Wed, 18 Jan 2006

The bloggers are starting to see some of the same issues that Linux distributions have been running into forever- the balance between being a constructive aggregator of the works and goodwill of a community and being a leech on that same community. Turns out my boss’s boss (John Palfrey) is going to be inadvertently at the forefront of this issue, as his Top Ten Sources was sort-of accused of being a spam blog by the fairly influential (and interesting) Om Malik. John has been posting about it quite a bit lately; in particular, his latest post (which you can read on the berkman planet if our blog server is still down) is a pretty decent overview of what might be seen as community norms on the issue.

I wouldn’t bother to blog about this, except that I think that what John cites as emerging blogging norms are really just specific examples of much broader norms that will emerge repeatedly in the coming remixable commons-based culture that we pioneered in open source. Some of these characteristics would be:

  1. As long as licenses are respected, for-profit content aggregation (into a software distribution, a web-based blog aggregator, or whatever) is generally acceptable. If creators don’t personally find it acceptable, the onus is likely on them to choose an appropriate license.
  2. The aggregators which are perceived to give the most back to the communities and individuals they draw from are likely to be most popular, at least among opinion leaders.
  3. Money can serve as a returned value which stabilizes relationships between aggregator and aggregated, but is not the end-all/be-all. Other forms of compensation- ego boost, ‘I’ll buy you a beer’, stock options in the Red Hat and VA Linux cases, and the potential one might get hired- have all served as useful forms of direct and indirect compensation. In many cases in free software it has been sufficient to know that some contributors are benefiting somehow, even if you aren’t. I’d guess that will apply to any strong community (though those who think of themselves as individuals are less likely to feel that way.)
  4. Aggregators who give nothing at all back will be reviled. In the blog world, this is why people hate sploggers; in the open source world, this is why many people distrust Sun, who are seen as giving back only when absolutely necessary and otherwise locking up the crown jewels behind deliberately incompatible licenses.
  5. The relationships between aggregator and aggregated are unstable- to make a profit from volunteers who give away their stuff, you can’t start paying all of them like professionals unless your revenue stream is very, very good. Even if you do manage that, you risk losing your shirt to competitors who can syndicate the same stuff you do- what is the difference between top ten and squidoo exactly? the difference between red hat and ubuntu? If the pay-for-play relationship is too explicit and not fuzzy enough, you also risk killing the golden goose itself- if the dominant blogging motivation shifts from ‘I do it because I like to write’ to ‘I do it because I might get paid by top ten sources’, lots of other things change along the way. Given these issues, finding the right balance between encouraging new blood to contribute and encouraging quality blood to see you as a beneficiary and not a leech or competitor is very hard.

I can’t actually think of any examples of this in other peer-production domains, but I’m sure there must be other examples out there where someone who is not directly a content creator themselves has worked out (or is working out) a profitable but acceptable relationship with the community they aggregate content from. I’d expect in any such case these same general principles would apply.