Syndication Nation

Moderator Paul Boutin is a contributing editor for Wired magazine. Scott Rosenberg works as managing editor of Salon.com. Tim Bray serves as the director of Web technology for Sun Microsystems. And Kevin Marks sat in for David Sifry, CEO of Technorati. What follows is a partial transcript of their panel discussion at Supernova:

Paul Boutin: We're going to talk about syndication in the context of online content. Are there people in here who have not used a news aggregator and are not familiar with syndicated, aggregated content on the Internet?

Tim Bray: What you see in front of you is a Web browser. You could go around every morning and see what's new, but most of us don't have the time to do that. NetNewsWire is a news aggregator. You can see all of the sources that I've subscribed to. Those that have red letters have things that I haven't read yet. I use a tabbed browser so I can accumulate things I haven't read to read later, and I can keep on top of about 100 information feeds in maybe 45 minutes time. The payoff is that it enables you to keep on top of much more information in much less time.

Boutin: One of the nice things is that if you pop one of the personal feeds open, while commercial feeds may make you go to their Web site, some of the personal feeds have the entire thing in there, so it's like you're email. The other important feature is that if there's a feed that only publishes once a year, you don't have to forget about it, it'll turn red when there's something new there. You can keep on top of everything when it's happening. This is the Internet version of the Associated Press, which started in 1848.

Scott Rosenberg: For newspapers, syndication describes a business and a business model. It's a great new source of revenue. The word tends in the media industry to be a boring little department on the side that people take for granted. The AP is sort of different in that it's a cooperative. As originally conceived, local papers could share the coverage of local events and wouldn't have to maintain local branches. On the Web, we have an aspect of this, the redistribution, without the business model.

Boutin: Most of people know about syndication as a way to read 10, 20, 30, maybe hundreds of blogs a day. I wanted to explore some of the other uses out there.

Kevin Marks: Technorati is a real-time search engine that serves up results as syndicated feeds as well as connections between those feeds. Instead of subscribing to an individual feed, you can subscribe to a feed of everyone who links to a specific publication. As the universe of syndicated content grows, there will be more interesting uses there. By tracking the connections between feeds, we can identify who the experts in a field are. Syndication isn't limited to publication; it's a way of saying, "Here's something new." If the traffic cameras all published the current state of the status at a particular juncture, you could create a feed of your route home and its traffic patterns.

Boutin: A lot of this meets the promise of the push media that we used to talk about. This is the sort of thing that people wanted to email, but look at what happened to email. It's hard for me to mentally sort that information. But aggregated feeds are a way to mix the best of the Web with the best of email.

Bray: Scott, you might have underestimated the import of the syndication business. This is a big business, correct?

Rosenberg: Correct. If you create a large amount of content, it's very lucrative. I just wanted to distinguish it from how we use the word today. In the old media world, it's a way of eking out more value from existing content.

Marks: The distribution of links follows a power law. So if you get 11 readers, you're actually doing quite well. I've plotted the power law all the way down to people who have just one link. The power law is pretty flat all the way down; it's remarkably smooth.

Bray: What Kevin means by the power law is that the attention you get is 1 over your rank.

Marks: Because barriers to entry are so low, the power law holds true for four to five orders of magnitude.

Bray: We shouldn't worship the power law. One scenario is enterprise blogging. We just did it at Sun Microsystems. The notion is that you try to humanize the corporation by doing this. You can use this technology to present a more human face to the world. But let's focus on the things that we don't know.

Let's consider the spectrum of communication. We can get together in a room. We can talk on the telephone. There's old-fashioned email. There's textual chat. We have SMS messaging. And we have the new kid on the block, syndication. Looking at these things, I observe that the incremental cost of communicating is about the same in any of these media, and it's above zero.

What is syndication good for? It's good for blogs. It's good for aggregation. Put more properly, how does this medium fit into the spectrum of communication? I don't know. There are a large number of syndication feeds and event streams. Google looks at the Internet as a vast, static library. What do you get if you aggregate all of the feeds? It's not past tense, it's present tense. How many tools do we need to work effectively and productively? Fewer tools are better really, but can they be combined in one basket?

Rosenberg: I'm not hugely optimistic about a world in which every corporation has a universe of bloggers in it. The software industry is unique. Software developers are a great group to have blogging because they feel empowered and can go work somewhere else. Most organizations don't have that luxury, and most employees will feel cowed about saying what they really think. Instead, they'll say what their bosses want to hear, which is not what blogging is about.

One of the hats I wear at Salon is that I'm in charge of the privacy policy. One of the policies is that we can change it at any time without telling anyone. Now, we've only changed it twice in six years, but people question that. RSS could be a perfect use for this problem. It's a good way to track incremental changes in what you really care about.

Bray: Is it really the case that the technology industry is the only industry in which people are interesting?

Rosenberg: I didn't say interesting, I said empowered.

Boutin: Where are the business models? Syndication used to be about selling content to another publisher. Here, individuals are at the other end.

Question: How do people feel about advertising in blogs?

Bray: I advertise in my blog. I use Google AdSense, and I see between $200-500 a month more than it costs me to host the site. If you have something to say and have an audience, you can make money self-publishing. That's not to say that putting ads on your blog isn't a conflict of interest. People complain all the time about my not having full text in the RSS feed. I want people to come to my site.

Rosenberg: At Salon, that's how we used it too. We use it to send headlines to our partners. There is a marketing aspect to it. You can use it to bring people into your site, or you can use it just to give content away. And some people are starting to put ads in their RSS feeds. As that happens, it might be far less attractive.

Boutin: That came up. Dave Winer said he used to read InfoWorld, and when they started including ads in their RSS feeds, he stopped reading it because it looked just like the Web.

David Sifry: My position is advertising that you want to see. Currently, Technorati is tracking 2.8 million people who are expressing themselves on the Web. They're expressing their attention and what they write about. What if you could have an opt-in RSS feed that had messages from marketers? If we do a really bad job presenting that to you, unsubscribe. In the economy, the thing that is scarce is human attention. People are watching two hours less of TV a day. Not only is TV terrible to target, but you have no idea what your real reach is. A movement of advertising away from big TV ad buys to something that's much more focused is an opportunity. You could pull in a feed full of advertising messages you're actually interested in. That, to me, is the holy grail.

Mitch Ratcliffe: We talk about advertising as though a large audience is required. They're not. The entire vocabulary needs to change. What new words do we need other than "scale" and "ad buys"?

Rosenberg: My fear is that it's been nine years publishing on the Web, and today, we see some people in the advertising world begin to understand the medium of the Web. The concepts are very slow to filter through that universe. Advertising moves really slowly. They don't go to technology conferences.

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