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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Fundraising (it's really begging, but I'm tired of seeing that) day 3: why blogs?

Only by contributing to your favorite blog can these swimsuit models have the life they deserve

I couldn't sleep Sunday night. No, it wasn't because I was worried about anything. But because memories of my New Media past came flooding back like a vet watching Saving Private Ryan.

And I wondered: how did we get here? How did we get to blogs? Why am I able to ask you for money? Or accept ads.

Well, there are a lot of stories to tell, but the reason that blogs existed, like mammals after the fall of dinosaurs, is nimbleness. The bloggers delivered the content that dotcoms promised without the massive overhead.

First of all, people like the aformentioned Clay Shirky and a lot of people in the Silicon Alley new media industry wanted to create an entire new way of communicating. They saw the internet as a way to push new content. But there was a problem with their ideas, they didn't want to challenge the old media, they wanted to replace it. They wanted to be the new Viacoms and Disneys. Which on the face of it, was insane. They thought the internet could leap frog them from obscurity to riches with little basis in fact or training.

In her post, Jen mentions that one of her friends who graduated from NYU's useless ITP program, never had basic project management skills. Well, that would describe most of the people who made up the new media club.

A lot of you either know me from NetSlaves or have heard the name. But most of the discussion here has centered on what we did wrong, for obvious reasons. Well, today, we're gonna discuss what we did right. Which was this: expose these clowns for what they were, spoiled kids with fancy degrees and no skills.

These people thought a business was some fun place to work, with games and free food and a vague business plan. Well, it could be, for a couple of years. The whole emphasis was on building a company to be bought by Microsoft or another large company, or to build a tool which would work seemlessly with one of their products. Content sites tried to build audiences with gimmicks.

How bad did it get?

Well, there was

What was A website dedicated to the coverage of breakfast cereals. Now, something which would be a side blog for someone was a fully funded company with venture capital which was going to dominate the breakfast cereal space. What space? Exactly. Some guy figured out that since there was a massive market for breakfast cereals, it is the single most expensive product per pound in a supermarket besides fish, that people cared about it,.

No, this was not a trade site. It was a general consumer site for breakfast cereal. Now, just because I buy Frosted Flakes doesn't mean I want to read about the world of Kelloggs. And considering most breakfast cereal consumers are kids, the only potential this site had was as bullshit. It couldn't make money because there was no money to make.

But the dotcoms sucked down money like Jenna Bush sucks down free drinks. They had to have the best of everything, rooms of computers, luxury items. One dotcom based in Europe had their founders flying on the Concorde. They were money drains.


The core problem is one that we now understand: too many people. At one point Salon had 150 people, APBNews had 400 full time and freelance members without realizing that no one wanted to buy ads for a site concentrating on murders. Or that Salon was bloated with friends and friends of friends.

What Pyra Labs did (the creators of blogger) was simple: create an automatic template content management system. At a time when these systems costs in the six figures, either in software and hardware costs or staffing. The creation of a free, easy to use CMS made website design secondary to actual creation.

Instead of these bloated organizations, funded to make money over providing compelling content, blogs leveraged the best parts of the internet to get smart, thoughtful commentary.

Take a site like Suck. What started out as a smarmy but good read wound up being a company which ultimately failed to the point where Joey Anuff was stealing other people's work with Plastic to keep it alive. There was no need for that level of chicanery if Suck had not tried to be a company and instead was focused on content.

Take Daily Kos. Completely funded by ad revenue, not VC money or anything else. Now, it has over a million readers a month with both minmal staff and minimal cost. If Kos decided to, he could raise $100K for himself. No dotcom ever had that appeal to readers or that access to money.

What people said at the time was that people wouldn't pay for content. Well, that's not true. People would and did pay for content, but on their terms. They would, if asked, kick in. Or buy ads. What they wouldn't do is pay subscription fees unless the content was exceptional.

But why were dotcoms so bloated?

Partly was infrastructure. One of the things people don't see, but has clearly happened, is the automation of much of what was design driven. In the past, you needed designers to put up content.

