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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Exhaustion Leads to Nostalgia: How Far into this Vortex Are We Willing to Go?

Are we self-referentially Diggifying ourselves into a huge hole of sophomoric irrelevance?

It's my birthday, so after getting to eat anything I wanted... I get to say anything I want.

Jason Calacanis has become exhausted with his routine, which included far too much Facebook "friend-making," so he just declared Facebook bankruptcy.

Personally, I'm fine (thanks for asking)... but that's because maybe I haven't bitten as hard on the bait as some. When you've got a certain goal of Web 2.0 supremacy it's tempting to get drowned in it. If you've got a long-term approach to implementing projects, and some offline life still left, maybe you resist a little harder.

So I had to ask myself what's going on after Danny posted a 4,200-word Thoughts on Sphinn, Two Weeks In.

To be positive about this, Sphinn's probably as interesting as many of the forums ever were, and it's only been a couple of weeks. We all grapple with signal-to-noise mechanisms, and the forums have their cliques and their crapp and you can't visit them all. Sphinn was a bold try for something better. But insofar as the act of clicking "yay" on someone's link fails to pose any type of intellectual challenge, the majority of us members of the "real discussion preferring" community are likely to move on after a brief stop by. Sphinning stories is dangerously similar to lurking. It's passive - not constructive.

Rae Hoffman had the audacity to post something about Sphinn being a popularity contest, and then some expected debate followed on. I loved Rae's thoughts until I realized that it was a critique of the complaints of people who are "whining" that it's a popularity contest! Rae's point seems to be that if you don't have something called "SEO chops" or "social media spamming chops" or whatever it is, then you're just an unskilled loser. Sour grapes. An unskilled loser at spamming the spamosphere, anyway.

Hmm. But I'm not trying to get my mug to the top of Sphinn. I'm trying to get customers to buy drills, travel, lightbulbs, enterprise software, and... you know... products and services. Like Mike Grehan, I'm hopefully in business because there's more to life than a thin concept of what some consider to be "SEO chops" -- for example, the real-life corporate marketing that the Threadwatch gang recently took Mike to task for, for being so silly to make his living from.

Years ago, I might have been drawn into the debate, but now there is much less chance of being drawn into that or any number of other longwinded discussions (for which, again, I once had so much appetite). In this case it's because it seemed like Rae's polite question had a very definite and obvious answer: of course Sphinn is a popularity contest! But unlike Rae, I don't seem to think it's "whining" to point out that it's not the kind of popularity contest that results in a useful experience for any reader outside of the self-reinforcing circle. I never cared who Dugg what article to the top, and how it was done, either. I didn't know anyone with a full-time job who really partook of the exercise.

Now I'm seeing that some experienced members of the SEO (never broader marketing, of course) community, like my good friend Jill, are getting into the Sphinn game. But does it take a genius to see that Jill, a well-known search engine promoter, is posting her content on the site for search engine promoters, and then soliciting friends and other similar folk to vote for her story? I mean it's not exactly like Joe Rutabaga, a genuine consumer of media to be used for building his retail business just sort of stumbled across Jill's article and said - "hey, wow, check out the amazing resource I just came across!" It's that latter sentiment that grand experiments that Google PageRank (and heck, let's say, even Digg) were premised on. Not so for Sphinn. Everyone knows what the game is, and the game players are playing the game the way it's always been played - just among themselves. Must we?

So a word to the wise (outside the circle): in a community of professional SEO's and Digg-gamers and consummate self-promoters, anyone deciding to devote an intern or small army of pals to "Sphinn" inconsequential stories will be flooding the channel with rehashed linkbait dressed up to look like news. Those who choose not to play will either be relatively invisible, or will be forced to round up their cousins and college classmates to dream up linkbait and click voting buttons. "The community" decides what's newsworthy? Hugely problematic assumption that it'll be anything but a community of professional Sphinners.

I love grand experiments so of course am in some awe of how quickly Search Engine Land has grown from a content standpoint, and I'm also impressed at the amazing initiative it takes to build and configure a particularly cutting-edge online community.

But the increasing and well-placed focus on the community and the wisdom (or at least comprehensiveness) of crowds means potentially one major loss: an abdication of editorial voice.

