Friday, March 20, 2009

Information Aggregators and Intellectual Property

There are many types of blogs out there and I read a fair variety of them. One type is an "information aggregate" which collects news and information from sites of interest to its readers and presents it in smaller bites with a link back to the original posts or articles.

Virtually all of the Gawker Media sites are such places which collect news gathered by others or form content based on user input and then offer up samples or opinions based on that news. Very little of its content tends to be original pieces researched, written or extrapolated from its writers' personal experiences, though at least some of it is. One of the best and most useful sites on the web, Lifehacker, is a part of Gawker's suite of sites. Lifehacker's editors and writers keep an eye on what is new and useful and distill that information for us so we don't have to follow things like when Google changes gmail or find useful articles that help us live a greener, cheaper life.

While I believe that a lot of information aggregate sites perform very useful services to readers and drive traffic to the sites which they cull information from, I have concerns about what they represent and the trends that spawn as a result of their form of presenting content. At their best, such sites provide such a small thumbnail of the content of the sites they poach from that interested readers have no choice but to visit the site the information originated from to get more information. At their worst, they steal so much that there is no need to click through to the parent article and give the people who worked hard to create the original content their readership.

The point at which a site which recruits editors to spend their days gleaning "news" from other sources treads over the line from promoting those sites to stealing their intellectual property can be a tricky one. How much parroting of content can one do before they've reduced the chances that the reader will feel the need to move on to the original source? Additionally, there are issues of profiting from the work of others at play. If the New York Times writes an article and parts of that article are featured on an aggregate site, does that site have the right to profit from what it has gleaned from the New York Times when the Times never agreed to allow any part of their article on that site?

This very issue is currently being dealt with on the Apartment Therapy web site as the New York Times has asked them to remove all posts related to Times articles. Like Gawker, Apartment Therapy is host to a suite of sites and derives most of its content from users and searching for articles and other posts related to their core content (interior design and home life). Unlike Gawker Media's sites, they tend to show more of the original source articles and write less involved editorials or opinion pieces to accompany the information they reproduce.

The comments section about the article linked in the previous paragraph is full of people talking about both sides (including myself). Personally, this entire situation is a kissing cousin of an issue which has aggrieved me for quite some time and that is bloggers who create nothing unique, but ride on the coattails of those who do. In the case of aggregators, they do this for profit. In their defense, many of them are performing a valuable service and are helping out the sites who they showcase. Without a doubt, any site featured on sites like Gawker's are going to see a huge (almost certainly welcome) upsurge in traffic.

In the case of individual bloggers, most of them do it for ego-driven reasons. They want attention and they either have nothing in their lives which they feel is worth writing about, or they are too paranoid about privacy to expose their lives for the sake of receiving the desired attention. They mine other people's sites for content to piggyback off of, more often than not doing so by picking up on an issue someone else has spoken about and pontificating on why they are wrong.

The bottom line is that much of the blogging world is like a parasite to true journalists. However, I must hasten to point out that sometimes the blogging world is represented by people who are actually amateur journalists themselves. For the sake of clarity, I will say that I call anyone a "journalist" who writes uniquely about something rather than using someone else's work in whole or in part or as a springboard for a counterpoint piece. (And, incidentally, I'd be more impressed with people who wrote counterpoint pieces if they spent more time making their own points rather than reading something else and then and only then finding something to say.)

The parasitical nature of a lot of blogging doesn't have to be a harmful one. Sometimes the "parasite" assists the host, as it were. However, by and large, I think that is not the case. Those who create unique content invest a huge amount of time or money (or both) in their work and the fruits of their labor are regarded as an information larder for anyone to raid because of claims of "fair use". The problem is that the liberal sampling of professional journalistic sources by bloggers and aggregators undermines the need of readers to seek out the sites which created that information on a regular basis. In essence, if I know I can rely on a site like Apartment Therapy to point out any lifestyle article in the New York Times which concerns topics like design, home organization or cooking, I have little incentive to visit the Times site regularly and skin through their entire list of articles. This in turn reduces the chances that I'll become a regular reader. Apartment Therapy could be siphoning off readership by being too reliable a source of information on articles of interest.

Additionally, while I think aggregators and even private bloggers sometimes do a great job of finding far flung sites and bringing them to the attention of readers, many of them rely far too much on external sources rather than developing their own content. Aggregators do this because it is far cheaper to hire editors to scour the web than writers to create unique pieces. Bloggers do it because their lives are tedious and its hard to find something interesting in their own experience to write about on a regular basis.

While aggregators claim that they want to help the sites they point to, the real reason they showcase the web sites of others is that the more new posts you put up, the more page views you get and the more ad revenue you generate. Using more unique but high quality content is less profitable than semi-regurgitation of the existing content created by external sources.

