In the past couple of months, a number of thoughtful posts have been written about content on “the Edge” of the web. I’ve been reluctant to comment on it thus far, because I am really torn as what to think about this concept and the services emerging around it.
The idea is that web content is moving towards generation in a distributed fashion (on blogs and other “edge feeders” – Fred Wilson’s coined phrase) with edge aggregators and other services picking up and using the data/content as the web apps need it. This usage is in contrast to a centralized approach to content-generation and consumption (often in a wall-garden to some degree).
Obviously Michael Arrington, the founder of Edgeio, would take a hard line with the debate. For example, in this quote with respect to review sites,
“There is no way centralized review sites … can compete with the blogosphere over the long run. Those sites will also have to gather decentralized content, or become meaningless.”
Pete Cashmore makes similar points,
“I’ve said before, an aggregator that collects structured reviews from around the blogosphere… will beat a centralised silo… in the long run.”
And Pete follows up with another excellent comment about this scenario,
“One thing I would like to say: it seems to me that blogs are increasingly becoming the submit form for the web.”
However, is that what we really want? Blogs becoming the submit form for the web? Idealistically, one could make the case. But is that what’s really going to happen? Is my non-techie mother, uncle, or sister going to post a classified ad, a review, or other piece of microcontent, then tag and microformat label it? To be honest, these people not only want, but actually need a real submit form that centralized sites provide for many use cases. (Read my previous post The Divide Between Geeks and My Grandmother). This counter of what to do with people without blogs has been the main critique that I’ve read thus far.
In addition, Greg Linden talks about another problem with a pure Edge approach – spam.
“How many times does this cycle have to repeat before people start building systems designed from the start to deal with bad behavior, crap, and spam? There seems to be a repeating pattern with Web 2.0 sites. They start with great buzz and joy from an enthusiastic group of early adopters, then fill with crud and crap as they attract a wider, less idealistic, more mainstream audience.”
The above is a relevant quote from his blog in the context of Web 2.0 in general, not just the Edge, but it definitely applies here. Without a centrally managed service filtering at the creation end rather than the consumption end, the problem of incentives towards generating misguided content becomes more precarious.
Perhaps it’s not an either/or proposition. Is the real answer services which mix both effectively aggregated decentralized content and provide easy-to-use methods for creating it as well?
Fred Wilson writes about “interim step and that step are services that feel centralized but are really application specific edge feeders.” I wonder why it has to be temporary. Are we really headed into a world “where all the value is created on the edge.” All of it? I am not so sure. Maybe in the foreseeable future the right approach is a hybrid.
The answers are found in the who of the people actually doing the content creation and posting. Greg Yardley criticizes Yahoo’s Bradley Horwitz post “Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers,” which assumes that 90% of a consumer audience is passive (i.e. not content-generating). Greg writes,
“Once you start believing 90% of your audience is passive you can’t help but shape your existing communities and design new ones with the passive consumers in mind. Talk all you want about making it easy to create – if you expect the bulk of your users to be passive gawkers your thinking’s never going to stray from CPM ad space. How disappointing – since it is possible to design a service that demands creation, and such services are far stickier than ones built around showing ads to passive surfers.”
Greg Yardley is correct in his assessment that consumer web services can be designed to demand creation, and that there is a tremendous value in that. So while aggregation of the Edge is definitely important, I am not convinced it’s the end all and be all.
The value behind the consumption of microchunked user-generated data/content is that it ultimately allows people to use it how they want it, where the want it, and when the want it. Shouldn’t the reverse be the same for how the data/content is produced in the first place? Consumers want to produce content how they want to, where they want to, and when they want to. And it doesn’t seem to be that that’s necessarily on the Edge.
(Forgive the long, wandering, theoretical, dense post – obviously I am still thinking through a lot of these issues, and my thoughts are still formative here.)