Syndicate: The Need for Meta-Data

(Jeff Jarvis Descends the Podium)

I’m in New York City at the Syndicate conference. Syndication long ago (mid-Twentieth Century) meant large newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters broadly distributing their content beyond their own printing presses and transmitters. Thanks to Moore’s Law and how it’s reduced the costs of publishing and broadcasting, syndication today means anyone broadly or narrowly distributing their content beyond their own personal computer.

Jeff Jarvis of opened started the day with a keynote that unlocked the fourth wall of the conference. Rather than giving a speech to the conference, he characteristically descended from the podium and asked the attendees what they wanted to discuss. They voted to discuss syndication & revenue.

Jarvis seeded this discussion with a list of what information advertisers want in exchange for buying ads on syndicated content (there wasn’t any discussion of paid content). Among the factors mentioned were measurements of the numbers of users and the users demographic. (Since most of the attendees were from publishing or broadcasting sites,no one mentioned product or service sales resulting from syndication. The focus instead was on advertising.)

When the fourth wall is removed, a conference session generally proceeds through three phases: (1) a central topic is chosen by popular acclaim; (2) attendees provide anecdotal examples of thier concerns about the topic, often complaints and counter-complaints; and (3) then everyone realizes that they’ve really been circling and talking about another topic.

Complaints and counter-complaints flew in amusing fashion. For example, Paul Mooney, who writes about technology complained about Technorati’s content tagging system, only to have Technorati CEO David Sifry, who was among the attendees, counter and explain his tags. Ditto complaints about Feedburner. It’s a dynamic that happens attendees are technosavvy pioneers and founders of new-media companies.

But the discussion did spiral towards the topic of the tagging content, and hence meta-data. Technorati tags. Delicious tags. NewsXL tags. Flickr tags. People complained that these are all different and often incompatible schemes for tags.Moreover, everyone agreed that hardly anyone, main stream media companies or bloggers, even uses tags. I portrayed the problem as a Tower of Babel populated mostly by mutes. The attendees agreed that online content just isn’t being sliced and diced articulately enough to be really useful.

I believe this is the major problem today for content online. The problem isn’t how to generate revenues packages of content, but how to deliver the right parts in that package, parts that are individually packages to be relevant to each individual user’s needs and interests. It’ll most often mean different parts in each user’s package, which is quite different from the same package that publishers and broadcasters today send to all of their individual users.

I believe that most individuals would be willing to pay for the service of providing a package of content that truly matches that individual’s unique mix of needs & interests, rather than receiving the same packaged product of content that everyone else receives. Most of the common products today aren’t very relevant to each of their users’ lives, so those packages have to rely upon advertising revenues or sponsorships.

Jeff Jarvis and I have often exchanged comments (the verbal and the posted kind) about whether or not the Web already provides people with the ability to get content that matches each of their individual needs and interests. I agree with Jeff that the elements of that mix of content exist today on the Web. Where I disagree with him is that I don’t think most people want to hunt for each of the elements and assemble their mix themselves. That’s what content published only via a Web does. A website doesn’t automatically delivery anything to users; its contents instead await retrieval by them.

Some pundits says that an RSS feed from a website eliminates that problem. However, the attendees of this conference agreed that no RSS feed is articulate enough for that to be true. Jeff gave the example of a well known blogger who writes about new-media but also likes to rant about shock radio personality Howard Stern. The blogger’s RSS feed contains both topics. People who are interested in new-media but not interested in Stern don’t like the feed because it’s larded with of the later content, and so they don’t find the RSS feed useful.

Until online content is tagged down to the story, or even story element level, it won’t be very useful for most people. It’s more than just a matter of semantics — but more about that later. I’m off to Las Vegas the rest of this week for the Editor & Publisher/MEDIAWEEK magazines’ interactive publishing conference.

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