November 13, 2008

Does Anybody Care About Non-Blog Commenting Anymore?

This Spring, when the tech blogosphere discovered Shyftr, a next-generation RSS reader, had launched with comments on their service, alongside full feeds, you would have thought they'd barged into bloggers' homes in the dead of night, stealing their money, their laptops and punching them around besides. Despite comments from me and others who believed this to be a natural progression of RSS readers and aggregators, their missteps landed them on virtual page one, and they haven't really escaped the many bad things thrown their way since.

But since Shyftr's unfortunate early flub, we have seen sites that are centered around other people's contents continue to grow in popularity, and in many cases, they feature conversations that are native to the service, but don't flow back to the blog. Meanwhile, some are doing more than just featuring a headline, but have excerpts that can at times display the vast majority or the entirety of a blog post. Has the Web collectively grown numb to this, and have we accepted this as "fair use"?

One tech developer wrote me yesterday, highlighting the way many posts were being displayed on the growing news discovery site, socialmedian. He wrote, "I'm sitting here finding example after example of this on Social Median? Do you think people are giving them a pass? Do people not realize that this is happening? Or do they just not care anymore?"

As socialmedian displays upwards of 1,100 characters of any given story, shorter stories could be posted in their entirety, without the original author's permission. As socialmedian now lets its users pull in content from Google Reader shared items and other sources, the author doesn't have to explicitly provide approval for their content to make it to the site. And on that site, users can engage in conversations around the content, without that data being ported back to the originating blog.

Some examples of these short stories (plus conversations) on socialmedian are here:As Shyftr operated this Spring, before having the Techmeme crowd go after them with pitchforks and torches, socialmedian unifies each article shared to the site in one thread, showing the multiple people who "clipped" it, and unifies the comments in one siloed stream.

So how is this different than the mini-scandal that erupted just over six months ago?

I've been a vocal proponent of socialmedian, and have seen the site take off over the last several months. I have also seen that the site doesn't pull in full feeds, but instead clips longer items. I can't remember the last time I published a blog post that was less than 1,100 characters after all. So I asked Jason Goldberg, socialmedian CEO, to help explain their limits and thinking. He wrote:
"While crawling the sources, we fetch short summary and full content (if exists in feed). While displaying the story on different pages of socialmedian, we first check if we have short description and show it after truncating to a certain limit. If short description is not present for the story we truncate the full content and show it. On the story page we check if we have full content for the story and display it after truncating it to 1100 chars. If we don’t have full description, we show the truncated short description."
Goldberg's response shows the team has given the issue of "fairness" a lot of thought. Unlike, who believes it has every right to show full feeds and pull in comments from the original blogs, socialmedian consciously clips the data after a certain length. And outside of the story itself, depending on the page, or whether it's in an e-mail alert, these limits are even smaller, between 130 and 325 characters.

So what's fair? We've largely accepted that aggregation and bookmark sites like FriendFeed, Digg, Reddit, Hacker News and others are allowed to post URLs and headlines and allow for conversation. We have largely accepted that it is bad behavior to keep the full content of a post and integrate comments. But in between is a gray area. Can I borrow one paragraph? Two? Can I show the first few graphics you use? At what point does it move from linking and enter the land of scraping?

I would venture a bet that as the social Web continues to evolve, we have gotten more accepting of sites centered around other people's content. I believe you can't undo the move to aggregation sites, and conversations will occur where people want them to, not necessarily on your blog. I believe that sites that offer attribution and a link back to the original source are providing their own sites as a distribution and reference medium, so I don't find fault with services like socialmedian. But it's likely that others aren't realizing their content is getting in the site, and it's not getting out. So what are the standards that one should follow? And do we care anymore?

You can find me on socialmedian here: