The Future of Blogger, from 2000.
I’ve recently been thinking about how Facebook basically does all kinds of stuff we’d talked about back in 1999–2000 at Pyra HQ when we were in the throes of Blogger-building. And I’ve been letting my thoughts wander down some “what-if” and “if-only” paths that are no good for anyone, and I’m not sure why now, in 2016, I’m thinking about all this stuff.
Regardless, today I was poking around my hard drive for who knows what, and I found my old “work” folder and started digging in the “pyra” sub-folder. And I found this article that I’ve pasted in full below. Did I write it? Did Ev Williams? Probably some combination of both. What was it for? Probably an attempt to get some scaredy-cat VCs burned by the dot-com bust to fund us before we bled out the last of our cash. That didn’t happen, of course. Blogger eventually went to the nice retirement home of Google, and waved to its friend Flickr across the street at Yahoo!. They sat on the verandah enjoying the breezes, while the young’uns like Facebook and Instagram zoomed by on hoverboards.
Of course that’s always what happens, and will continue to happen. But when I read the third-to-last paragraph:
“Imagine a world in which millions of individuals armed with digital cameras, video cameras, PDA’s, and cell phones, can not only seamlessly publish to a web site, but enter their thoughts, accounts, and experiences into a global distribution system where their information can go out to thousands of sites and millions of people...”
It’s hard not to think just a little bit more about those “if-only”s.
The Future of Blogger and Web Content
In its current incarnation, Blogger is largely based on these three ideas:
1) Let software handle the tedious parts of web publishing. Independent authors and publishers (those who don’t have money for a technical or production team or the tech savvy to delelop something themselves) are often lacking in content management systems. When such a system is in place, it allows publishers and writers to focus on the content and takes away the barrier to getting it on the web. This greatly increases the quantity and frequency of both content and visitors.
2) Outsource the back-end. By hosting the content management system on our site while still publishing on the user’s — as opposed to trying to own their content and traffic as many web services do — we offer the ability to use a high-level, labor-saving application with no technical knowledge and without removing the flexibility and other advantages of publishing on one’s own site.
3) Focus on the post, not the page. Most publishing on the web is still steeped in a print-centric paradigm. For one thing, everything is about “pages.” Articles are published on pages in the online equivalents of magazines and newspapers. If an article is too long for a page, you go to the next one (granted, largely for ad-impression purposes). Contrary to popular definition, the popularity of weblogs has little to do with people wanting to journal where they’ve been on the web. In fact, if you look at what’s being published with Blogger and other weblog tools, less and less of it is of the link-and-commentary variety. That was just a place to start.
The popularity of blogs has nothing to do with any particular type of content, and everything to do with the format. A single page with short, frequent bursts of text, simply works very well on the web. People read them. A lot. As many people have pointed out, blogs are addictive.
From a writing/publishing perspective, the idea that you don’t have to write an article, or an essay, or a white paper, or even a page worth of text, but that you can write a simple paragraph, sentence, or single thought, and instantly (if you’re using Blogger) post it for the world to see (and in your own space — not in the context of some discussion, chat or other shared space), is liberating. It causes a lot of stuff to be published that never would have been otherwise.
Because of these advantages and more, blogs will not go away, but continue to rise in prevalence — in personal and commercial capacities. They not only enable the vision of the web as a personal publishing platform for the average person, they fill a distinct niche for online content that is complementary to the articles, columns, and essays that currently make up the majority of content on the web. In the future, it will be the norm for all kinds of sites to have one or more blogs keeping people up to date, in addition to other content.
But this is only the beginning of the Blogger story.
The Syndicated Web
In the July 1999 issue of Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0, editor Kevin Werbach wrote about why syndication, the driving force of today’s broadcasting, cable, and newspaper industries, was also destined to be huge on the web:
Online syndication is now poised to explode…. Syndication will evolve into the core model for the Internet economy, allowing businesses and individuals to retain control over their online personae while enjoying the benefits of massive scale and scope…. syndication will be absolutely central to the development of most Net businesses. At the same time, it’s the future model for the millions of independent and personal Websites that give the Net its vitality.
