The discussion surrounding the merits of so-called web aggregators went to another level this week as some Internet heavies weighed in on the debate  We first discussed the nature of content curation in piece entitled:  Creating order out of aggregation.  This provides some useful background on this debate.

The pressures on the mainstream media are acute.  When a site like the Huffington Post, according to Mediaite, passes the likes of the WSJ and Washington Post in the number of readers it is inevitable there will be some sort of backlash.  The pressure to perform is not limited to these mainstream media.  Paul Tate at Gawker (via The Wire) reports on the acute pressure journalists at the financial newswires are to generate “breaking news.”

Since the debate over content vs. aggregation usually resides in the mainstream media the breakdown of players is typically pretty simplistic:

  • Content creators=good;
  • Aggregrators=bad;
  • Curators=somewhere in between.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at the issues involved, the debate is much more complex than that.  Let’s take a look at what some people heavily involved in the business of content and aggregation have to say on the topic.  (We recommend clicking through to the underlying articles to get a fuller take on the debate.)

Steve Rosenbaum at Silicon Alley Insider talked with Gideon Gartner on the topic of aggregation and curation.  We especially like this definition of curation:

The word curation may seem to be a synonym for aggregation, but in fact it’s a double for “intelligent aggregation”. Museum curators do not, I hope, assemble as much art as possible for an exhibition; rather they apply judgment in selecting what they deem to be appropriate.

With the amount content being created exploding, see this Nicholas Carr article at NYTimes on content farm Demand Media, there is simply no substitute for some sort of curator.  The big question is the degree to which this is a business. From the Rosenbaum post:

So, is curation a business or a hobby? Gartner says that both technology and paid professionals will play a significant role in the future of the curated web, as the number of firms which apply effective curation as part of a formal quality selection process, will inevitably grow.

Mark Cuban at blog maverick notes how the complexity of the connections between various Internet business models, including some he is invested in, is growing and evolving.  The question for content businesses is whether they can adequately monetize the traffic they receive from an aggregator.  Cuban writes:

My rule for ANY site receiving traffic from an aggregator of ANY kind is: If you believe you can create more value from the traffic you receive than potential negative branding implications plus the cost of supporting a potential competitor, then continue with the aggregator. If not, block the aggregator.

It might be interesting to note that in the entire time (some 4+ years) we have been writing this blog no content provider has ever asked to excluded from our linkfests.  On the other hand we receive daily requests to be included.  Draw your own conclusions.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine comes at the topic from a journalistic side of things and cautions the media and advertisers to “stop trying to sell scarcity.”  In large part because in the Internet age is no such thing as scarcity.  Jarvis writes:

The real story in nonphysical goods is one of deflation. Value in once-scarce — well, once-controlled — commodities like news, information, and advertising decline as the internet explodes creation and competition…So stop selling scarcity. Scarcity has no value. Results and efficiency do.

The question of efficiency is an important one, because that is the selling point of aggregators:  “We bring you the stuff you want to read, how you want to read it.”  Jarvis also notes that one possible refuge for content providers is quality.  Quality is one of the few ways of profiting in age of increasingly watered down content.

A point echoed by Seth Godin in another interview by Steve Rosebaum at Silicon Alley Insider.  Godin notes that as “power shifts from content creators to content curators” the only defense is to be “extraordinary.”  You (and your service) need to be something people “can’t live without.”  As Rosenbaum notes:

From Godin’s point of view, we need a middleman, a curator, to help us find what’s important. That’s where the value lies. And he says that person is a linchpin.

Leigh Drogen at Surfview Capital looks at the economics of content creation and specifically weighs in on the matter of content quality.  His point is that no aggregator can extract value from your content if isn’t any good in the first place.  In short, aggregated worthless content is still worthless content.  Drogen writes:

..If your content isn’t specific, insightful, awesome, original, scarce, it’s worth nothing.  In this case, either do it for fun or pack up your bags and go home.  If your content does posses these traits, you should love the intelligent aggregators, they drive traffic to you, where you can charge for it with advertising or a pay wall.

The cat, that is curation, was let out its bag a long time ago.  As we wrote back in November the need to curate content is ancient one that tries to make our complex world a little bit more comprehensible.

In the Internet age curation has become both easier technically, but has also become a more vital as the amount of content has exploded.  Despite the rearguard efforts of the incumbent media the world has changed for the content business.  The only seeming defense seems to be generating quality content that people are willing to pay to read, either explicitly or implicitly.

This by no means the last word on this debate.  Since we first wrote on the topic it has only become more intense and complex.  We leave you with our closing thoughts from a few months ago:

Aggregators, investment or otherwise, are not the cause of the downfall of traditional news gatherers like newspapers.  They are simply a sign that people are hungry for information and analysis presented in an efficient manner.  For better or worse, that instinct to seek out order in an increasingly complex world is here to stay.

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