Monday, January 5, 2009

Free Labor , Stipends and the Burghosphere

What did you pay to read my blog today? I have been sitting here in a noodles-to-go for the last hour or so reviewing news stories that might be interesting to my adoring fans, and why? Certainly not for the money. I haven't made a cent from this blog, I probably never will. I blog because I want to make Pittsburgh better, and I think I have a voice worth hearing on the subject. There are a lot of people on the internet who blog or write or draw or program for the pure enjoyment of it. They enjoy being an expert in their field, "mini-Oprahs" as this Business Week article calls them.

The Business Week article explores the start-up ThisNext. ThisNext relies on hundreds of "experts" to search the web, find new trends and post them. ThisNext then sells advertising and makes a small fortune. It'd be a tough sell as a business model because experts are expensive, that is, they are expensive when they don't donate their time. That works out well for ThisNext because they've never paid them a dime. A similar story that I have followed is that of Mahalo. Mahalo pays a whoping $10 per "Search Engine Response" that users generate. It has to take at least 3 or 4 hours to make such a page, and that's if you are skilled at researching and writing. Clearly a bargain for Mahalo.

I believe all of the sites that rely on this "free" help have a few things in common:
  1. An initial hook that gets the site started. For ThisNext, the founders interviewed experts and prepopulated hundreds of pages before day 1. For Mahalo it was a combination of the $10 hook and some prepopulation.
  2. A way to seperate the good from the bad. Some sites rely on a democratic system (Yahoo Answers or Digg for example). Some sites rely on paid reviewers, like Mahalo. Some rely on some combination of the two (wikipedia). However it is done, the review cycle must be quick and complete enough to leave an impression of reliability.
  3. Something New and Interesting. All of these sites enjoy a cult following. This is a bit of a chicken and an egg situation. They are reliable because of their cult following and they have a cult following beacuse they are reliable. Just how to attract this following remains a bit mysterious, but I think the key is a subject matter that is new and mysterious. A new wikipedia won't take off, it's got to be new. It also has to be something that's interesting to everyone in addition to a few core enthusiasts. For example, a site about exotic cars is going to have a larger following then a site about honda accords. Yes, more people own Accords then own exotic cars, but people who don't have a vested interest are more likely to read up on the exotics.
Homework Assignment: Besides a vibrant Burghosphere how can the web be a catalyst to the Pittsburgh community?


Anonymous said...

You make two presumptuous claims but do not support them. So I have to ask:

How, exactly, does your blog attempt to make Pittsburgh better?

What, precisely, makes your voice worth hearing?

Do tell.

Burgher Jon said...

I considered removing the above comment but instead I'll say this in response.

To the second point first, I don't presume that my voice is necessarily worth hearing, I said that I "think" it is. Blogs are one of those forms of "free labor" that are moderated by democracy. A good blog gets many blogs to link to it, appears high in search responses and gets its rss feed subscribed to. The numbers would show me with some modest success in each category, and it is from that success that I draw the conclusion that I "think" I have a voice worth listening to.

To your first point second, while I would suggest that while this blog might improve Pittsburgh by giving people ideas (such as the homework assignment on this post) or by pointing out news stories some may have missed (such as the Simon Mall and PAT bus story), I don't think that the blog's greatest potential impact is a direct one. On the contrary, I think that this blog, and the burghosphere as a whole, promote a sense of community amongst Pittsburghers (and ex-Pittsburghers). The benefits of this sense of community can be seen on any stroll down Pittsburgh's streets. So join me in promoting that even if you agree with nothing else I say, Mr. Annonymous.

Sherry said...

right on!

Burgher Jon said...

Thanks Sherry! Assuming, of course, you meant "right on!" to me, not to the guy who thinks I'm useless.