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?
BlogNetNews.com/stlouismo 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.