The first attempt at automating this was Slashcode. But it was so complicated and required a dedicated box, that most people didn't want to deal with it. The main advantage was robustness. It could handle a flood of traffic. But it never left the Linux world. It really wasn't transportable.

Then came PHP. A simple scripting language, it gave you Slashcode's functionality without it's burden. Scoop, which runs Daily Kos, is an outgrowth of PHP Perl.

Why did a scripting language with comments rise to prominance? Because comments started to play a larger role in the way people interacted with sites. Bulletin boards were a start. If one hit the right theme, one could make a killing. Fucked Company was making big money until it's owner was more interested in getting paid, by any means necessary, than by actually running a useful site. At one point, he wanted to sell homemade porn. The irony was that because it made money, and the owner was gatting paid, he never invested enough to keep getting paid. It was like killing a golden goose because you didn't want to feed it.

But Fucked Company's decline into torpid vulgarity came as blogs rose. It lingers on, a sewer now avoided by people who can get information without cursewords every post.

What blogs did was a couple of things: increased the quality of content, lowered the price of production and expanded the number of participants. The dotcoms hired like bouncers at a club. You had to fit in to the culture, a culture were Han Solo or Captain Kirk were the ideological dividing lines. How many women and non-whites fit into that. More than zero, but not enough who didn't think that was absolutely ridiculous. It was not ever about talent or ideas or skill, but allegiance and that didn't make for compelling content.

Too many of the content sites were juvenile to begin with, or misguided. APBNews had more reporters than the Daily News with a fraction of their revenue. People were willing to invest, but the return and cost was so high that profitability was impossible. Salon was running 10 stories a day with more staff than the New Yorker. They had hired so many friends, losing money was the only option. What the Slashdot folks figured out was this: the less staff the better and even they had to can people.

Why did Salon survive and other sites crash? They got ruthless and focused. Most of the writing became freelance, the friends were fired, a lot of the overhead was chopped. They also leveraged their demographics and dropped the lurid sex stories. No one wanted to read about Manhattan hookers with their politics. Salon also stopped paying conservatives to write for them. People didn't want to read David Horowitz's open racism or Camilia Paglia's contraryism or Andy Sullivan. They just weren't going to pay for that. Salon was liberal, but ashamed to fully embrace it.

At one point I was up Salon's ass because they were simply a ridiculous organization. Their publishers were taking home six figure salaries while losing money. I'm sorry, $200K a year when your company is sinking is ridiculous.

The current Salon is less influential, mainly because they misplayed the Clinton impeachment, and ran stories about advertising by Ruth Shalit, a gross ethical breech. She was working in advertising at the time, after being fired for plagerism from TNR. She now works in Hollywood, where she belonged with her race baiting ass. But it is also a much better publication, with far better stories and a better sense of ethics. It is also focused on three areas, politics, technology and culture, with an emphasis on politics.

Of course, Michelle Goldberg's frantic columns about the RNC were ridiculous, but that's not the same as having a kidnap victim's uncle write about the case involving his nieces.

Slate, being the only survivor of Microsoft's billion dollar content project (yes, they spent that much and got nothing for it. Tacoma Park should ring a few bells), managed to become the tweedy version of Salon, with better writing, but less read.

But they're basically remnants of a bygone era. Blogs rose so quickly because they did what these bulky content sites couldn't do, which was say anything they wanted, cheaply. In the dotcom era, sites needed to appeal to heavy duty mass marketers. So their content could only go so far. Also, the only thing most dotcom sales departments did was send their staffs out to party and fuck clients. They lacked real marketing or sales skills. The existance of Amway proves many people thinks they can sell, but they can't. As we found out with Plastic, who didn't sell an ad in three months and lied about it when asked. They ran affinity ads. Now, for the life of me, I can't figure out how a site with real traffic couldn't get ads. Which is why I, to this day, call Joey Anuff a thief. If he wants to dispute it, he can open Rainbow Media's books and explain how his ad people couldn't make a sale.

