The shop local campaigns are everywhere. Let’s apply it to the link economy.
I link a lot, on Twitter, a private company that yes, is using my volunteer labor to help curate online information.
But Twitter is incredibly useful as a way of using humans to filter the onslaught of online information. Long ago, it replaced my daily practice of sitting down with a daily newspaper. I count on links, keywords and well-written headlines to help filter information (sometimes even on Facebook). I love the art of a well-written headline and tweet in all forms.
But I’m fed up with linkjacking and algorithm-using automatic feeds that clutter and slow my search for information. I’m especially fed up with faux local companies that aggregate the work of others and do no reporting or human curating themselves. They’re stealing traffic and sometimes advertising revenue from the original, local sources who add value by real work. Some are also trying to take the money of local people through dubious franchise agreements. Most follow the letter of the law, but they push boundaries, and if we all embrace the idea of shopping ethically and locally and supporting local businesses, I’d like to ask people to click ethically and locally to support real journalism and information.
Don’t get me wrong: I respect the value of a quality aggregator that uses human filtering to add news judgment to feeds. I’ve been a fan of outside.in for years. I suspect that sooner or later, a business model and more jobs will emerge for such organizations. Such a function existed in the past: Wire editors and news designers and copy editors helped people navigate through the onslaught of information, which has always been overwhelming but was curated and focused for readers. Those traditional jobs are fewer these days, but the need for the function remains.
I also greatly appreciate those who retweet and point to the originators of content and I try to reward those who find and curate the best stuff, no matter how deeply buried it might be on originators’ website. @acmunn, or Andy Munn, has done a great job of sending focused links to local development news in the Charlotte area, no matter the source. And he was rewarded eventually with a new job, at Ingersoll Rand.
But certain practices that add only clutter should end. Consumers of links and news online can help by choosing carefully and being mindful. Ethical consumption and linking means clicking and pointing to the people who are creating value and not those who are merely repackaging in machine-generated blobs.
Ethical, mindful consumption and creation of links can help, over time, by rewarding those who are producing valuable information. The more of us who are mindful of how we consume information, the faster we’ll evolve new models. The more of us who put our money on those who do real journalism or who produce unique, trusted information, the better our information will become.
And a caution to those who want to become the media: Some national and international companies are offering franchises to local people, selling the idea that they can create local services to generate traffic and ad revenue, with little to no time spent on reporting or curating. Caveat emptor. Journalism, whether it be reporting or curating, takes time and skill. You can learn and do it yourself, but don’t assume it will be easy without work of your own.
Three case studies:
The @charlottelocal Twitter account: This account aggregates headlines from Fwix for Charlotte, spitting out tweets and links about every 20 minutes, using other people’s headlines. Links send you to the Charlotte Fwix site, which excerpts headlines and tops of stories, which then link to the original sources. That’s a good thing for generating traffic for originators, but the volume and lack of human value in trimming the firehose or in refocusing headlines is a drawback. Lag time appears also to be as much as three hours between the time original content is posted at the source and the time the headline is sent out. The account now has 1,679 followers on Twitter. Experience from some legacy news organizations has shown that firehose Twitter accounts attract fewer followers than accounts with more curation and personality: See @ColonelTribune, @ajc and @theobserver for examples. @theobserver account has 8,875 followers; its firehose counterpart, @charobs, currently has 1,167 and appears to have stopped on Nov. 8.
PaidContent and those who rip off its tweets and keywords: PaidContent covers the business of digital content. Its Twitter account is focused, targeted and adds value by its dependability, sending out a link to a news summary every morning, with the same headline, “The Morning Lowdown.” Readers get a fast, focused summary with one click over their morning coffee. But others have seen that value and have begun to rip off the key phrase “The Morning Lowdown” on Twitter, generating their own links to their own sites, which then click through to PaidContent. And guess what? Those links seems to generate few to no clicks, and certainly little to no value, only cluttering the stream. There’s little that PaidContent can do when the linkjackers are pointing back to Paid Content after routing it through their own sites. But readers can do something by refraining from clicking on links that do not point directly to PaidContent. Advertisers can avoid those sites that linkjack. Other copycats for other content generators are likely out there; click carefully and give your traffic to the originators.
Those who count on RSS feeds from curators or originators to make their own money at their own sites, without linking back, and then whine when the originators’ RSS disappears: I’ll be a bit vague on this one, because I don’t want to call someone out without all the details. But I’ve heard that some creators of content espouse taking down their own RSS (real simple syndication) because it makes it too easy for others to repurpose content for their own gain without some kind of return to the creator. That’s sad, because many consumers count on the RSS to make their reading and photo viewing more efficient. It’s difficult to blame content creators and curators for ditching RSS when they see their work reused at other sites with ads and with appeals for donations. One site currently is hiding behind a fair use statement for content gleaned from other sources, all the while taking Groupon ads and donations, and then whining about a broken RSS feed from a real curator who actually pays the sources of its content. I’m getting out my tiny violin.
To close, and repeat: Aggregators with human involvement add value. But we’re in a link economy, and copycats proliferate. Consumers can exercise their power by clicking and linking responsibly and rewarding quality creators and curators. Be mindful about who your clicks and links are rewarding.
Photo credit: Andy Ciordia, through Flickr, using Creative Commons