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June 2001




May 2001
Human Portals
Giant Internet portals are struggling. News outfits have cut staffs. So why is the Net getting more interesting? A surge of independent-thinking Web enthusiasts -- the human portals -- are cataloging data and news on their sites and making us rethink how we get information.

By Austin Bunn

In the summer of 1999, during a mercifully brief (and wildly overcompensated) tour as an Internet consultant, I sat with executives from Go.com, Disney's Web portal, trying to understand who Go users were, what they liked to do online, and why these executives didn't know this kind of thing already. At the time, I worked for a subsidiary of Disney and had explored Go.com a grand total of twice before I was called in to this meeting. For advice and answers, we called a Jupiter Communications (now Jupiter Media Metrix) analyst, which, if you know something about Jupiter and its Internet "analysis," means we were a desperate group of people. Jupiter provides clarity the way a Magic 8 Ball divines the future: "Could Work," "Can't Tell," "There's a Metric Here Someplace."

Mostly these days, it comes up "Looks Dark." When Disney, after reportedly dumping about $150 million into Go.com, announced in January that it would abandon the portal, the news was all too predictable. (In March, Disney reversed its position, promising to keep the URL live.) Still, portals seem to be a dying breed. Maxim knockoff TheMan.com and the Latino-targeted QuePasa.com -- deemed niche portals until they realized their niches couldn't care less about them -- are now extinct. Online divisions of news-media companies such as The News Corporation and NBC have slashed their staffs in an effort to bring their operations to scale with their audiences. By now the term "portal" has become almost archaeological, buried alongside "fire hose of eyeballs" and "co-branding experience." The word portal might be out of fashion, but the impulse to create a front end to the Internet thrives in a fertile, ungovernable form. The problem with big-door portals like Go.com, with its tools and news tickers fixed into every available inch of space, was self-evident. Internet developers (like those of us that day at Go.com) became so concerned with "personalization" that we forgot that personality is what drew people to websites in the first place.

Over the past two years, a wave of individual personalities -- something between editors and conduits -- has emerged, eager to curate the world via sites called "web logs." These one-person human portals are cultural antennae, a vital part of the constantly shifting terrain of information online. By definition, a web log (or its contraction, blog) is a collection of links on a single page chosen by its author. Some blogs are incredibly personal, just a hair shy of exhibitionistic, but others are as civic-minded as a newspaper. All are unpredictable, sampling the Internet with restless curiosity and personality to burn. These folks are the merchants of buzz. No commercial site could afford to be so porous, pointing its visitors off-site as soon as they've arrived; MSNBC and NBCi make their money based on how long visitors stick around. But web logs succeed based on how relevant they become, how intellectually adventurous they can be. And they don't seem to care about money, or at least have no real prospect of making any.

The blog form is as basic as HTML code gets. In fact, Web browser Mosaic's "What's New" page began as a first-iteration web log back in 1993. Since then, blogs have undeniably matured, to the point where there is one for nearly every idiosyncrasy and interest (if yours isn't out there, what are you waiting for?). There are blogs for trial lawyers, graphic designers, even Canadian aliens working in the United States. Blogs' creators tend toward the techie side of life: You've got to be really comfortable with the Net -- and committed to its possibilities -- to divulge your lives and interests online in daily dispatches.

Blogs multiplied in part because of Blogger, a free software that has made the process of creating your own blog close to foolproof. Released in 1999 by a tiny San Francisco company called Pyra Labs, Blogger was initially a sort of sidelight for Pyra, the slag from a business application the company was developing; since then more than 100,000 people have registered Blogger. But I suspect that Pyra Labs's success is no mere Internet fad. In Blogger, Pyra Labs has created something deeper and more enduring than a clever distraction.

Take MetaFilter.com, created by Matt Haughey, who used to work as a developer at Pyra Labs. Haughey, 28, is a sedate, self-effacing programmer with the eye of a graphic designer. (For our interview, he showed up wearing all gray -- gray pants, gray shirt, gray jacket, gray sneakers.) MetaFilter is, as its name implies, a filter of filters. It picks out items from the day's info stream on the Web -- half news and half evocative ephemera -- and offers links to about 20 stories or sites. In a random 24-hour window in January, for example, MetaFilter offered such fare as an article about a 3-year-old boy who tried to ape a stunt from the MTV show Jackass and suffered third-degree burns as a result (from The Washington Post); a commercial that was dropped from the Super Bowl (courtesy of AdCritic.com); a short film about life inside the offices of Amazon.com made by a former employee (courtesy of the filmmaker); a junkie's diary discovered on the sidewalk in San Francisco and transposed to the Web (by the person who found it); et cetera, with the emphasis on the et cetera.

