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A Code of Conduct for Content Aggregators
As words and articles became digitized over the last 15 years, they began to float, there for the plucking and replication elsewhere. Words like “curation” and “aggregation” became the language of the realm, sometimes used as substitutes for describing the actual creation of content. What had once been a craft was rapidly becoming a task.
Traditional media organizations watched as others kidnapped their work, not only taking away content but, more and more, taking the audiences with them. Practitioners of the new order heard the complaints and suggested that mainstream media needed to quit whining and start competing in a changed world, where what’s yours may not be yours anymore if others find a better way to package it.
So where is the line between promoting the good work of others and simply lifting it? Naughty aggregation is analogous to pornography: You know it when you see it.
As custody of content becomes more tenuous, there’s a risk that we may end up passing around and putting topspin on fewer and fewer original works. This has created a growing sense of unease among both digital immigrants and natives that the end of “ownership” could eventually diminish the Web’s value.
Two approaches to giving credit where credit belongs were announced at the South by Southwest Interactive festival here in Austin.
In one instance, an ad hoc group is using a kind of trade association approach to articulate common standards. In the second, someone who makes a living by mining the Web is deploying symbols to create a common shorthand for attribution.
Last June, Simon Dumenco wrote a column for Advertising Age noting that the introduction of the iCloud was competing for digital attention with the salacious story of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman.
Given that the piece was about what was trending on Twitter at that very moment, his column was immediately picked up by traffic-seekers like The Huffington Post and Techmeme. The Faustian bargain of the digital news ecosystem suggests that people get to pick your pocket a bit and then send back traffic in return. But Mr. Dumenco noticed that The Huffington Post, a huge site with many readers, returned very little traffic, while Techmeme, a much smaller site, kicked up plenty.
He went on something of a rant about it, writing that The Huffington Post’s overly aggressive approach to aggregation at the time — in which content is rewritten, links are buried, and very little is added — yielded all of 57 page views for the original item.
The Huffington Post suspended the writer involved and apologized to Mr. Dumenco. He responded by saying that the site was “singling out — indeed, scapegoating — a young writer for engaging in a style of aggregation long practiced, condoned and encouraged by Huffington Post editorial management.”
After getting an in-box full of examples from other writers who felt similarly aggrieved, Mr. Dumenco decided to pull out the big guns: He has formed a committee aiming to establish standards for aggregation. Buckle up, here comes the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation.
O.K., you can almost hear the digerati seizing with laughter at the idea that a pew full of journalism church ladies is somehow going to do battle with the entire Internet. But Mr. Dumenco compares his effort to the editorial rules promulgated by the American Society of Magazine Editors, which have come to shape how magazines distinguish editorial from advertising. It’s an imperfect system with a fair number of outliers, but over time the magazine group devised guidelines that had significant influence and at least set standards that people could argue about.
An august list of names has signed on to the effort: David Granger, the editor in chief of Esquire; James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic; and Adam Moss of New York magazine. Of course, all three oversee robust Web sites that do a fair amount of aggregating themselves.
The committee includes digital media natives like Elizabeth Spiers, editor in chief of The New York Observer; Mark Armstrong, a founder of Longreads.com; and Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of Slate. All of them believe there is value in looking at what might be called best practices when it comes to linking, summarizing and aggregating.
“This is not an anti-aggregation group, we are pro-aggregation,” Mr. Dumenco told me. “We want some simple, common-sense rules. There should be some kind of variation of the Golden Rule here, which is that you should aggregate others as you would wish to be aggregated yourself.”
Kerry Lauerman is the editor in chief of Salon, a site that has been around since the dawn of the consumer Web and has been on both sides of the aggregation equation. He says adopting rules is more than just a way of protecting legacy franchises.
“Increasingly, when people go online, it’s like stepping through the looking glass,” he said. “Whether you follow a link from Twitter, an e-mail, or Pinterest, you wind up on a site where you really don’t know where you are. It would be nice if there was a way of signaling what the standards are and how trustworthy the information is.”
Mr. Dumenco, who presented some of his ideas at a panel discussion this weekend in Austin, said the committee would grind its way to a set of standards and promulgate them over time. The group will have neither carrot nor stick, but could end up with a kind of Good Housekeeping seal, a signal that the consumer has landed on a site that adheres to a common industrial standard.
“We are not some tight little group of scolds,” he said. “This is a conversation that many people from all parts of the industry want to have, and this seemed like a good place to start.”
On another panel in Austin, one in which I participated, Maria Popova, better known as brainpicker on Twitter, suggested that the failure to give credit was growing endemic. On Friday, she and her collaborator, the designer Kelli Anderson, announced the Curator’s Code, a site that offers a way of expressing where things come from.
The Curator’s Code will use a symbol resembling a sideways S to express that a piece of content came directly from another source, and a different figure — a curved arrowlike symbol — to signal what is commonly known as a “hat tip,” or nod to a source that inspired a further thought. The Curator’s Code supplies the appropriate symbol and then the blogger or writer simply puts in a hyperlink behind it as they normally would.
Ms. Popova, who spends hours a day scrounging the Web for remarkable artifacts, has noticed that many idiosyncratic discoveries suddenly become ubiquitous once unearthed. And the source of that little gem, or the credit for someone else who dug it up, often disappears when it is reposted.
“Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor,” she said. “When we don’t honor discovery, we are robbing somebody’s time and labor. The Curator’s Code is an attempt to solve some of that.”
By creating a language signified by two so-called Unicode characters, they hope to make the business of attribution more standardized and routine.
“What makes the Internet magical to me is that it is a place of radical discovery,” said Ms. Popova, who describes herself as a “curator of interestingness” on the Web. “You can click your way through a chain of attributes and links and find amazing things.”
She is careful about attribution and thinks others should be mindful as well. The Curator’s Code is a shorthand tool to signify that on the Web, most things come from somewhere else.
Neither of these initiatives seems intended to serve as a posse to bring justice and order to the digital Wild West. In a sense, they are an effort to bring back the promise of the consumer Internet, creating visible connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. It’s called the Web for a reason, after all.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 13, 2012
The Media Equation column on Monday, about efforts to set standards for online content aggregation, misstated a point in an Advertising Age column by Simon Dumenco that was widely picked up by other Web sites, and misstated the timing of its publication. Mr. Dumenco’s column contrasted the social-media chatter on a salacious story involving Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, and the introduction of Apple’s iCloud service; it did not contrast it with the death of Steven P. Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. The column was published last June, not July. (Mr. Jobs died in October.)