A Xerox for the Internet

Sometimes you can get very valuable insights from someone out there, if you try to listen instead of continuously ‘shout’ on your own. It’s especially crucial, if you’re building a startup, because you want to understand and learn how your potential market relations (especially potential customers) think about what you have to offer, and how they see the world and what their problems are. In the oft-quoted but still wise words of Steve Blank, “opinion is inside the building, data is outside the building”.

Recently I received an email from Søren Storm Hansen, a Danish blogger, from whose blog I had shared a handful of posts using Google Reader, Ifttt and Kaplak.net. Søren didn’t want his posts ‘republished’ on Kaplak.net. Apparently not because he wanted to keep his readers fixed to his site (he publishes full feeds and every item carries ads) but because he didn’t want “his name associated with services, which didn’t contribute anything”.

As it is of no paramount importance to me personally whether Søren’s stuff is shared on Kaplak.net or not I ended up removing Søren’s feed from my Google Reader subscriptions, so in the future I will not read (and therefore not share) items from his blog. But his request still left me slightly puzzled, because why would you want to risk losing readers or potential readers like this, if you’re a blogger? I suppose even a successful blogger wants more readers? Apparently Søren shares no similar reservations as to whether his readers share items from his blog with services such as Google+ and Facebook, and they’re not even so kind to email him a pingback (which I do precisely because I want the sharing to be noticed which may spur conversation), and they do not carry his ads.

As a blogger I’ve had stuff shared or republished from my blogs in the past too. Some of my writings have even appeared in self-published antologies about web entrepreneurship. I do not share Søren’s reservations about this as I do not believe my ‘personal brand’ is associated in particular with any one particular item, or with any one context in particular (which potentially could damage it beyond repair, or more plainly, risk not to contribute anything to it). Similarly I do not believe in copyright, because I don’t think I (or others) would or should benefit financially from any particular work. Rather I believe I benefit from what may be termed my total brand equity value – what I’ve proven I can do in the past, and so in what I may be able to do in the future. In fact, this is the crucial factor which got me my current job, which has gotten me earlier engagements, and no doubt will help me receive offers in the future.

What I learned from Søren’s request is something along these lines : the distribution as well as the ‘non-distribution’ (control of distribution – in so far as this is possible) of one’s online activities and the contexts they create, seem to be two sides of the same concern : to build one’s online reputation (or ‘personal brand equity’ in advertising speak) to a level where one may successfully convert this to financial benefits, job offers, speaking engagements etc. – and therefore also take steps to protect it. If one specializes in one line of work, one may not be interested in seeing one’s stuff in a context which puts it in another light. The question is though, if the cat is not already out of the bag, once you hit the “publish” button? Meaning – is it really up to you, how your recipients use what you’ve given them yourself?

As many people building websites are, I’ve been preoccupied with eyeballs, i.e. the problem of ‘how many’ a given message or product may reach. I’ve seen Kaplak through the lense of aggregation and syndication of RSS feeds, and as such, my first instinct upon receiving Søren’s request was to jump in and talk feeds and the ‘grey zone of syndication’, as I’ve discussed previously on this blog. But this turned out not to be Søren’s concern. His perception of Kaplak is more in line with a ‘xerox for the internet’ – a place where you can make a copy of an article or blog item and share it with others to read. This certainly makes sense, although this has not been Kaplak’s primary focus – instead we use already established technologies and services such as RSS/Atom feeds, Google Reader, Ifttt and Posterous for the ‘xeroxing’, while Kaplak admittedly (yet) doesn’t contribute much, except try to make a number of shared items available in a new context, where they may ultimately reach recipients, they would otherwise not reach, and reduce costs in creating these new connections, so that products on the ‘slim end’ might benefit from these.

I’d certainly be interested to hear other POV’s on what online sharing (or ‘xeroxing’), aggregation and syndication mean for the value of one’s online reputation or ‘personal brand equity’. In what ways are the ‘xeroxing’ of items on Kaplak.net different from the context, one’s published items may appear in, in say, search results or in one’s feed reader?

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Yet Another Sweet Little Autoblogger

Aggregation tools such as WP-o-Matic and FeedWordPress just got a promising little brother, and I’m currently playing a little with it in the Kaplak Labs. The name of this nice little plugin for WordPress is Yet Another Autoblogger or YAAB in short. It is developed by Satheesh Kumar, who was kind enough to post a note on the blog about it just recently:

I too have made a similar but better plugin called YAAB-Autoblogger. Yaab has all features of wp-o-matic and in addition it can create automatic blog carnivals in your site. Also it supports SMS blogging and Youtube cloning. Ebay product syndication and automated content rewriting are upcoming features. After all I myself is a doctor ( not a programmer ). I started making this plugin for my personal use, but when I doveloped it, it was highly impressing and I have planned to release it for public. Kindly download it from http://www.psypo.com/yaab , try it and if possible please review it in your valuable blog

I have only just played around with this plugin a little, but it looks fairly promising. Here are my initial comments and feedback for further improvement (which I also posted on Satheesh’s blog) :

