and more importantly, time marches on, and so does life. The earliest anime sites (and most of the rest of the Web) were mostly built by college students--the main group with both the technical know-how and the Internet access to make use of it. A few years later, these folks graduated, got a job, got married, and generally got too busy to keep up their anime website. That's where a lot of the oldest sites went a few years ago. In the meantime, though, a whole new generation of 'Net savvy anime fans had been hard at work; this group covered a broader age spectrum, including a lot of teenagers equipped with free hosting. But, fast forward another few years to today, and those same teenagers go off to college, and their lives change--suddenly, no time to fiddle with your anime site every day. The older group again graduated from college and lost their free webhosting on a University server, got married, or ran out of time when they started working. Yet more sites fall by the wayside. There is a new generation taking their place, but since so much of the work done by their predecessors disappeared when they moved on, the newer sites are usually left to start from square one.
The New Frontier: Welcome to Peer to Peer
There is one final big change (probably the most obvious, in fact) that is actually positive (at least from the perspective of most fans): The rebirth of Internet file sharing. In the beginning, you downloaded your MP3s and video free from websites, and life was good. But while a few people downloading huge files isn't a big deal, a lot of people makes for a lot of bandwidth, and bandwidth costs money. Free hosting dried up, and massive numbers of people, many armed with high speed connections, beat what few sites were left to death. But those same high-speed connections opened up a whole new realm of possibilities--why download a file from a server when you can just suck it over directly from somebody else's computer? Starting with the now-quaint Hotline and transforming into vast networks of computers running Morpheus, Limewire, and similar programs, not only are people now able to grab all the music they could ever want from a stranger's computer, but elite networks have formed where just about anything--game CDs, digital fansubs, DVDs, and entire bootlegged series--can be had in a manner of minutes and the only entry fee is a fast connection and a collection of digital stuff to share with others.
What exactly this free trafficking in pirated anime (and just about anything else digital you can think of) means to the industry is the subject of another essay, but almost every anime fan knows that if you want free stuff, peer-to-peer filesharing is the only way to get it. This is one area of the fan 'Net that has done nothing but grow.
That, if you ask me, basically sums things up: The combination of the Dot Com crash and a wave of life changes left the anime-centric web with a lot of gaping holes where there once was a lot of cool stuff, and the spread of superfast 'Net access has generated a whole new world of file sharing. Where things are going in the future is anybody's guess.