The Future of the Internet, According to Web Trendsetters

Thursday Jun 5th 2008 by James Maguire
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A group of bloggers, editors, and Web publishers gathered recently to talk about the Web’s evolution.

At the recent Mediabistro Circus conference for media professionals in New York, a group of trendsetters – bloggers, editors, Web publishers – talked about the future of the Internet. The event pulled together diverse talents like Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, Robert Scoble, managing director of Fast Company TV, and Anil Dash, vice president of blogging firm Six Apart. The core question they addressed was: how do you build your online audience?

If the event had an overarching theme, it was the importance of building online community, and leveraging the power of social networking and “user gen” (getting site visitors to generate their own content). In short, it’s not enough to host a Web site; sustainable success comes only when users see your site as a shared destination that they’re personally involved with. The word Facebook bubbled up again and again – as both a positive and negative example.

Wired editor Chris Anderson referred to the process of community building as “the Holy Grail” of Web publishing. Site owners and others hoping to drive traffic are constantly talking about this topic, he noted, but they tend to misunderstand it.

Many sites hope they can “just sprinkle social magic dust” and it will all be fine. They think it will be easy – “Put a little button on our site that says social network, or turn our site into a Facebook plug-in.”

Yet Facebook and MySpace aren’t what social networking is about, Anderson said. “Social networking pre-dates all of them. Social networking is a feature, not a destination, it’s something that every Web site should have. We need to bring it out of MySpace and bring it into our own sites in our own way.”

Social networking “has very little with do with the aggregation of ‘friends’” – that’s kind of an ‘arms race’ and rather a silly one, he said. Instead, the core of effective community building is a site with a clear identity and purpose. A sustainable social network evolves organically around such a site based on users with shared interests.

“They’re not about social networking first, and content second. They’re about content first, and social networking second.”

As an example of optimal social networking, he pointed to Slashdot, the highly successful uber-geek community founded in 1997. Slashdot, in fact, might contradict Anderson’s thesis. It has no original content; its copious traffic comes purely from users commenting on articles linked to from elsewhere. But its “news for nerd” motto does give it a clear identity and purpose.

Slashdot, Anderson noted, employs one of the key tenants of community building: it recognizes and rewards its users. If you click on Slashdot usernames (like KillerBob or Firehed), you’ll see all the posts they’ve made, as well as their Journal, if they’ve chosen to keep one. And, Slashdot invites its users to be moderators, which increases their responsibility and involvement (and makes the site cheaper to run). “Users should never be anonymous,” he said.

Hyper-Focused

“The world doesn’t need another generic social network. The world needs an infinite number of hyper-focused social networks that are about specific subjects,” Anderson said.

To see the future of Internet publishing, go to Ning, he recommended. Founded in 2004, Ning hosts approximately a quarter million “mico-networks” of like-minded users. These range from kayak enthusiasts to gourmet foodies to people trying to quit smoking. Hip Hop music star Fifty Cent owns one of the most popular Ning networks; Fitty boasts more than 100,000 members.

Chris Anderson, Wired


Chris Anderson

TechCrunch estimated that Ning is now worth a half billion dollars, and Fast Company glowed that Ning is a “viral expansion loop.” (That’s cyber-nonsense-speak for a site that gathers a crowd of users who then market their own sites.) Ning was co-founded by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and onetime Goldman Sachs banker Gina Binachini.

Anderson himself, as a hobby, runs a small Ning site focused on amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (radio-controlled model planes). His micro-site has about a thousand members and gets about 5,000 pageviews a day. He conceded that it makes only about $400 a month – it’s not really a business model.

“In my business [as the head of Wired, which is owned by Conde Nast] we don’t get out of bed for less than a million readers,” he said. But on his tiny Ning hobby site he can spend hours focusing on a mere thousand readers. The site is a model of social networking: the users comment often and add their own photos and other information.

On one hand, his micro-site, “feels really authentic and real and exciting, but on other, it makes no business sense whatsoever.” Presumably success would come from an aggregation of such niche sites.

Even though his Ning site isn’t a moneymaker, he feels this style of hyper-targeted social network – “absolutely laser focus” – could replace MySpace. “In a world of commodity information, what you need is a clear sense of purpose.” With that in mind, he urged site owners to focus their sites narrowly, to make them “granular.” Rather than running a site about photography, run a site about underwater photography.

