I managed to grab a few minutes at the Money:Tech conference to talk to Mike Masnick about his company, Techdirt, and specifically the Techdirt Insight Community. What he said intrigued and excited me: it seemed like a fantastic way for bloggers to be able to monetize their ideas and insights. At first.
I, like many bloggers, love to receive and to answer very specific questions from my readers. (This post, for instance, was very popular and was basically a reply to an email.) Blogging is a conversation, and this is one great way to get a conversation rolling. What’s more, if my answer is good and/or insightful, my blog entry might actually have some substantial value to the person asking the question. That’s the idea behind Techdirt: companies ask questions, and get a large number of valuable answers from various bloggers. In return, the best answers (as judged by the questioner) get paid a few hundred dollars each; the top bloggers on Techdirt can make some pretty substantial sums on the site, without having to deal with any advertising at all.
In practice, however, I’m much less excited about Techdirt than I am in theory. For one thing, the whole thing resides behind a very high registration firewall. No, you don’t need to pay to become a member. But you do need to be a blogger, and fill out an application form, and wait some time for your application to be reviewed and accepted. Unless and until that happens, you can’t see anything going on: questions and answers, be they current or old, are all off limits to both you and Google.
Bloggers are free to post their own insights on their own blogs. But most don’t do that, as far as I can make out. And in any case when that happens the conversation becomes fragmented: one insight here, another insight there, largely defeating the point of having the whole thing going on at one place. And since the Techdirt site is off-limits, it only really makes sense to post your initial answer on your blog: after that you’re responding to stuff which 99% of your readers aren’t allowed to read.
Oh, and did I mention? For reasons which make no sense to me whatsoever, even registered members aren’t allowed to read the open questions unless and until they’ve answered that question themselves first, at some non-negligible length. It’s yet another barrier to conversation and collaboration: first you have to go through the registration process, then you have to answer the question yourself, and only then are you considered worthy of reading what your fellow bloggers have to say on any given subject. You might well find that everything you said is redundant, and has been written already by many other bloggers, and all the effort you put into answering the question was a waste of time. In which case, too bad.
Mike told me via email that "we do this to ensure that the initial thoughts are your own, rather than immediately built on others" – but isn’t the whole point of blogging that it builds on the thoughts of others? Mike also told me that things might change – he hinted as much on his (open) blog here. But for the time being, I have to say that the Techdirt system seems broken to me.
And the proof of the pudding, to me, is in the eating. After registering as a Techdirt community member, I looked through a few closed cases. They generally featured precious little discussion; the vast majority are simply a concatenation of unrelated stand-alone answers, as you’d expect if the bloggers weren’t allowed to see what their peers had written. And boy are those answers boring. It’s as though the minute someone starts offering them money, bloggers transmogrify into dry-as-dust financial analysts, losing all hints of personality or verve. I can see why they don’t post this stuff on their public blogs: no one would read it.
I think the problem is that the money poisons many if not all the great aspects of blogging. Rather than linking joyously to someone else with an excellent insight, the bloggers are incentivized to treat that person as a competitor. As a result, you can’t really trust what the different bloggers are saying about each other. And people – with good reason – think that long and detailed and boring answers are much more likely to earn them money than blog-style hit-and-run insights. Which in turn means that there’s precious little value in the answers for anybody but the original questioner. The answers feel like chores, rather than the kind of blog entry which anybody would ever want to write if they weren’t being paid.
So for a few devoted members of the community, there’s an income-generating opportunity here. As a widely-applicable model of monetizing blog content, however, I think Techdirt falls well short of what it could be. Here’s hoping it evolves into something much more fabulous – and open – than it presently is.
Update: Writing this blog entry, and posting it at Techdirt, allowed me to see what other users were saying about the service. This comment, by Sean Murphy, summed it up for me:
I have reluctantly concluded that community is the wrong word for the Techdirt Insight effort. The mechanisms established to make clear who owns each individual insight work against again real collaboration or shared contribution. It’s become a rolling essay contest more than a blogging community, which probably better suits Techdirt’s business needs but it’s not the reason I joined.