Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Fine Line Between Aggregation and Splogging: Part Four

Crossing the line

In the three previous posts, I've discussed the some of the similarities between blog aggregation and splogging, and also pointed out the some of the differences that set well-intentioned blog aggregation sites apart from sploggers. The key differences in my view are:

  • Reputable aggregator sites ONLY POST SHORT EXCERPTS; sploggers post excerpts of any length and/or full posts, often including photos, from the blogs they scrape.
  • Reputable aggegator sites ALWAYS ATTRIBUTE COPIED CONTENT TO THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR; sploggers may not attribute the content, or may deliberately give the content a false attribution.
  • Reputable aggregator sites LINK BACK TO THE ORIGINAL SOURCE WITH PROMINENT, EASILY FOUND LINKS; sploggers may not.
  • Reputable aggregator sites PROVIDE CLEAR BENEFITS TO BLOGGERS AND BLOG READERS; splog sites may not.
  • Reputable aggregator sites DO NOT PRETEND TO BE SOMETHING THEY ARE NOT, while pretending to be something they are not is, in fact, the very essence of what sploggers do.
  • Reputable aggregator sites DO NOT MISLEAD USERS into believing that the scraped content they present is produced by the aggregator site, or in any way affiliated with the aggregator site; they make it absolutely clear that the aggregator is meant to serve as a portal to the original content; splogger sites intentionally leave the relationship between the original authors and the site presenting the content unclear.
  • Reputable aggregator sites ALLOW BLOGGERS TO OPT-OUT, AND MAKE OPTING OUT A SIMPLE EFFORT; sploggers do not.

But, what about sites that meet some of the "reputable aggregator site" criteria listed above, but not others? is one such site.

Recently debuted, BlogNetNews St. Louis is one of the latest in a series of BlogNetNews sites run by journalist , newspaper opinion page editor, and former Bush administration speechwriter Dave Mastio.

BlogNetNews St. Louis scrapes feeds from blogs and aggregates them on a single page. Like a reputable aggregator site, BNN only posts excerpts, not full posts.

However, BNN also scrapes and posts photos from blog posts. Not just thumbnails, but nearly-full-sized photos. And BNN hotlinks to those photos, which means that every time a photo is viewed on BNN, bandwidth is being used on the original blogger's website. This may not be a big deal for people hosting their photos on really big sites like Blogger or Flickr; however, if a blogger is hosting his or her blog on his or her own server, hotlinking can be a fairly serious issue. Hotlinking photos is widely considered to be bad internet manners.

BNN does link back to the original sites that it takes content from. But the links on the site are somewhat confusing.

For example, BNN has a blogroll running down the right side of the page. The blogroll is titled "BNN Blogs." It lists all the blogs that are featured on the BNN St. Louis site. But if you click on one of those links, the link takes you, not to the original blog by the original author, but to another page within BNN.

Which brings me to the next way in which BNN St. Louis strikes me as being little too much like a splog: through misleading layout and language, BNN St. Louis, in my opinion, will mislead users into thinking that the bloggers listed in the blogroll are affiliated with the BNN site.

BNN is not organized like a directory.

Take a look again at Alltop. Look at the way the blogs are broken down into categories. Look at the way the clean, simple layout focuses on the links to the blogs themselves, and nothing more. Look at the way the excerpts there don't appear unless you mouse over a link that takes you directly to the original blogger's site.

Now, take a look again at BlogHer. Remember, BlogHer is a community-based blog network. It was founded by women bloggers, for women bloggers, to address issues concerning women bloggers. Participation in the BlogHer network is entirely voluntary. Decisions at BlogHer regarding advertising content on the site are made only after examining the collective input of the entire community.

Look at the Journals page on CafeMom. Now, CafeMom did not start as any sort of grassroots organizing effort. It's a top-down community building effort, funded by a marketing company. But participation in the CafeMom community is, again, entirely voluntary. CafeMom does not scrape bloggers' posts for content. The journal authors at CafeMom are choosing to host their journals there on the CafeMom site.

And look again at BNN. From a visual standpoint, which type of site does BNN resemble more closely? A directory-style aggregator, like Alltop? Or an opt-in, voluntary community building site like BlogHer or CafeMom?

I'd vote for the latter. BNN is organized, not like a typical directory, or a blog search engine. Not even like a typical web-based feed reader. BNN is visually organized like a community-based blog network. And it's there in the name, too. BLOG (news) NETWORK.

