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RSS and Web Publishing

Recently I’ve been trying out bloglines, a rss aggregator. I’ve tried two aggregators and heard a lot of hooplah about rss and the practicality of scanning lots of different blogs. But I still have not figured out the advantage. Yes, I understand why content management systems would want to be aware of feeds and why low bandwidth wireless devices might benefit from using feeds. But feeds don’t offer any real advantage to me except the ability to trace the number of people who are writing about your post, and even that can be addressed by functions such as pingback. I like the fact that you can “clip” an article for later reading, but how often do I use that? Yes, RSS is useful for tracking weblogs that don’t update regularly. However, you can find out about infrequently updated sites via the the big daily bloggers (slashdot, boingboing, aldaily, wood s lot, watchblog, tapped, maudnewton, elearningpost). Why should the reader bother? Contrast the advantages with the disadvantages: with bloglines, going to a feed once removes content from the default view regardless of whether you have actually read the posts, so if I am browsing back and forth, that defeats the purpose of using a feedster program to learn about fresh content.

My fundamental disagreement with feedster-like products is that it assumes that having access to 1000 feeds is better than 100 which is better than 10. But if you choose your sources smartly, you rarely need to track more than a hundred news sources. The problem is not lack of sources but information overload. I follow about 10 litblogs, and that’s enough to give me an idea of what’s going on in literary blogging. But a number of these blogs don’t actually provide a lot of content aside from sassy (and delightful) commentary. Maud’s lovely weblog is not a content site really. About 5% of her site is original content, and the rest of her site is link sharing and explaining why a particular link is interesting. Contrast that with Dan Green’s content-laden weblog where each essay is polished enough to stand on its own. Green is a bit of an anomaly in this blogging world, with the time and energy to write longish pieces relatively frequently. Personal bloggers publish much less frequently, and guess what–that’s okay! The notable examples in the tech world are Joel Spolsky, Paul Graham and Clay Shirky, who publish once every month or two, but whose essays are widely read and discussed. Both kinds of weblogs for me are equally important, and in fact the “lightness” of Maud’s content draws traffic to her “real content” when she gets around to producing it (and a reason why her own essays and stories will inevitably become well known).

Here is the problem with the blogging world. High-content blogs (i.e, Dan Green) often go months or years without being discovered, while high frequency blogs (i.e., maud) get terrific amounts of traffic until several other bloggers move into the blogosphere and start blogging about the same old things. High-frequency blogs have a better chance at attracting advertising, while high-content blogs have no chance at all. In other words, linking to content has a greater financial payoff than creating content.

What is the alternative? Group-oriented publishing sites (like blogcritics, crookedtimber, boingboing, slashdot, metafilter, altweekly, gawker) have more potential for traffic and advertising, but are harder to coordinate and harder to delegate roles to (although the coming of more powerful content management systems might change this). Why should individual bloggers contribute to a group publishing site? If a content creator is going to “give it away for free,” why not do it on a personal blog?

That is in fact the problem I am grappling with on my own literary community site. I am trying to think of how to make my community site attractive to each of these users:

  1. Blog-illiterate content creators: they might be persuaded to contribute, but from their point of view, they don’t see the point of it. Their publishing model is to let Hollywood or New York decide what is publishable. From their standpoint, it makes no sense to contribute to a group blog because there’s no money in it (forgetting that the prospects of making money are dim in conventional publishing as well ). They want to publish and to show their content off to a preliminary audience, but are unwilling to sandbag their chances of signing a deal with a major media company by putting content online for free. (This is particularly true for musicians and visual artists). They derive advantage from giving content exclusively to one publisher (and therefore tend to dismiss free publishing sites as a waste of their time). They need: a place to store their own original content and way to prove to big publishers that their content is “worthy.”
  2. Personal bloggers: they understand the value of net publishing, but they don’t see advantages to letting group/community sites get traffic for their site. Their big problem is drawing traffic and finding a way to announce content to regular readers as well as new readers. They need: a way to draw people to their site from a high-traffic site in the hopes that this new traffic might bring advertising dollars or future readers of POD books.
  3. Readers/consumers: Although they enjoy posting the occasional comment, they consume more content than they create. They visit content sites to be aware of what’s new/interesting/fun. They need: regularly updated content, a chance to be a part of a community, a chance to personalize content for their liking.
  4. Lazy Bloggers: These kind of people know how to blog, but enjoy letting other people take care of the backend aspects to web publishing (style sheets, design, backup, etc). They might be willing to pay a small price if a community site gives them more powerful tools for creating content. On the other hand, they don’t want to entrust all publishing duties to a commercial site and might even resent it if a site is benefitting from the content they are contributing. They need: user-friendly tools and web traffic.
  5. Site editors Site editors want a way to make a site self-sustaining or at least not a drain on their time or resources. They are often good writers/content-creators, and probably could write/publish lots of things, but either don’t have the time or don’t want to spend all their time on backend stuff, doing editing or posting news briefs. They need: sources of revenue, automation tools, marketing, ways to recruit content creators and section editors. They want
{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Anonymous 9/13/2004, 4:18 pm

    This is a really informative and intelligent post, Robert. Do you honestly think blogs (lit blogs or otherwise) can generate a little revenue? Even “high content” blogs? It seems to me this might more likely happen if more of those in your first category turned to blogs, or perhaps more “blog illiterate” “consumers” to combine categories. Your thinking about the place of blogs is always interesting.

  • Dan Green 9/13/2004, 4:21 pm

    The previous comment was from me. Forgot to fill in the name.

  • Robert Nagle 9/13/2004, 4:55 pm

    Let me distinguish between a few threshholds of “profitability.” First, sustainability. Can you make enough to pay for bandwidth and software?

    Second, attracting premium content. Can a site pay for high-demand content?

    Third, chance to realize potential. With a money cushion, a site can develop more functionality; an individual content creator can have more money to buy books/videos/tools.

    Fourth, extra money. Maybe not enough to make a living out, but enough to say, “this is worth my time to be doing.”

    Fifth, financial independence. A content creator or community site might allow people to work on content full time.

    Sixth, promotional benefits. If I don’t make any money from my book reviews, but if my publication credits impresses a future employer, that’s like money in the bank. Similarly, if Maud writes a book, she already has a builtin audience ready to appreciate her talent. Blogging is self-promotion.

    At the moment, I think web publishing offers a lot of promotional benefits, but as media companies go down (and I think it’s inevitable), that won’t be important anymore. Almost no sites out there make enough money directly from web publishing, but content is a loss leader for other stuff.

    Big media can turn a modest profit from content sites from national advertisers and print subscriptions. There are economies of scale involved here. Small web publishing offers the advantage of more directed advertising. Also, people are more likely to contribute money to a site when they see that the contribution is going directly into the content creators’ hands. For example, I refuse to give money to a CD produced by a major music company, but I am more likely to donate to trancecontrol because I have more confidence that the musician will actually receive the money.

    I’ve advocated the use of tipjars elsewhere, and the big problem, besides the programming challenges, is that few people are willing to use these donate buttons except in rare instances. But habits can change.

    Forgot to mention this piece I wrote a while ago, Web Communities and the Art of Making Money

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