  • I can’t get YAAB to fetch multiple posts in separate posts, like FWP or WP-o-Matic does. It fetches only the latest post or saves the complete feed into a single post, no matter what values I provide it with. I’m sure this is easily fixed or explained.
  • YAAB is very userfriendly and has an almost cartoony tutorial-like quality. I like the little character who helps guide setting up a feed for aggregation. Neat stuff, but it makes me wonder how flexible the plugin will be for more “unusual” type feeds.
  • I also like the template very much. It’s very similar to what Guillermo did in WP-o-Matic, and I liked it there too :-)
  • However, there are no variables for author, date posted, permalinks back to the source, or other data included in the feeds. Would be nice to be able to extract all the information in the feed, and place it where I want in the post. Also would be nice to have a regex like functionality to replace terms or code in a feed item, like the one used in WP-o-Matic. But especially the author and source/permalink information is crucial, IMHO.
  • There are no functionality for tagging incoming posts, or fetching the tags included in the feed. Also a bit crucial in my book.
  • YAAB has some very promising YouTube feeds functionality which makes it easy to set up an autoblog with automatically embedded YouTube videos. I haven’t played with it yet – but I will :-)

As previously stated, I have absolutely no idea how flexible this plugin is yet when it comes to feeds from Twitter Search and other such weird Atom sources. But as this is the first version, I’ll worry about that later :-) Keep up the good work, Satheesh!

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The Grey Zone of Syndication

As I mentioned in an earlier post, syndicating stuff is also one huge grey area of legal hazzle. Stumbled over this discussion from a couple of years back (as well as this one), which airs not at all uncommon concerns. You risk being called a scraper, a spammer and a splogger, if you pursue the path of syndication.

Pariah S. Burke wrote :

RSS feeds are published for individual, private consumption; they are not a blanket license to, or waiver of, reprint rights. Taking and republshing content—no matter how much or how little—without the original author’s permission is a violation of U.S. and international Copyright laws. There are exceptions, of course, detailed in the Fair Use doctrine, but such exceptions are very specific and do not apply to the vast majority of sites using FeedWordPress, Autoblog, and the like. In fact, Charles Johnson, the creator of FeedWordPress is in constant and frequent violation of copyright law because the apparent majority of his blog’s content is stolen without the original authors’ permission.

In that case, Google, which enables users to very easily tag and share (i.e. republish) feeds they find interesting via their popular service Google Reader, is guilty of same said constant and frequent violation of copyright law, or at least, in willful and assisting infringement. The same of course goes for YouTube and any web service, which allows anyone to embed their videos, images and games on your own local site.

Who says a tool has to be used in one way only? Let’s get creative! That’s how problems are solved and new business models are developed!

Here’s another POV, from a guide on setting up an automatic blog which automatically generates a ‘shitload of traffic’ and is ‘just about hands free’ :

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of people scraping content that people have sweated over. However, one thing I don’t mind doing is thieving from thieves.

You’re on the hunt for “disposable” content – generally not text based. Think along the lines of Flash games, funny videos, funny pictures, hypnomagical-optical-illusions – that kind of thing. The Internet is awash with blogs that showcase this stuff. Check out Google blogsearch and try a search like funny pictures blog. There’s hundreds of the leeching bastards showcasing other peoples pictures, videos, games and hypnomagical-optical-illusions for their website. They can hardly call it “their” content. With this ethical pebble tossed aside, we can go and grab some content.

There’s loads of ways you can hunt down potential content. You’re on the lookout for RSS feeds with this rich media. So you could try; Google Blogsearch, Technorati, MyBlogLog – basically any site that lets you search the blogosphere.

My personal point of view (this is also Kaplak’s stand) is that the problem of visibility for sites and products is larger than the largely fictional problem of “theft”. If you make syndicated feeds publicly available, you implicitly want and ask for syndication, because you want your message out. Syndication will help your site or product become visible in places and contexts it would not otherwise be seen in, and that’s why you use it and why you should use it. If you do not want your message out in other contexts and do not want to see your articles appear on other websites in a syndicated format, you can simply choose not to make articles available for syndication. The benefits however, in the Google Juice and traffic which syndication brings back to your sites and products, are in most cases much greater than the disadvantages.

Accusing syndication sites and services for theft and copyright infringement is IMHO ridiculous at best, as these services actually help your site become seen and achieve better rankings in search engines. It helps your interested readers and users find you in the first place. And if you don’t want to be read – why publish to the web?

At worst, these allegations are harmful, as they instill an atmosphere of fear and create distrust of using RSS, feeds and aggregation tools. Instead, we need to urge and encourage syndication and use of syndicated feeds, as it enables rich web contexts, which would otherwise not be possible, and makes it easier to direct interest and relevant traffic to sites and subjects of interest. It is above all a tool, which can be used for our mutual benefits – or for spamming and creating yet more “get rich quick” mentality kind of sites filled with stuff the world could care less about (but apparently doesn’t). I am of the opinion that these types of sites may provide their owners with short-term rewards, but ultimately will fade to authentic sites of much stronger lasting value. How to build lasting value, and help these sites and products build lasting value, is what we’re interested in here.

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