How incomptent is that? I can sell ads for this site without ever sending out a letter, much less a sales call.

But the reason blogs rose up so quickly is that they provided the alternative to what was out there. Instead of lefty
"jorunalism" there was lefty opinion not tainted by the hothouse of the Nation or the windbags of Pacifica, people who couldn't organize a lunch date, much less anything political. Pacifica's problem was the problems of all insular groups, their internal politics became more important than the external politics. Kos and Atrios, especially created a middle left, one which wasn't tied to the Clintonite past or the ANSWER/Pacifica crowd and didn't embrace every anti-American movement as authentic. They have created a rational, sound left which represents how most people feel.

But this happened because they weren't looking to make money. Blogs beat the dotcoms because they were driven by passion and interest, not going public and becoming millionaires. Blogs were fast, current, speedy and vital. They weren't planned and reflective. The people behind them didn't take their personalities out of the mix. They became part of the attraction. They didn't hide their personal lives, they integrated them into the site. In short, blogs were about people with opinions, not opinions alone.

The problem with dotcom content was that it was designed to appease large advertisers. They simply needed the income, so they wanted to give the impression of hip, but not too hip and cool, but not too cool. But the problem was that the content sucked. Psuedo, which had a big office on the corner of Houston and Broadway, was more interested in big parties than decent content, yet, they were running around screaming how they were going to take on CBS. The only thing they did, besides get high, was have the Fire Department push to declare them a club. But the actual content was not only slow over dialup, which was 90 percent of the user base, but incredibly amateurish. People saw it and were not impressed.

How different is that than blogs? Light years. Bloggers, as a rule, tend to have a very different mindset. Since there is an unlimited space for blogs, only good blogs have a potential to be read. You can't toss up crap and be read, much less make money. You have to have something to say and on a regular basis to move from hobby to commercial success. Or you have to mobilize people.

Now, how can bloggers be financially successful without investors? How can they succeed where the well-financed dotcoms failed?

Well, very simply put, they aren't competing for the same dollar that the dotcoms were. Basically, dotcoms were challenging established corporations with inexperienced staff. Blogs challenge the content and context of established corporations, but not the organization. They aren't competing for staff or advertisers. And most importantly, they are tapping money dotcoms could never reach.

The Dean effect showed that there was a pool of millions of dollars out there, if people asked, and they could send it to you easily. This was money unreachable by the dotcoms. After all, they couldn't ask you to send them money. They were businesses. But private individuals could reach that pool of cash with paypal and an appeal.

Oddly enough, the first person to do this was Now why people sent her $20K is beyond me. But they did. They would then respond to Howard Dean's appeals for cash in stunning ways. They weren't just spending cash or backing a candidate, they were taking a stand. What the techocratic dotcoms offered was rather cold and impersonal. It was about money. Blogs are about people. Same basic tools. Same people in many cases. But the results were very, very different. Instead of playing the professional, a role many had no clue about, this became about the personal, which liberated some very talented people and found talent in others where it didn't exist before.

People read a blog either because it challenges them or says things they agree with. They don't read it because it mimics the local paper. Or because it's cool. Blogs are the opposite of cool. They're involved, concerned, thoughtful. Even Wonkette, who pretends to be a drunken gossip, cares. The stories she runs are not random and not just about what is hip. If anything, blogs are the anti-hip. They aren't about detached irony. Because that is what drives Viacom. The hip, the cool, the new. The Daily Show is a hit because it is done by people who cares what happens, a Viacom exception. And this isn't a virtue of lefty blogs either. The right also cares what happens. In this, no one is too cool for the room.

No one cared about dotcoms, it was all about money in the end. It was a mercenary mentality and got mercenary result. Blogs are a rejection of that and about the work of people who care and who think ideas matter. That it isn't just about who gets rich first.

If there is any success to blogs, it is because it has made the content on the computer human.

posted by Steve @ 11:59:00 PM

11:59:00 PM

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