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AOL Is Mysteriously Shutting Down the 19-Year-Old Community That Inspired Wikipedia

Editors of DMOZ, a human-curated web directory say the "community is understandably devastated."

On Tuesday, AOL is shutting down DMOZ.org, one of the most comprehensive human-curated internet directories and an early inspiration for Wikipedia, leaving the site's community reeling and confused.

Founded in 1998, DMOZ and its 91,000 volunteer editors sought to be an alternative to algorithmic search engines. It was a repository of links to more than 3 million websites that were vetted by editors and organized into highly specific categories and subcategories.

In late February, AOL—which acquired DMOZ as part of its acquisition of Netscape for $4.2 billion in 1998—told the site's editors it would be shut down on March 14. The following message was posted on top of DMOZ's homepage:

On the DMOZ community forums, editors and administrators say AOL didn't give them any more specifics.

"We have no further information, and I'm not saying that to be difficult. We really have no further information," Jezebel, who has been editing DMOZ since 2002, wrote on the forum. "I don't know whether AOL will be making an announcement either. If they do I expect it will be on the day of closure. Our community is understandably devastated to have lost our hosts and benefactors."

AOL did not respond to my request for more information.

DMOZ could be seen as a sort of proto-Wikipedia that consisted of links to information about thousands of topics. Like Wikipedia, the site had very specific editorial policies, a focus on spreading freely available information, a distinct mission, and an army of volunteer editors.

"DMOZ is first and foremost a self-regulating community of net-citizens," the site notes. "Through a system of self-governance, the volunteer editors manage the directory's growth and development, and through a system of checks-and-balances, ensure the directory is of superior quality."

Though it was owned by AOL, the site's operators created a "social contract" to "to reflect AOL's commitment to the Web community to keep DMOZ a free and open resource." Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger told The Guardian in 2006 that DMOZ's community served as an inspiration for Wikipedia.

In recent days, DMOZ editors have been scrambling to back the site up and are hoping to launch a similar project to preserve and continue the community's work.

In a private message on the forum, Elper, one of the site's administrators, told me the site's editors are "busy licking our wounds and acquiring non-AOL server space with a view to relaunch an entirely volunteer run directory (but not under the same name)."