As usual, Release 1.0 was a little ahead of most analysts’ thinking. But just recently, Forrester and Jupiter have tuned into syndication as well. As reported in a recent New York Times article ( http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/25/technology/25ECOMMERCE.html) about the quickly growing syndication side of the web, Jupiter Communications forecasts that online content syndication and licensing will amount to a $1.5 billion market in 2004, up from $343 million this year.
Not that we put much stake in such prognostications, but one thing they seem to do is make the media and investors take note. Not that there hasn’t been interest for a while. In April, iSyndicate, a leading web content syndicator, raised an additional $55 million from Microsoft and News Corp., among others (http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-1767888.html). In August, iSyndicate competitor ScreamingMedia raised $60 million in an IPO (http://www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,17994,00.html). These companies have announced new deals with dozens of big-name content producers and signed up thousands of syndicating web sites. Other content-based startups have switched from plans to build destination sites to syndication-driven business models. And several web software and services companies have added features and products to their offerings with syndication in mind.
Perhaps the most notable growth in this area, however, has been in the syndication of headlines and other lightweight content through RSS (http://www.oreillynet.com/rss/). Thousands of sites offer and display these headlines in order to generate more traffic and give their visitors links to relevant news from a variety of sources. RSS gives just a glimpse into why a syndicated web makes sense.
So what does all this have to do with Blogger?
Instead of thinking of Blogger as a tool that automates the posting of content to a web site, think of it as a distribution network into which content is entered and then distributed by potentially thousands of publishers to different web sites, wireless channels, email newsletters, and other outlets.
Here’s how this might work: You make a post to your blog about the pole vaulting competition at the Olympics and how you knew the gold-medal winner growing up in Lake Okoboji, Iowa. This post shows up on your site, as usual, but it is also (optionally, of course) entered into the pool of syndicatable Blogger content.
Once in this pool, other publishers can pick up your content. For example, web sites focused on pole vaulting, the Olympics, or Lake Okoboji, may all be interested in picking up your post. Blogger will make this a no-brainer to do. Mechanisms will be provided to track all new content as it’s published and filter it according to keywords, author trust level, topic, and popularity. By monitoring this content flow, editors will be able to easily find new content that may interest their audience and, with a click, add it to their own sites.
We’ve often promoted the idea of collaborative, special interest blogs, around a particular topic. By joining together with two or ten others who share an interest in a particular topic, one can collectively create interesting sites that would require too much work on one’s own. This collaborative functionality is built into Blogger, but doing these types of blogs still requires special effort — finding the contributors, enticing them to participate, and everyone making the effort to write and post to yet another place.
With the syndication model, you could create, to use the previous example, a collaborative Olympic blog, not just by getting your interested friends to contribute, but also by tapping into the Olympic coverage already being posted to thousands of sites within the Blogger network. By selecting the best of this content, you could create a killer Olympic blog with very little effort.
The syndication could also be automated. For example, a company may want to automatically “clip” all posts that mention them or their products — or, their competitors’ — and publish them to an internal site (or via a mailing list), for monitoring and discussion. In addition, the syndication could happen on the content originator’s site, much like Blogger’s Remote Editing feature works now: Blogger can tell if the reader of a Blogger site is a Blogger user and display proper links and controls. So, if one reads something good, he or she can instantly syndicate it to his or her own outlets. Seamlessly.
By making syndicating others’ content as easy as we’ve made it to post one’s own — easier, actually, since you don’t even have to write it — Blogger will facilitate an explosion of sites and unique combinations of content — each giving unique context to each idea and bringing it to a unique community.
Speaking of community, one feature that will make this prospect especially intriguing is the ability to attach discussions to posts. Each outlet where an item is syndicated could have a different discussion about it. Cross-linking could be built in between related discussions. An interesting solution to the common problem of discussions and communities getting too large. Attaching discussions to Blogger posts is already possible through third-party scripts, and we’ll be building the functionality in soon.
