Wired editor says RSS rules

Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson — also the author of a book on the so-called “long-tail” phenomenon — has an interesting post on his blog, in which he notes that he spends most of his time reading the 150 blogs he subscribes to, and only reads something in a mainstream media outlet if a blog he is reading links to one. “If there’s something relevant to my interests in the Wall Street Journal, the daily NYT or some other news site, I assume one of the blogs I read will point me to it,” he says.

That could cause a sort of echo-chamber type of problem, of course (what if those other blog writers don’t read any mainstream media outlets either?). In any case, Chris says he reads blogs because they add something to the regular news or idea flow, in one of three ways: they add value with “a unique perspective or analysis,” they add it with unique information, or they add value by “providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere,” (which sounds a little like number one).

As he points out, this is not just a smart strategy for blogs, “it’s a smart strategy for any content creator in an era where the tools of production and distribution are fully democratized and the marketplace is flooded with commodity competition.” I couldn’t agree more. And that applies in spades to newspapers and magazines, media formats that have been dying a slow death for the past 20 years, long before the Internet became a phenomenon. All the Web has done is to make the process more obvious, and speed up the rate of decay.

The reason Chris likes blogs is because they filter the news in all sorts of interesting ways, giving you dozens of different viewpoints — like having a newspaper edited by a whole pile of different people, instead of just one or two. And it gives it to you in “micro-chunks,” as VC Fred Wilson calls them. That’s appealing in all kinds of ways — ways that a newspaper isn’t.

Blog ads’ mainstream appeal

If you happen to run into a newspaper editor or publisher and they look a little dazed, or seem to be frantically checking over their shoulders, they have good reason — the interactive Web and specifically Web advertising (which grew by about 34 per cent last quarter) are creeping up on them with ever-increasing speed. If you want to rub it in, just show them an article that ran in the New York Times this week, all about a major advertising campaign that Budget Rent-A-Car ran — something that would normally have appeared in a newspaper.

And where did it appear instead? On about 177 blogs, including Gizmodo.com and Buzzmachine.com. The guy in charge of the campaign, Scott Deaver, said that what is “most valuable about nontraditional media like blogs is their ability to ‘actively engage the consumer’ compared with ‘passive TV spots’ and other traditional choices.” Plus, the Budget campaign cost about $20,000 — which wouldn’t buy you much in either a newspaper or on television. Budget chose the blogs by searching Technorati.com for blogs that got a lot of traffic and were updated regularly.

Blogs: shallow and egotistical?

Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com — the guy who wrote a critical and much-cited post earlier this year about the amorality of Web 2.0 — is up to his old skeptical tricks again in a recent post entitled “Jellybeans for breakfast.”

In it, he writes about how blogosphere proponents like to think of what they are doing as a deep, Socratic dialogue on issues — but Nick says that “experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning – skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep. It’s impressionistic, not contemplative. Fun? Sure. Invigorating? Absolutely. Socratic? I’m not convinced. Preferable to the old world? It’s nice to think so.”

He goes on to say that “for all the self-important talk about social networks, couldn’t a case be made that the blogosphere, and the internet in general, is basically an anti-social place, a fantasy of community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect? Sometimes, it seems like we’re all climbing up into our own little treehouses and eating jellybeans for breakfast.” Agree or disagree? I can see Nick’s point — and it’s true that blogging can sometimes deteriorate into a clubby exercise in mutual back-patting, about issues of interest to small group of geeks.

I would have to agree with some of the comments on his post, however (including one from Seth Finkelstein), which argue that many readers of the MSM (mainstream media) have just as shallow a relationship with what they are reading. At least blogs encourage discussion. It’s up to us to ensure that the discussion is worthwhile.

Is downloading theft?

While browsing my RSS feeds using the Ajax-y goodness of netvibes, I came across a post made by Toronto-based venture capitalist Rick Segal, who is a partner with J.L. Albright Ventures — a VC group that has investments in Q9 Networks, Nuvo Networks and FUN Technologies (which just sold control to Liberty Media for $195-million). The post was a response to one from Fred Wilson, another VC based in New York City, who was writing about peer-to-peer networks and the music industry and how the two should get together in the interest of serving customers such as himself.

Rick took Fred to task for saying that he had no problem with downloading music if he couldn’t find it somewhere legally, and said this made him a lost customer rather than a thief. Rick said this was disingenuous, however, and used this metaphor: “The clerk went in the back room, I couldn’t wait so I took the candy bar but if the guy had been at the counter I would have gladly paid for it. Extreme example? Yes, but it is to make the point. Let’s just call it what it is.” In other words: theft.

But is Rick right? I don’t think so — and the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with me. In a ruling in 1985, they specifically said that copyright infringement is not the same as theft because the “thief” does not “assume physical control over copyright, nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.” In other words, the candy-bar example — not to mention the entire concept of music “piracy” — tries to take legal concepts that pertain to physical objects and apply them to creative works that have no physical attributes, in the sense that they cannot be “taken” the way a candy bar can be taken.

In the case of someone like Fred downloading music, the only loss that can be shown (and then only theoretically) is the loss of a potential customer. Some copyright experts have even argued that downloading should fall under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, the same way listening to the radio does. In any case, I would have to disagree with Rick and argue that Fred is right to say he is more of a lost customer than a thief. A copyright infringer, perhaps, but not a thief.

Hey look — we’re winning! Honest!

There’s a story on the Associated Press wire about an agreement reached between the Motion Picture Association of America and BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen — and after reading about three sentences it becomes obvious that the primary intent of this “agreement” and the press release is to show that the MPAA is winning in its fight against on-line “piracy,” as they like to call it. All Bram has agreed to do is not let people search for copyrighted works using the search function at bittorrent.com — but that’s not how 99 per cent of people find content (copyrighted or otherwise) to download with BitTorrent anyway. This agreement either shows a complete misunderstanding of how BitTorrent works, or a desire on the part of the MPAA to make the crackdown look like it’s working, on the assumption that few people will know how it works, or care. Nice try.

Update:

BoingBoing.net has a link to a piece in Variety that explains it well, and makes it clear that this is part of a larger potential deal with the MPAA in which movie studios would use a modified version of BitTorrent to let users download movies on demand. Darknet has some skeptical (and largely true) comments about the abilities of mainstream journalists to describe things accurately. And Xeni Jardin has a nice piece on the topic in Wired magazine. Om Malik has also weighed in, and raises the question of whether becoming legit (or trying to look as though it is) will hurt BitTorrent.