The bottom line is that those who use the content of others to fuel their blogs are serving to remove the profit from and incentive to create unique content from the sources they mine. At the end of the line if such a trend continues is a diminishing pool of original writers, journalists, and reporters as it becomes increasingly more difficult to make money from your hard work. While aggregators and content poachers are likely indifferent to the harm they do as long as they gain more profit by their efforts, they are essentially contributing to the demise of the sources from which they derive most of their content.


Girl Japan said...

Oh Shari I could not agree with you more-- been down that road before, advertising, etc and I think original content is best although sometimes and I am sure I am guilty of this, seen ,or heard, read something somewhere that influences our writing...

But I don't think it is fair that bloggers can ride off the fame of others, it really, in all honestly gets boring, if they were to highlight an article to compare their thoughts too...

I went to a blogging conference recently, there were a lot of good aspects and points brought up but it was mostly HOW To drive traffic, get more page views and I think, at least with myself if I just write what I enjoy writing about, be it ME, fashion, interior, gadgetry, if something comes from this naturally WOO hoo, if not I am not going to push products etc for reasons.

I personal blog should be all ME in sense, it should be about us? What are your thoughts Shari = )

Girl Japan said...

Man.. what is wrong with me today... typo queen here.

Orchid64 said...

I think there's nothing wrong with writing about what you see or think or what influences you. It depends in large part on how it is done. For instance, the Onion's AV Club blogs are a lot of commentary/criticism of television, movies, and music. They also include references to content on other sites, but all of the writing is clever, highly personalized, and clearly unique. They reference other things in a line or two (tops), but you have to read the original content if you aren't already intimately familiar with it. They never rip stuff off or copy and paste. Inspiration is a good thing, as is personal commentary.

I tend to draw the line at the sorts of people who use the technique of quoting parts of articles or posts and responding then quoting and responding and then quoting and responding. Such people don't actually write, but retort. Some of them do write, but they essentially address others piece by piece rather than have any overall theme or point. I didn't make this clear in what I wrote because that was a bit of a tangent and I'd already written too much.

Regarding Apartment Therapy, and I decided after writing that post that I have to stop reading them on principle now, they are actually creating very little or no unique content and were stealing large parts of the New York Times content (especially their photos). The irony is that their own crying about it in a self-serving post is what has caused me to realize that I can't read their site if I don't want to support sites which are destructive in their sampling.

Women, I've noticed very clearly, are much better at blogging unique content because they are not as self-conscious about what they say as most men. That's not to say this is true of all women (or that the opposite is true of all men), but it's just a general trend. Women aren't worried about having feelings as well as ideas. Men tend to hide behind opinions because society views their expression differently, especially if it's emotional.

To give an example of this, I'll say that there is a writer I like who recently wrote in his FB status that he was sick and felt like taking a nap. That was all he said. He didn't whine or complain or anything. In response, a bunch of men commented and called him a big baby and a sissy in various ways. I'm sure a woman would not have gotten the same response.

I agree that a personal blog should be about the person, though it kind of depends on the blogger's raison d'tre. I guess it also depends on how much of what is written is a particular type of content and how much can be seen as largely unique. Personally, I think blogging can be great, but a lot of it has become about blogging for the sake of blogging rather than about having something to say.

Girl Japan said...

Gosh Shari, isn't that true, blogging has become about only "blogging"- I wonder if it is largely part to some bloggers wanting to make it a success (sell some sort of adverting)- then it becomes more biz like and less personal.

Did you see the interview with ... darn I can not think if her name now... one of the past editors on Gawker?

With Gawker Map?

Shawn said...

I have often wondered just how much the NYT likes the Kitchn's heisting of their articles (although in all fairness, most of the time they don't post the recipie itself that I'm interested in, so I have to view the article anyway). Interesting to see that they're doing something about it.

Orchid64 said...

GirlJapan: I'm afraid that I didn't see the interview you mentioned.

Shawn: The AT pieces were far worse than the Kitchn. They'd hijack pictorial pieces in whole or in part for AT.

The responses to this have revealed a lot about the inability of people to understand the desire of others to make a living from their work and just how corrupting free access to information has been. The first stage has been the cry that all content should be free. Now that they have that for the most part, they cry that it should be free and unhindered by the ads that pay for the content. Finally, we now have a desire for free content which anyone can distribute anywhere regardless of the harm it may do its creator.

Girl Japan said...

Gosh I could talk about this for hours with you Orchid, It really is not fair to those who are processing original content.. I went the the site Apt Therapy and now see exactly...