The Money Flow
It’s easy to see how the content distribution system described above would benefit end users, who would be provided with many more options, and web publishers, looking to drive traffic and build communities with content they don’t have to create themselves. Let’s talk about why a content creator would want to release their copyrighted information into this system.
The answer is the same as why individuals publish on the web in the first place: to spread their ideas, gain exposure, build their brand, get feedback, meet likeminded people, or serve some other business or personal goal. Ownership of the syndicated content is retained and links back to the source will drive traffic and build popularity for quality creators.
This is the same reason that many bands actually like Napster and put their MP3s online for free themselves: exposure feeds popularity. Popularity is fame. Fame, as John Perry Barlow puts it in the current Wired, is fortune. Abundance breeds abundance.
But that’s just the answer if you assume everything is free. Everyone knows, of course, that people don’t pay for content on the web, other than porn and The Wall Street Journal. However, that only applies to end-users. Web sites themselves actually do pay for content every day. A recent eCompany Now article (http://www.ecompany.com/articles/mag/next/1,1641,7147|7271,00.html) stated:
The payoff for editorial investments is measurable: increased customer loyalty, repeat visits, and a “sticky” website — i.e., one that gets people to stick around and, with luck, buy things. But producing quality content can be expensive. A recent survey by Forrester Research found that the average Web retailer devotes $1.7 million annually to content development and management.
In contrast, iSyndicate and ScreamingMedia receive from $1,000 to $5,000 a month per site for their content streams, which seems a relative bargain.
Whether or not sites would be willing to pay for blog-type content from independent authors is uncertain. But, with proper editorial control (to make sure only high quality posts get by) and demonstrable proof that it got the results they were looking for, over time, some would certainly open up to the idea. After all, the format is right. Also from the eCompany article:
Sean Suhl, chief content officer for Thirsty.com, a Los Angeles-based teen site, is unequivocal about what delivers the biggest bang for the buck. “What works is short-form text,” he says….The key, Suhl says, is to deliver short, easy-to-digest chunks of information — and to update your site as frequently as possible.
Certainly, for all the previously stated reasons, a lot of content will be offered for free. Probably most of it. But it will also be possible for a creator to say, sure you can syndicate this item, for ten bucks. Or a hundred. Or twenty-five cents. Or everything I write for $15 a month. Exclusive rights could even be offered to the first taker at a set price, or auctioned off to the highest bidder. On the other hand, some business-driven content creators looking for rapid exposure may offer to pay to have their content distributed. After all, this is an idea distribution system, and what is advertising but the distribution of ideas?
Blogger will enable a real-time, dynamic content marketplace that allows for all of these models and sharing of revenue with content creators.
Beyond the Post
We talked about the advantage of publishing in short chunks — that is, the blog format. This especially makes sense for syndication, because one of the drawbacks of syndicated content is that it’s not unique. But by breaking the content into smaller chunks, more unique combinations are possible — no two pages of syndicated content even need to be the same. However, other formats are still appropriate for other types of content. And there’s no reason Blogger, as a syndication system, needs to have pre-set length limits.
Many people already use Blogger to publish longer pieces and essay-style sites. And we’re in the process of releasing new features that will make it even easier to do so. In fact, Blogger will be able to publish any type of structured or instructed data object, which can be formatted as XML. On the advanced side, users will be able to select the type of content they’re publishing — for example, an Epinions-style product review, a news story, a calendar event, or a custom-defined format defined by their company — enter in the appropriate fields, and submit it to the distribution network.
Furthermore, the content is not limited to text. We already have the functionality to distribute binary files through Blogger. This would allow for Blogger to be a distribution system for everyone’s favorite file format (MP3s), for example, software, or JPEGs.
With the proliferation of digital cameras (http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1006-200-2869207.html), pictures are especially intriguing. I would have loved, for example, to offer my second-row shots of Tony Hawk doing the first-ever 900-degree aerial at the 1999 X-Games to the hundreds of independent and commercial skateboarding sites — instead of just on mine, which has a very limited skateboarding-interested audience. More profoundly, those on the front lines of wars or other major media events could be providing extremely compelling, valuable, and unique photos and commentary to the world, which, currently, there is no easy outlet for doing.
