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by Jay Fienberg

Aggregation piracy and playlist artistry

posted: Jan 17, 2005 8:36:54 PM

Copyright control of contents placed in RSS has been a topic of note lately (via Danny Ayers, Russell Beattie, and Robert Scoble: 1, 2, and 3). The trigger for all of this: Martin Schwimmer, who publishes his blog contents in an RSS file, is wanting to stop the RSS aggregator, Bloglines, who plans to make money through advertising, from displaying his site (better explained in his own words here and here).

I've been preparing a bunch of posts that I'll be publishing here when I launch the code-named kickitch sub project, and, coincidentally, this topic intersects with what I'm working on right now. Basically, I think the "piracy" of these online aggregator services is an important part of what's next beyond blogs. (Long post follows.)

(Note: I'm not going to write about what I think Martin Schwimmer's rights are or aren't, or whether he is right or not.)

Aggregators for blogging beyond blogs
I've often considered, through my writing on this blog, what I call "blogging beyond blogs", or "blogging without blogs", and I long-ago noted the role I see for aggregators in my post, RSS *readers* should serve, not just client, says I. More recently, I've also noted how I think the commercial / advertising role will shift from publishers to aggregators in my post, RSS / Atom, feeds and advertising vs feed readers and advertising.

There is a pattern, with technology and contents, that continually shifts interest from publishers to aggregators, with the role of aggregators always becoming more and more editor-like until it becomes publisher-like and the shift starts again in a new way.

(I think technology, in this context, tends to democratize creativity in that it makes it easier and easier for people to create technologically-elaborate things, e.g., in the mode of our "remix culture".)

Blogs were originally aggregators
Blogs, when they were originally web logs, were mostly aggregators: lists of links to articles published on the web. It was usually "harder" to publish articles than to publish simple lists of links, but there were eventually enough articles to make compiling and editing of link lists a creative task.

At a certain point, the creative task of web logging became interesting in itself, and shifted from being a task of aggregation to an art of editing and writing that was then being published in its own right.

(Note: see Rebecca Blood's recent, excellent, essay, Hammer, Nail: How Blogging Software Reshaped the Online Community, which discusses this shift from web logs to blogs!)

Now (today), it's so easy to publish blogs that there are tons of them, and the effort to aggregate them is beginning to again attract editor-like and writer-like functions, i.e., merely mechanical aggregation of sites is seeming too read-only-passive, and folks are being attracted to more and more active, creative, interactions.

Creative aggregation
So, I believe that creatively compiled aggregates of sites are on the verge of becoming interesting publications in their own right. I would point to Attention.xml, Kinja, and the new Technorati Tags all as examples indicating this trend, albeit each with different concepts about how to manage (centralized, decentralized, human or machine) the editorial and creative functions., Flickr, and Webjay are great examples of sites that enable newly creative forms of aggregation that effectively become their own publications. In some sense, people read these sites, and people create things specifically for these sites, moving publishing out of the primary context of the original "publication" (blogs and other websites) and into a new primary context (the aggregator sites themselves).

Music and playlist precedents
I think this is similar to the transformation undergone by music, from live performance to recording to radio (and, obviously now, beyond that, as well). Looking back at the creation of radio, we see the radio folks "pirating" recorded music.

As I've written about on my music blog (in The business of music is not the same as the business of recordings), the DJs—the individuals who compiled the music, i.e., who acted merely as aggregators of existing recordings, themselves became creators in their development of playlists. And, the radio show became it's own kind-of "publication".

In response, many musicians changed the way they made music to make it work better with playlists and radio. At first, musicians and recording owners tried to stop radio, but, ultimately, with the help of changes in copyright law, they found ways to work together that mostly were beneficial all-around.

Aggregators are pirates (thank you!)
The current RSS aggregator sites and search engines are "pirates" of blog contents, and part of what's been hip about blogging has been being part of that piracy by giving it the room to develop mutual benefits to individual bloggers and the medium of the blog altogether. We could say, "thank you aggregators", though in some sense, we'd just be thanking ourselves.

One route, that is natural to see as commercial interests come more into play, is stopping (commercially motivated) piracy by limiting the pirates' actions. But, another route—the one I'm interested in, is "stopping" piracy by better enabling these actions to be an integral part of the act of site / contents creation itself.

As easy as it is now to create a blog with Blogger, I can see how it will be that easy for each of us to create our own Bloglines, Flickr,, Technorati and Webjay—and, I think the companies / folks behind those services would do well to (continue to) enable this (more), or else others will, and will leave them behind.

And, as we do this, as we move forward to new levels of creating the medium of pirating ourselves through our own aggregator services, I think we can also, specifically, get ourselves better positioned to address how commercial interests come into play in relation to our creative works.

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Comments and Tracbacks

Comment by: Richard MacManus ·
posted: Jan 26, 2005 10:57:58 PM

Great post! I'm curious what you mean by "create our own Bloglines". Can you give a specific example of what you mean, in the Bloglines as Content Aggregation case?

cheers, Richard

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: Jan 27, 2005 6:07:38 PM

Thanks Richard, and thanks for the additional comments on your blog.