But BNN is not a blog network. The bloggers on the "BNN Blogroll," by and large, did not choose to be involved. The blogs on the site were picked by Mastio. The bloggers did not volunteer.

How do I know this? Why, I emailed him to ask about it! And this is what he said:
I build each of our sites by hand, looking at each blog myself and gathering all the publicly available email addresses that I can find for the authors. Upon launch and sometimes before launch, I email all of those people with an explanation of what we are doing, how it works and what we hope they will get out of it.
Now, that doesn't sound so bad, does it? I mean, he is taking the content without permission, and he is presenting it in a sort of misleading fashion that implies that the bloggers whose content is on the site are somehow involved. But after he takes the content, he does at least email the bloggers he took content from to let them know he did it, right? That's what he said he does, in the email he wrote me.

But I must say, I found that response to be a bit suspicious.

Because the thing is, I know a lot of St. Louis bloggers. And not just casually, over the internet. I have, in fact, met many St. Louis bloggers in person. And I would consider more than a few of them to be friends.

But in fact, NONE of these friends of mine had mentioned to me that their work was being featured by BNN St. Louis. Which was a bit curious to me, given that the local blogging community has been all atwitter about BNN ever since Kurt Greenbaum posted about it on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Virtual St. Louis Blog.

(And not just because a headline on the Post-Dispatch website misspelled the word "bane." I know, I know. Everyone makes typos now and then, including and especially me. But this typo's been driving me nuts every time I link to it. Because bane is one of my Favorite. Words. EVER.)

So, I emailed several of my friends who were listed on the BNN site to ask them whether they had even been notified that their content was being used on the site. All of the people I emailed list contact emails on their blogs in easy-to-find spots. So, if Mastio had really been "gathering all the publicly available email addresses" he could find in order to contact the authors featured on the BNN site, then these bloggers should have been contacted, no?

As it turned out, most of them had not been contacted. Most of them, in fact, had no idea that BNN was scraping and reposting their blog content until they were informed of that fact by my email.

And most of them shared my opinion that the format of the site was confusing and misleading, making them look like they were affiliated with some sort of network that they actually had nothing to do with.

A "network" bearing, incidentally, enormous banner ads on every page:

Now I've done some research, and I came to discover that this is certainly not the first time BlogNetNews has met with some controversy.

Bloggers in some other cities where BNN operates have complained that they feel the BNN ranking system is unfair. When one blogger in Virginia who felt the BNN site was treating him unfairly asked to have his content removed, Mastio refused, citing fair use, and the frustrated blogger decided to shut down his RSS feed to prevent Mastio from continuing to scrape his site.

When a different blogger in Iowa asked Mastio to stop using his content because he felt that BNN's business model was exploitative, BNN responded by mocking the blogger over email and continuing to post the blogger's content.

When a blogger in Georgia asked to have his content removed from a BNN site there because he felt his girlfriend's blog had been unfairly excluded from the BNN site, Mastio again refused to remove the blogger's content, and mocked the blogger in the comments section of the blogger's own blog, saying: "When we didn’t cave, Rusty came up with the picture and launched his widdle cyber tantrum."

Does this sound like the operator of a reputable blog aggregator to you?

Because it sure doesn't sound to me like Dave Mastio has that much respect for the bloggers whose original work powers his site.

If Mastio's BNN venture isn't actually about promoting blogs or bloggers' interests, what is it about?

Could it be about drawing traffic to those banner ads I mentioned?

Or could it be about drawing traffic to those banner ads, AND drawing traffic away from blogs, to the newspaper websites Mastio has a history of partnering with? Propping up the struggling dead tree media outlets with fresh, popular blog content, for free?

I don't know. I'm not Dave Mastio.

But if I were Dave Mastio, I would think very, very carefully about trying to be nicer to the authors whose work I wanted to use.


Rusty said...

Great post, and thanks for linking to my post. I didn't publicize this, but I went as far later on as writing a cease-and-desist letter to his web host. They didn't shut him down, and other things unfortunately forced me to put it on the backburner.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I'm listed on the BlogNetNews parenting site -- and no, was never notified by Mastio -- and I've thought about contacting the site to be removed. My gripes are 1) to maintain semi-anonymity, I purposely did not set my site to be indexed and 2) I don't offer ads on my own site, so why should someone else make money from my content? Now I see that would do me little good to contact Mastio.