At this point, says Haughey, the site claims about 50,000 hits a day, which translates into a regular readership of about 5,000 people. Compared with MSNBC.com's 9.7 million monthly visitors or CNN.com's 7.7 million (according to Media Metrix [see sidebar, page 74]), MetaFilter is but a droplet in that gushing fire hose. But MetaFilter has no television component, employs no one, and never advertised. Imagine if it did. Haughey, for one, would have problems. He wrote the software and runs the site on a freebie server that his father built. By the time this magazine -- with Haughey on the cover -- hits the stands, he may have come up with something a little sturdier, but only reluctantly. Haughey doesn't get paid for this, after all; he maintains MetaFilter during his free time from his day job at an Internet startup.

What distinguishes MetaFilter from major-media news sites is that it's created with material solicited by its own audience -- it is a "community blog." Haughey started MetaFilter in 1999 as a way of saving himself the work of finding material, which is the real work of running a good blog. "At the time, there were only 30 or so...blogs," he says, "and they were amazing, but I didn't think I could do all that content myself. I thought I could find only one or two good links a day -- but four or five people could create one decent log." The site's "members" earn the privilege of suggesting stories to the site after engaging in the conversations that trail from each link. Haughey himself doesn't filter the posts -- what's on the page is the raw data of people's ideas -- which makes MetaFilter a rowdy, constantly amusing mix. It's astonishing, frankly, that the site is this good, considering how democratic it is.

On MetaFilter there are no ads; the site has no commercial ambitions of any kind -- just the gossipy instinct to share news. And it's not news in the traditional sense. The news on MetaFilter can come in any form -- reports of an anthrax threat alongside the latest release of MP3 player Winamp, bittersweet obituaries next to Dubya jokes. While traditional news outlets spend time trying to divine what constitutes "news," MetaFilter lets readers determine it for themselves. There's a critical design element here as well. Compared with mammoth media sites such as CNN.com and MSNBC.com, minimedia blogs like MetaFilter or Slashdot.org (a tech-news site for self-proclaimed nerds; see "Sites We Like") are practically transparent, only a handful of pages deep. You don't come to muck around as much as to leap off -- to other sites or into the conversations that spark like stray voltage from the stories. The diversity of source material and radical shifts in tone, at first disorienting, are exactly what keep you coming back.

This ferocious collecting instinct long predates the Web. Blogs are often likened to Wunderkammer, the "cabinet of wonders" that Renaissance-era amateur scientists fashioned as a way to showcase the superabundance of discoveries in exploration. It's an apt simile for how web logs help us map a vast and growing continent, arranging their lists with treasures and obscure curios. But it tells us little about their implications for major news media sites, which, I think, are dramatic and instructive. As blogs establish themselves in the information hierarchy, the proprietary news media might end up competing with the better-networked, smaller-scale parasites living off of them.

The difficulties of portals such as Go.com can't be attributed strictly to a lack of personality. Their problem is that they have no idea how to build a front door. Sure, such traditional news agencies as MSNBC, The New York Times, and CNN are still responsible for much of the news we read online. MetaFilter and other web logs, such as the recently launched Plastic.com -- effectively a commercialized MetaFilter.com -- depend on them to provide prime material. (The company that owns Plastic.com is funded in part by Advance.net, the Internet arm of Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast.) Sometimes they're too dependent. A scan of the Plastic.com home page this February revealed that three of seven stories were from the Times. But in blogs, the news agencies are strictly producers of the news, factories of information, not arbiters or organizers. I can't remember the last time I actually went to the front page of MSNBC or CNN, which is precisely where they, as businesses, need us to go.

The major media companies know this and are working around it. Peter Dorogoff, spokesman for online-news front-runner MSNBC.com, admits that most of the site's traffic "comes in through links to individual stories and not through the cover at all. That's the beauty of the Web -- to link from story to story." As Dorogoff points out, MSNBC's response is to make every page a front page, heavy with "rather sophisticated interlinking" to other articles on the site and, of course, advertising. MSNBC has started using interstitial ads -- big, garish graphics that appear and disappear before their stories come up -- and ads that run in the middle of a column of text to capture those readers who enter the site through a side entrance.

It's important not to underestimate how crucial these design compromises are when it comes to reading news online. Major news sites are full of clutter, the excesses of trying to accommodate every possible interest. Strictly on an aesthetic level, spare, streamlined blogs (like Slashdot, MetaFilter, and MediaNews, a web log for journalists and other mediaphiles) are the antidotes. Jim Romenesko's MediaNews (which claims 5,000 readers per day) and Slashdot (which claims 482,000 unique visitors per month) both offer big "buffets" of material, in Romenesko's words, with little ornamentation. Who wants to dig for stories in a mess of ads, graphics, and "sophisticated interlinking" when the same information can be scouted and simply arranged by an editor as fixated on the subject matter as you are?

And fixated is the operative word. MediaNews, which has become a staple of the publishing elite's media diet, has a particularly dedicated following. Romenesko, 47, has even noticed that a sizable contingent of his audience visits MediaNews up to ten times a day. There are a couple of reasons people come back every other hour. First, Romenesko, whose venture is funded by The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, is great at what he does. He sorts through 150 sites and dozens of e-mail tips a day. (About four or five of these leads end up as stories.) But Romenesko's MediaNews is also successful because it is the kind of site you can check ten times a day without being assaulted by ads.