My main point about Bloglines is actually pretty mundane: the technology it took to make a unique Bloglines last year is, today, becoming common enough that people will be able to run their own versions on the same servers as their blogs. (And, I should say that Bloglines and other centralized services will probably keep getting better at doing things that are best done centrally. But, the read / play interfaces are things that I think will keep getting better on the edges.)

As that occurs, individuals will customize the concept of the aggregator to reflect how they themselves read / play the web—similar to how we've customized are blogs to reflect differences in how we present our words and images and sounds. In particular, I think these aggregators will be customized to work better with less, but more specific, information, rather than the current model of trying to work better with more, but less specific, information.

Also, I've really enjoyed your recent posts about Remixing and Speculation on The Future of RSS and Why Topic/Tag/Remix Feeds Are The Future of RSS, which reflect what I think is similar interests to my own (and which I hope will become more evident with the upcoming launch of my sub project, code-named, kickitch).

Also, you might be interested in my older post, Creating a commons for sampling information architecture and data structures.

Thanks again!

Comment by: Michal Migurski ·
posted: Jan 28, 2005 6:50:42 PM

What a great article. Thank you Jay.

I should mention that I came across this post via, itself a post aggregation weblog, which saw it via a different site. So far attribution chains haven't really become an issue, but I think that as this phenomenon grows, you'll see at least a few incidents of writers clashing with aggregators over credit and ownership. We struggled a bit with this risk when writing ReBlog, an application which explicitly routes and republishes RSS feeds, and decided that it was most important to preserve just the first link in the attribution chain, the original source. Everything else is just kudos.

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: Jan 28, 2005 8:10:51 PM

Thanks Michael, and thanks for pointing me to ReBlog.

I agree that attribution (and, in general, context) is an important thing to consider as things get essentially republished over and over again in new contexts and, potentially, mixed with new things in each.

Ultimately, "types" of contexts becomes clear and common enough that folks actually start to design their creative works to match up better with these types, e.g., song writers writing short songs for recordings that fit on vinyl 45s, then later, 22 minute pieces that work on a side of a 33 1/3 LP, etc.

So, I think folks are already thinking about "design" for RSS, and will more so as patterns of RSS rerouting and republishing start to become clearly visible. People will design for those patterns ;-)

What you're doing in ReBlog is similar to what I have here on the drawing board for the iCite net: everything is always attached with a source ID (e.g., that translates to a URL) as well as its current URL (which, actually, has its own source ID too).

There are back links (like guaranteed trackbacks) in the iCite net, so one can always construct a link from the current context back to the source, and from the source forward to every subsequent context (within the network of course—folks can always print things out, etc.).

Comment by: Richard ·
posted: Jan 30, 2005 4:48:27 PM

Hi Jay,

Thanks for the update on your ideas about Bloglines. What you're thinking about ties in well with my own explorations. I found this post to be very inspiring and I'm still mulling over the ideas you came up with - "creative aggregation" is an excellent phrase!

On your comment above on Michal's comment. I've been exploring a theory I originally called "Design for Data" [my most recent post on it is here], but more recently I've started to call it "Web 2.0 Design". Along with Joshua Porter, I am hoping to get a regular column in a Web magazine to fully flesh out these ideas.

ps I'm looking forward to trying out kickitch!

Comment by: Michal Migurski ·
posted: Jan 30, 2005 7:45:35 PM

Jay, just wanted to add that on a second reading of this essay, this paragraph really jumped out at me, in the context of responding to
"There is a pattern, with technology and contents, that continually shifts interest from publishers to aggregators, with the role of aggregators always becoming more and more editor-like until it becomes publisher-like and the shift starts again in a new way."

The ideas in that flash movie seem to ignore the long-view that journalism and communication have always been something of a tug-of-war between aggregators and original publishers.

Richard, I'll be following your Design For Data idea, since it really meshes cleanly with some of the web services exploration I've been doing. This feels like the missing piece from the predictions about "intelligent agents" (Phil!) from 10-15 years ago.

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: Jan 30, 2005 9:54:03 PM

Thanks Richard and Michal for your further comments.

This is maybe a bit far fetched, but you might like this post on my music blog, The future of music playback, where I talk about the containers of music media / devices and their relationship to their contents (the music recordings). And, if you look at the previous posts in that series, I also distinguish between the contents (the recording) and the music itself.

I find it useful to think back to times before there were means of mechanical or electronic reproduction: imagine being an author or musician before paper, or before the phonograph, respectively, etc. Then, how do you feel as there are suddenly more and more effective means for people to experience your work without you being physically present, or even nearby!

What do you think about those "aggregators" who just copy things on to paper or phonograph, and don't create them themselves live every time?

Well, historically, creative folks have kept finding ways to work with new forms of publication and distribution of their works. It's a creative challenge in itself. Nevertheless, some will avoid it—and that can be interesting too.

But, in the scheme of things, the folks who adapt to the new forms of aggregation are the ones whose works live on (either that, or after their lives, someone else translates their work to the new media / forms!).

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