Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Are weblogs the real online desktop publishing revolution?

see edited version at
Media Guardian, November 30th, 2004

When Yahoo! laid down around $4bn for Geocities in 1999, a maker of personal publishing tools and web-based communities, it seemed like the desktop publishing revolution had arrived. Geocities was a five year old business, which had recently gone public and was hosting around 3.5m sites which had been authored on its service.

Many, if not all of these sites were actually more like personal home pages made by hobbyists and teenagers. The pages were static and hard to update, giving viewers very little reason to return. Even immediate friends and family, found personal web pages little more than vanity projects or a faint nod to the promise that the Web could be the great revolutionary equalizer which allowed you or me to sit cheek-by-jowl with CNN and the New York Times.

But the revolution promised by personal web pages was not one which would have been embraced by Wilkes and Paine; it didn’t spawn a generation of pamphleteers and polemicists. Instead, when Geocities went public in August 1998 and its share price rose 120% on its first day, it triggered a Tulipmania by defining community on the Web as the place investors had to be. Geocities spawned an unhealthy interest in companies with copycat business models like Tripod, Xoom, Fortune City and TheGlobe.

TheGlobe had perhaps the luckiest Friday 13th ever and in November 1998 raised $28m at its IPO, having only made $3m in revenues that year. Of course the price of tulips being what they were, its share price rose over 606% that day, leaving a company which had no profits and barely any revenues, with a $842m valuation. Needless to say TheGlobe became a horror story, which ended in disaster, disgrace and delisting. To add insult to injury, even the once mighty Geocities has now been relegated to a minor outpost of Yahoo!, while the other services are long gone and distant memories.

So why bother to mention any of this? This is certainly not meant to be a gleeful reminder of the irrational exuberance we all feel we left long in our past, but rather a gentle prompt that we may have finally reached a tipping point when personal publishing can start to take its rightful place in shaping opinion and driving serious business both on and off the Web.

The Pew Internet study in February, 2004 found that 44% of Internet users have already created content for the online world through building or posting to Web sites, creating weblogs using tools like Moveable Type, and sharing photos with superb services like Flickr.com. Technorati, a service dedicated to indexing and searches what it calls the “world live web”, already keeps near real-time tabs on over 4.5m weblogs (up from 100,000 two years ago) and nearly 700m related links. Keeping on top of the dynamic world of weblogging is not a trivial task and the team at Technorati estimates that a new weblog is created every 6 seconds with bloggers collectively creating around 10,800 updates every hour.

If this was still the era of Geocities and TheGlobe, none of this would matter very much because that was a time where there were many publishers but very few interested readers. Today, Pew estimates around 50 million people are not only regular weblog readers, but a third of these people actually add comments and engage in on-site discussions. Savvy columnists like Andrew Sullivan, as well as traditional media owners like The New York Times, BBC and The Guardian have begun to fully embrace both weblogs and their sister-technology RSS (AKA really simple syndication) to push their views out both easily and cheaply, but most critically with regular and timely updates to an increasingly interested audience.

But if Wilkes and Paine had been around today, they would have surely looked on with envy and admiration at Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, better known as Kos and for his extremely well-visited online perch at the dailykos.com. Kos receives over 500k visits a day and is already able to charge around $5k per week for a premium advertising slot. For a one-person publishing team, with ad sales outsourced to either Google Adwords or other upstarts like Adbrite, all of a sudden it seems that we may have arrived at an online business model for publishers that start to make sense. In fact in the last month, Yahoo! have done more for the distribution of quality weblogs by making it push-button simple for its 20m My Yahoo! subscribers to add RSS feeds from sources as diverse as Hackingnetflix.com, Engadget.com and Gizmodo.com directly into their personalized news service and of course at a fraction of the $4bn they spent 5 years ago on Geocities.

Local newspaper businesses used to be built around the model of the three-man newsroom, where lean teams wrote the copy, sold the space, published and distributed the paper. Nowadays, you can outsource the selling, publishing and distribution to incredibly sophisticated low-cost tools and services, focusing all your energy on getting the copy as sharp and as current as possible.

This is something which can work both for trade and consumer media, a fact now being exploited by two UK entrepreneurs both brought up on ink and steeped in the Web. They are at the forefront a trend offering deep and regularly updated coverage of specialized areas. Nick Denton, now based in New York, is the brains behind a stable of emerging web hits from Gawker.com, which covers pop culture and receives over 110k visits a day, to Defamer.com, averaging around 55k visits a day by offering “LA the gossip rag it deserves”.

From this week, Azeem Azhar, will be putting a truly local spin on the proposition by creating five UK targeted titles including Honourablefiend.com, covering politics, and Wandalust.com covering travel. Maybe the publishing world is finally about to revolutionized online?