Are web companies tech or media?

So, Google's own CEO has stated that Google is a media company, maybe it's worth observing whether the world's most successful Internet companies are media companies or technology companies. Of course, it's not an either/or choice, and all the biggest dot-coms are both by nature, and there's no real way to measure which industry reflects an Internet company's "true" nature.

That being said, the person sitting at the top of all the biggest Internet companies reveals a lot about how they see themselves. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the most popular sites for U.S. web surfers, vaguely in order, include properties published by Microsoft, Time Warner, Yahoo!, Google, eBay, the United States Government, RealNetworks, Amazon, InterActiveCorp, Terra Lycos, and Landmark Communications.

Google, of course, has Eric Schmidt, a CEO who comes from the technology world. Microsoft is unequivocally a technology firm, all the way up to Steve Ballmer. And RealNetworks has Rob Glaser, a pure tech-head. But Real is pretty unconflicted about the fact that they are largely a media network now, a paid broadcast network on the web.

The rest of the list offers some rather compelling evidence that most dot-coms see themselves as media companies. Terra Lycos' Executive Chairman, Kim Faura Batlle, used to be responsible for content at the Iberian phone giant Telefonica. Meg Whitman, eBay's CEO, worked at Hasbro, FTD, and Stride Rite before her current position, but those positions were preceded by a stint at Disney working in their publishing division. Landmark Communications (best known for the Weather Channel and weather.com) is headed by Frank Batten Sr. and Jr. Their background is in media, specifically publishing newspapers. They have never been a technology company.

And the even bigger players are dominated by CEOs with a background in media. InterActiveCorp, the quiet giant of Internet companies, is headed by Barry Diller, the archetypical TV exec who made his reputation as the head of Fox Broadcasting. And Terry Semel, CEO of Yahoo, was Warner Brothers' studio head for almost a quarter century. Though they talk a lot about technology, it's pretty clear that the majority of the most popular sites on the web are media companies.

I'm still not sure of all of the implications of dot-coms having grown up to be competitors to movie studios, television networks, or record labels, but it's telling that those of us who are knee-deep in web services and XML and blogs and social software are still focused on the technology that powers these sites and their features. Time and again, these companies are choosing to bring outsiders from media companies in as their most senior executives, and only the companies whose geek founders have retained controlling interest have techies at the helm.

So, other than knowing that programmers never get promoted to being in charge of the company, what does this teach us? Why do Internet companies still pretend they're in the technology business?

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