In contrast, MSNBC.com has a total staff of about 200 (with another 460 on the TV side). Obviously, it has financial pressures that nonprofiteers Matt Haughey and Jim Romenesko do not. The foremost is enticing people to, and keeping them within, MSNBC's network. But in a world saturated with available information, those fences become an immediate liability. No reader wants to respect them, and why should they when the interesting material -- the real discovery -- is often at the fringes? One of my favorite sites, TvTattle.com, is a particularly good quarry of TV news and opinion pieces from newspapers across the country. Curated (somewhat less regularly than you'd like) by a twentysomething college student named Norman Betito Weiss, TvTattle ferrets out the interview that West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin did with the St. Petersburg Times or the thoughtful profile of ER producer John Wells from the Austin American-Statesman. The ideas and commentary from these regional papers rarely break into the national media. Normally, you'd never hear about them, but Weiss lives to identify them.

For Weiss "the fun part" is linking good ideas to attentive audiences, because, he told me via e-mail (Weiss prefers to communicate via e-mail), "what some Texas-based TV columnist has to say about Dawson's Creek is of interest to somebody in, say, New Hampshire." He's exactly right: The news media have segmented themselves so much that they badly need bridges like Weiss's blog. But more instructive, too, is how TvTattle proves that good writing can be found all over the media map. Blogs are evidence that insight can come from any corner.

Bloggers are, on the whole, living in those corners themselves. Romenesko started MediaNews in St. Paul and is now located in Evanston, Illinois, where Romenesko lives in a studio apartment. Haughey's MetaFilter operates from San Francisco, and Weiss runs TvTattle from a college somewhere in northern California (the media-shy Weiss told me, "I don't want to reveal too much about myself because I'd prefer that the page speaks for itself"). Few web logs seem to be situated in the cynical media capitals of Los Angeles or New York, which allows them a certain generosity of spirit and an unjaded enthusiasm.

Given the right conditions, that eagerness can escalate into an investigative fervor. Last summer I got hooked on SurvivorSucks.com, an outpost started by 30-year-old Dallas Web designer Paul Sims for fans who love to hate the CBS show Survivor. Three years ago Sims started a small community site, RealWorldBlows.com, about the MTV series Real World. He followed the advent of reality TV in Europe, and when Survivor hit the states, he launched SurvivorSucks as part of his PlanetSucks.com Network. (What might sound like a business is distinctly not. He operates the sites with the help of the PlanetSucks community.)

Like TvTattle's Weiss, Sims has a curious opposition to overexposure in the media. At the height of the site's popularity, Sims turned down interviews from the likes of CNN. "I didn't want the site associated with a personality," he says in a phone interview.

Nevertheless, SurvivorSucks.com broke stories: a fan hacked his way into the CBS website; a Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis by fans of the opening-credits sequence revealed missing cast members from a tribal council (thus prefiguring their exits). In December, a source tipped off Sims to nude personal snapshots that winner Richard Hatch had posted to dating service MatchMaker.com, and the names and identities of Survivor II competitors leaked out and appeared on Survivorsucks.com long before TV Guide printed them. At its most fevered pitch, Survivorsucks.com attracted an audience in the hundreds of thousands because a swarm of small-time sources created a hive of good information. On the night of the Survivor finale last August, CBS's website attracted 254,000 unique visitors. CBS has a multimillion-dollar advertising budget and brand-name power; Sims, with his handful of contributors, nevertheless managed to rack up 100,000 visitors.

But as with many generosities, blogs aren't indefinitely sustainable. After all, these are people running them, not businesses, and hype doesn't pay bills. As Sims of SurvivorSucks says, "It's a colossal amount of work running this, and it'll make you crazy." As of the end of January, even Pyra Labs, despite a campaign to raise money for a new server, went from having six employees to one. TvTattle sometimes goes to sleep for a week when Weiss takes exams. And nobody seems to want to do the thankless work of creating decent archives. Long-standing personal blogs have dropped out of operation when exhaustion or romantic heartbreak interrupts their creators' posting cycles. Plastic.com may prove more durable than its unfunded competitors (disclosure: I used to work for Feedmag.com, one of the sites now partnered with Plastic.com), assuming it's possible to commercialize the blogging instinct at all. The decidedly noncommercial MetaFilter.com runs a tag line on its front page: "the Plastic.com it's OK to like."

Major media companies will undoubtedly take consolation in the vicissitudes of these operations. As long as it's just Jim Romenesko behind MediaNews, it's just Romenesko you're dealing with. But the fact that blogs may come and go doesn't mean that media heavyweights should ignore them. Part of the allure of blogs is how their creators share themselves and what they know spontaneously, outside of a profit motive. Blogs are a loose reflection of their readers, which is how we get hooked in the first place: They're small, intimate, and enormously wide-minded. In other words, people-size. And as long as they exist, they'll represent the ultimate irony: They're nonbusinesses threatening their big-business competitors.



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