And the Next Contestant Is...

As we enter an age of government bailouts and buyouts for investment banks, mortgage companies and auto manufacturers, one begins to wonder who the next contestant will be in the Uncle Sam Handout Sweepstakes.

While the Internet juggernaut is showing signs of slowed growth, it is hard to imagine the kind of meltdown the financial industry has experienced in recent months taking a similar path in our industry -- or is it?

Who could have predicted just a few short years ago that the AIG and Lehman Brothers failures would nearly cripple the global economy, or that our nation's first black president would be preparing to step into the Oval Office -- or that Drew Carey would have stepped onto the hallowed "Price is Right" stage to replace the legendary Bob Barker, for that matter? If nothing else, the events of the past year have shown us that change is inevitable and that we should come to expect the unexpected.

Online advertising spending estimates from eMarketer predict that year-over-year growth will slow from 25.6% in 2007 to 17.4% in 2008 and 14.5% in 2009. Assuming that the economy recovers from the current recession, those estimates jump back over the 20% range by 2011. It would appear from looking at these numbers that Internet advertising will remain healthy -- which is good news for advertisers, publishers, agencies and every other fringe element that depends on the Web to fuel their business model.

But, just for the sake of argument (and to create a compelling story line for this column), let's consider the possibility that some unexpected event could cause our beloved industry to fall into a downward spiral reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Are there Internet companies that have become such a significant part of our culture and economy that the government would be compelled to step in and offer a lifeline to those firms just to save the digital world as we know it?

If such a scenario where to actually happen, which companies should be saved? I decided to start a list that is completely subjective, somewhat arbitrary and in no way involves any scientific data:

Google - First in line for the Internet Economic Stimulus Package would be Google. Trying to imagine a life without Google is more difficult than trying to fathom an America with baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, but no Chevrolet. We could no longer "Google" something, or fill our Gmail inboxes with years of useless email just because we have Over 7262.247066 megabytes (and counting) of free storage. Without Goog411, who would provide our free telephone directory service? If there were no more Google Maps, would we have to relearn how to fold and unfold those unwieldy paper maps again? Let's not forget the significance of YouTube in providing a 24/7/365 outlet for people who can't get enough of America's Occasionally Funny Home Videos.

Microsoft - While I'm not a PC, I'd throw a bone to Microsoft just to save all of the Microsoft Office apps including Entourage (The MAC version of Outlook, not the HBO show). Even though the company's relevance in online advertising continues to shrink, it's always good to have at least one competitor for Google to continually crush (and I have a friend that works there, so this is my own personal pork-barrel add-on).

Yahoo - They will most likely be gone by the time this program takes effect, so I'm going to disqualify them from the list.

Facebook - Facebook has built an empire based on taking money from outside sources with little revenue to show for it, so accepting government money fits its current business model perfectly. If we didn't have Facebook, how could I possibly know all of the inane and irrelevant details of the lives of my friends, family, co-workers and complete strangers?

Twitter - While I'm not completely sure yet why I can't live without Twitter, all of my really cool, social-media-immersed friends and colleagues seem to think that Tweeting is synonymous with breathing. You simply can't do one without the other. I'd hate to see them all suffocate from a lack of Tweeting, so we'll throw them a lifeline and pump more money into another non-revenue-producing social media phenomenon.

Ad networks and SEO firms - This is purely for self-preservation and selfish motives, which is the cornerstone of any good government-spending program. Depending on your perspective, a world without ad networks and SEO firms would be either a beautiful place (see my fellow OPI columnist Ari Rosenberg), or a chaotic mess within a diverse and fragmented landscape that no single advertiser or agency could possibly navigate through. Eliminating ad networks and SEO firms would also mean eliminating my paycheck -- so this segment of the industry is definitely a keeper.

That's my abbreviated list. What's yours? If you only had a handful of Internet companies you could choose to save from financial peril, that you couldn't live without, which ones would they be?

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