“What is the optimal granularity, where you stand out? Shoot for single digit thousands [of users]. I think if you shoot for tens of thousands, it’s too much. Hundreds is not worth doing.” Shooting for a million is limited, he said.

"If it’s got to be a Top Ten site or it’s not worth doing, you’ll fail.”

Real Time Global Conversation

Robert Scoble, who spoke after Chris Anderson, demonstrated that he’s as plugged into the Internet as it’s possible to be. As Anderson spoke, Scoble – managing director of Fast Company TV, and a video blogger – was videoing him (with a cell phone) and streaming it live over the Web.

“You could have left a comment during my video,” he said. Scoble sees the Internet evolving into a global, live, real-time conversation, with video in the forefront of this effort.

He pointed to the example of Tom Dickson, CEO of Blendtec blenders. Dickson launched WillItBlend, a wacky Web-based show in which he throws all kinds of strange objects – like an iPhone or a Chuck Norris action figure – into a blender to see how it “blends.” Web surfers have viewed his videos some 75 million times by last count. (The golf balls video was viewed 3.8 million times, generating 2,500 comments.) He gets readers involved by offering a “suggest stuff to blend” link. A less frivolous example of Web video are those of Gary Vaynerchuk, who Scoble extolled as a leader in the field. Vaynerchuk is the proprietor of New Jersey-based Wine Library. He produces and stars in his own wildly energetic (and a little nutty) low-budget videos about wine, which have gathered an audience of about 80,000 viewers. Vaynerchuk is the prototypical “click and mortar” owner, promoting his product online without spending much money.

“This is the new advertising” Scoble said. “He creates a need you didn’t even know you had.” (That sounds like the old advertising – but it’s much cheaper.)

Scoble noted the success of tech broadcast personality Leo LaPorte, who does a live Internet streaming show from his home. According to Scoble, LaPorte spent $10,000 on a “virtual set” so that it appears as if he’s broadcasting from a studio, when in fact he’s in his living room. He takes calls and fields responses from his chat room, which he converts to audio.

Robert Scoble


Robert Scoble

On an offbeat note, Scoble admitted that he follows a whopping 23,000 people on Twitter. “That means I get a new Twitter message about every second.” (He explained that when he wants to get work done, he needs to shut down his screens.) With Twitter, everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, though that 15 minutes is more like 1.5 seconds.

He also touted FriendFeed, a social network/broadcast channel that hosts videos, photos and music. “This is a worldwide conversation that’s happening in real time with many different types of media.”

Have Blog will Travel

Noah Schactman, who pens Wired’s Danger Room blog about national defense, said that his blog gets about 1.5 million page views a month – a number to prompt envy in most bloggers. The secret to his success? In addition to breaking serious news and blogging incessantly, "When we do serious journalism, we usually illustrate it with a bikini-clad model in a mudfight," Shactman explained. (Actually, that’s not quite accurate – Danger Room’s graphics are more on topic than that.)

One of the pioneers of blogging, Anil Dash, vice president at Six Apart, spoke about what he called “the ugly co-dependent relationship between blogs and SEO [search engine optimization].” Plenty of bloggers twist themselves into pretzels to include hot keywords, hoping that using popular search terms (even out of context) will give them high ranking in search engines. That’s a mistake, Dash opined. “Just make content that people want.”

Elisa Camahort, co-founder of Blogher – “the community for women who blog” – proved to be the event’s most passionate evangelist for blogging.

Elisa Camahort


Elisa Camahort

“Blogs are now mainstream, addictive and trusted," she said. Regardless of age, once engaged, blogging is a daily part of life. As proof, she claimed that 53 percent of U.S. women online are reading blogs. While that figure seems high, Camahort has earned bragging rights while demonstrating the power of this emerging medium: Her Blogher network scored a sit-down interview with Senator Barack Obama during the primary season. (The video is here.)

One of the event’s most engaging speakers was Steve Rubel, a highly popular blogger and a senior VP for Edelman Digital. Rubel’s key point was that the mass audience is dead. That is, those many advertisers who are pouring mega-bucks into TV ads to the exclusion of the Web are missing something. When you reach only for a mass audience – without including the targeted, measured audience of the Net – you’re not optimizing your ad spend. To illustrate the limitations of the mass audience, he showed a slide of a typical TV audience: two people dozing off on a couch.

Rubel’s blog tends to be quite insightful, and is listed as part of the Datamation Top 100 Tech blogs.

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