Tapping the community's input to fill major gaps in knowledge is a given: on a grander scale of the networked transparent world, it's going to happen. It's happening in every vertical, and it's going to be really bumpy getting to the place we want to go. Anyone who is an advocate of this long term project as I am, though, has to be hypercritical of the weak attempts we see all over the place. Apparently we're still in the era of Chefmoz (and about 500 other restaurant review sites) (Chowhound provisionally excepted) where some cousin of the business owner logs in, posts an unverifiable comment about the fantastic brunch he ate at Joe's, and that's the only review you see up there. Yelp is helping to bridge that gap, etc. - but long story short we have a long way to go. (Hey Rae, sorry I just whined about the guy spamming the restaurant site, but nope, I don't respect his "chops".)

The debate about whether Squidoo is a cool new sharing platform, or a place where many good voices could get overshadowed by opportunistic spammers, is similarly telling. This stuff is difficult to achieve even if the goals are lofty. And for now, Squidoo is both of the above. It's actually kind of a neat reminder that About.com was both flawed and better. By limiting the number of guide slots, and appointing *The* Guide to X, you create a slightly less chaotic universe of go-to experts who are accountable to their readership. Several well-known search marketing leaders gained profile as Guides (to search, skiing, and search, respectively) -- Chris Sherman, Elisabeth Osmeloski, and Jennifer Laycock.

So thinking about all the sandboxes I plan not to play in out there, and wanting to ward off Calacanis-like hospitalization...that's when I harken back, back, back, all the way back... before Search Engine Watch even had a forum... before very many folks were even blogging... back to when the Search Engine Watch newsletter was firmly under Danny's control, to when it was his collection of insights, articles, and links that helped us simplify a rapidly-growing pile of information. Remember how you anticipated the arrival of that publication? Probably because it was possible to use a wildly oversimplified metaphor for understanding how we were assimilating the info. Danny "knows" all this stuff, and we're going to "find out" about it. Whatever, it worked.

How in the sophomoric world o' Digg are we to understand what it means to "know" anything? Who is creating much of anything beyond a weak 500-word list of something constructed explicitly as "linkbait"? After coming to "know" that Jill is a well-respected expert by coming across her no-doubt-useful linkbait (already knew it), what good is that doing me or Jill? Or did I bother to find her linkbait at all, because it was competing against a bunch of other people's linkbait?

By contrast...

Today, there are still handy encapsulations -- "news products," if you will, that get built through a combination of editorial discretion and automation, in varying degrees. (Google News is such a thing, for example.) A better abstract idea for automation of news aggregation including community input as a scoring mechanism has yet to conclusively prove itself as a definitively superior way to help the busy reader. (Mainly because the community scoring mechanisms are unreliable.) In fact, thus far, to me the opposite is true. Techmeme is extremely popular, and has an "arbitrary encapsulation" flavor to it. But many of us have taken to it because, to cite that popular marketing slogan for the ages, "it removes all the guesswork."

That said, it appears that even Techmeme's apparent evenhandedness is potentially driven by an echo chamber effect. Even here, then, it seems that additional editorial backbone might be required to ward off what amounts to an unfair advantage for sites and blogs with a certain linkage or authority structure they've gone out of their way to build for that very purpose. (Scoble and Cutts as sophisticated spammers :) ). A friend recently told me that Techmeme's creator, Gabe Rivera, had asked him if this site, Traffick.com, was a spam site! Because it showed up on Techmeme quite often. (I'm guessing the question was actually a well-intentioned one, because there is a lot of duplicate content floating around. Once whitelisted, a quality site can't be trumped by duplicate content -- a manual process that is actually possible within a vertical, and that makes a Techmeme visit fairer to quality publishers than, say, a Google Search.) In any case, if Gabe has this question about appearance frequency coming from a solid B-minus-lister blog (A in some people's hearts), then he's going to have to ask whether all those A-List sites, especially those built by savvy popularity-trawling bloggers post 2005, are really as substantively worthy as his current algorithm has us believe.

Maybe we can never return to an era of just a few authoritative voices in any industry. That's not the point, exactly. But isn't it just a little bit troubling that the A-Listers of today are so often devoid of substantive editorial authority beyond merely being passionate champions of the echo chamber itself? Isn't it troubling that authoritative voices are prematurely and voluntarily submerging their important thoughts and building platforms that basically say -- "whatever you guys think."?

I think I'll be happier when the "crowd" doesn't completely drown out the original editorial voices -- like Danny. Author of story #48 on someone's hotlist, Sphunn 17 times, never did put the asses in the seats... I mean the kind you have to pay for.

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