Beyond Blogger Users
Making Blogger-published content easy to syndicate is all well and good, one might think, within the world of Blogger users, but isn’t that a pretty limited world? After all, one of the draws of Blogger, or at least blogs, mentioned previously was basically that an amateur could do it — which may provide for some interesting content, but does not, in general, signify the type that other publishers are dying to syndicate, let alone pay for. Furthermore, if the syndication is done through Blogger, since most larger publishers use higher-end content management systems, doesn’t this limit the participants to the realm of mostly personal and independent sites, which are not likely to have great exposure and even less likely to pay for content?
On the content creation side, while it’s true that there is a lot of stuff entered into Blogger that no one is likely to want to syndicate, there is also a lot of compelling and highly original content that puts what’s on many commercial sites to shame. This is why blogs are generating more and more readership. We’re seeing huge growth in new Blogger users daily, so even with the “90% of everything is crap” rule, sheer numbers will ensure a substantial amount of decent material.
Once we enable and promote Blogger as a syndication network, we are likely to attract a whole new and much larger crowd of writers, artists, and pundits looking to get exposure. And some of them will be good. There are also thousands of professional writers (photographers, etc.) who are looking for additional outlets for both previously published and unpublished work.
Plus, new features currently being developed for Blogger will allow sites to solicit reader-submitted posts, which will subsequently be published through the system and also available for syndication (at the publisher’s discretion). This will expand the universe of syndicatable content exponentially.
On the syndicator side, again, we are likely to attract a whole new level of player once we offer the services described herein. More importantly, however, neither syndicating content nor offering content for syndication through Blogger will require using the tool to publish one’s site. Blogger offers an open API (implemented with XML over HTTP) that would allow, for example, someone using Vignette, Manila, or a homegrown content management system to also offer his or her content via the Blogger Network, with a very small amount of development.
Getting content out is even easier. Blogger can already publish in whatever user-defined format one wishes — instead of, or in addition to, HTML. So, editors can use the Blogger interfaces to select the content from the system that they want to syndicate and feed it to their own system as an XML feed, comma-delimited file, or whatever they define in their templates and settings.
Open, Easy, Flexible
We are moving toward a syndicated web, a world of content, detached from any particular location, a world of ever more niche sites and customized communities with complex combinations of content from creators large and small. The web lays the foundation for this, but the enabling publishing tools and distribution networks are not yet in place.
The iSyndicate/Vignette/United Media/ScreamingMedia gang is trying to duplicate the old-world business on the web. They’re busy cutting deals to let the old guard do business with each other. We are reinventing how content flows for the web, leveling the playing field to let anyone compete. We are offering an alternative that is open to everyone, super-easy to use, and highly flexible — the formula that always wins on the Net.
Imagine a world in which millions of individuals armed with digital cameras, video cameras, PDA’s, and cell phones, can not only seamlessly publish to a web site, but enter their thoughts, accounts, and experiences into a global distribution system where their information can go out to thousands of sites and millions of people. Media will still rule the world. The difference is the media will be everyone.
Blogger currently has over 15,000 active content creators, who are also all publishers and potential syndicators. There is a lot of original, unique, and compelling content flowing into the system already. And, with 300 new publishers a day, that amount is growing quickly.
By utilizing the collective power of tens of thousands of independent authors, modularizing content at the smallest level for ultimate flexibility, and making seamless syndication a core part of the fastest-growing publishing tool around, Blogger will become the leading content marketplace and distribution network on the web.
 Not to mention wireless devices. As Amit Asaravala wrote in WebTechniqes, “…the wireless development community has yet to see blogs for what they are — content providers with the ability to serve periodic, bite-sized updates to willing subscribers.”
 iSyndicate boasts over 250,000 syndicating sites, but, in fact, this is the total number of registrations for their free headline syndicating service — not active sites. (I have friends at iSyndicate.) They offer content from 1,200 publishers. ScreamingMedia offers 2,800 publishers to about 1,100 sites, according to The New York Times article.