I did recently add a copyright notice to my feed, which fortunately shows up on BlogNetNews. Maybe I should tinker with the wording on that a bit more to make it clear where the info is coming from...

Unknown said...

Hi, Jaelithe. Good post. Thank you for pointing out the misspelling. ugh. That's embarrassing. I have fixed it (I didn't fix it in the url, however, so the link won't break).

Thank you also for pointing out that I was the first to blog about BNN. I did so in order to generate a discussion in the community about it. Apparently, I did. I was just sad that so few commented on my blog post. I would have found the discussion valuable (and I might have heard about the misspelling sooner!). Anyway, thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those bloggers whose content was scraped by Dave Mastio and I did not receive an email from him informing me that I had been included in his site. It took two emails and a blog post to be removed.

Thanks for taking the time to post all this. I've learned a lot.

Hope your little guy feels better soon.

ElisaC said...

I'm enjoying this series. And I was totally unaware of this BNN site. What an awful awful way to communicate with the bloggers you're supposedly "featuring".


Jaelithe said...

Hi Kurt. I probably should have emailed you about the typo before I called it out. Bad blogger form. Sorry.

I think people stopped commenting in the thread at the P-D in part because Mastio sort of took it over with his post-length comments. (I say as I write a post-length comment. But hey, this is my blog. Heh.)

And also, I think people didn't comment there because a lot of bloggers just felt generally put off by the idea that the Post might partner with a COMPANY to scrape our content, rather than partnering with US to use our content in a way we would approve of. You have to understand-- a lot of the bloggers in St. Louis have already been involved social media partnerships where bloggers get PAID for their contribution (or receive some other form of compensation). And even most of us who aren't professional bloggers are clued in enough to the professional scene to know that our writing has value, and to be sensitive to ANY sort of effort to leverage that value without our permission or input.

Also, I didn't even find out about all the controversy over BNN in other cities until I talked to Mastio myself, and did my own research, AFTER finding out about the new St. Louis effort on your site. And by the time I had all my research ducks in a row, your post was several days old.

A lot of us here in the local blogging community felt the best way to deal with this issue was to hold a blog blast to reach the widest audience. My content hasn't been scraped by BNN, but a lot of the people who were being featured on the site without permission were having a very hard time convincing Mastio to have them removed.

If you'd like to rejoin the discussion with a new post on Virtual St. Louis on BNN, I give you my blessing to use the links I found. As long as you link back to my series ;)

Jaelithe said...

[Involved IN social media partnerships. Ack. See? I AM the typo queen.]

Jaelithe said...

Oh, and Rusty: Thanks for stopping by! I was actually planning to try to track down your email and the emails of some of the other bloggers who've had run-ins with Mastio so I could email you all a link to this post. If you'd like me to include any more information about your situation, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

Jae, I absolutely love the "You can't copy my homework, bitches..." That RAWKS!

And thank you for putting up all this information. I learned a lot from you that night I talked to you on the phone, but I learned even more from this series. I think you should somehow bookmark it so that it stays on your sidebar for future reference.

Jaelithe said...

In case anyone is wondering what Andrea is referring to, that is my CC license message. You can find it at the bottom of this blog. I've also recently started adding it to my RSS feed.

R said...

i feel like such a doofus. i don't even know if that's how you spell doofus, that's how big of a doofus i am. i actually REQUESTED to be added to BNN, that's how big of a doofus i am. i got an email, thought "hey, more exposure, just like stlbloggers," requested my site to be included (because i actually did receive an email and my site wasn't automatically included, unlike many others). . . and then i never visited BNN's site again. i just know so little about the underhanded bloggy world dealings. . . and then the virtual st louis post came out about BNN, and then everyone started talking, and then i thought, "oh my god, i actually supported this; i actually requested inclusion; i actually put myself in a position that's bad for me and even worse for other bloggers." i'm such a doofus; i'm so embarassed.

Unknown said...

(you said)...bloggers just felt generally put off by the idea that the Post might partner with a COMPANY to scrape our content, rather than partnering with US to use our content in a way we would approve of.(end of quote)

I certainly did understand that might be a concern. That's why I posted the item in the first place. It just seems counter-intuitive to me that people would get angry at the Post about something that might happen, rather than take the posting at face value. It was an introduction to a concept and an invitation -- albeit badly spelled ;-) -- to discuss. Bane or boon? I was asking. C'est la vie.

Jaelithe said...

Rebecca, I don't think you're a doofus at all. Part of the reason I wrote so much about this is that i wanted to point out to people that there are directory-style blog aggregating efforts, as well as opt-in blog network efforts, that are legit and can be of a benefit to the community. And part of the problem with BNN is that it presents itself in a misleading way. If it weren't misleading, people wouldn't be mislead.

Really, I wouldn't have a problem with BNN if it were an opt-in network (that also let people opt-out at will, of course), and it really seems to me that Mastio is trying to portray it as such. And like I said, ALL blog aggregators that don't ask permission before posting content walk a fine line, but some are still generally well respected.

I think the biggest problem with BNN is Mastio's attitude, honestly. If he just showed some genuine respect toward the bloggers whose work he features, it would go a long way. Of course, if he did respect bloggers, I am pretty sure his "BNN Bloggers" blogroll would link directly to the blogs it lists. And he would have clear opt-out instructions on the site. And he would LET people opt-out when they asked. And . . .

Jaelithe said...

Kurt, I see your point. I'm just telling you how it seems people generally reacted. I think that bloggers reacted that way in part because you basically said in the post, well, he's going to do this with or without the newspaper, so, why shouldn't the newspaper join?

I think you framed the question more as a "Why shouldn't we do this?" question than a "SHOULD we do this?" question.

I don't know that that was your intent at all, but that's how it was interpreted by a lot of people.

Of course one of the continual problems with communicating over the internet is that things get misinterpreted, because we write on the internet in a conversational style, but we can't hear one another's tone of voice.

Part of the problem, too, is that Dave Mastio has been telling people (including me, over email) that his raison d'etre is to save newspapers from themselves by giving them easy, free, easily searchable access to blog content, so that journalists can write stories based on blog content, and newspaper websites can draw web traffic from blog content.

But he wants to do all this without permission from bloggers, and without compensating bloggers. He wants to use blog content to drive traffic to newspaper websites without even considering whether local bloggers think that would be appropriate use of their work.

If I understand him correctly, he considers to blog content be "news" rather than original content, and this is his justification for helping newspapers use it without compensation or permission.

Anonymous said...

Follow up: I did contact BNN today and politely requested removal from their site. (I really have been wanting to go more underground lately anyway because of some sensitive stuff with my daughter). Dave Mastio did reply quickly and removed me without issue, which I'm very appreciative of.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and informed post. In New Orleans, I was contacted FIRST by someone affliated with the local BNN and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I had no idea that if I say no now, I am in for a fight.

Very mixed feelings over it now. I have definitely gotten more traffic from the BNN-NO and met otehr NOLA bloggers through it. But I don't like being mislead either.

Raquita said...

Kurt- you must also realize that the post isn't exactly on my ( I speak for my self and not the group) good side due to the treatment of one of our own. So while it is personal you do work for the PD and your site is hosted on the PD so I chose to do very little commenting as a show of solidarity with my comrade.

So there you go. again like I said nothing personal - if you'd had this discussion on your personal blog I may have commented there.

Anonymous said...

Awesome, you rocked it, Jae.

You should link this in your sidebar permanently as well.

For the record, this conversation about scraping content is not new and no one broke the story; this is just another Bitacle episode. Bitacle, in my opinion, is no different from BNN. I am glad to hear that Mastio is now obliging bloggers' requests. I don't doubt that public outcry had a hand in that change of demeanor.

Rusty said...

Mastio hasn't really changed anything. I requested that my blog be removed from BNN Georgia this morning and he spouted off some bullshit at the mouth about the 1st Amendment like he did with some of the others.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Jaelithe just forwarded me some info.

Not exactly a correct interpretation of the First Amendment or Fair Use. Disappointing.

News outlets can report on what they read and quote it, but to use it as the sole source of content to drive their ad revenue? That's not reporting. At least, that's not what I was taught in j-school.

Karen Bodkin said...

I've been listed there when I was blogging at (he still has me linked there as that so he hasn't found my new site yet I don't think). I emailed him about it and he told me it would be to my benefit to stick around.
It would if he paid us to use our content and steal our photos I suppose. It bothers me that he makes money from the content of others, that's for sure.