Parasites, readers, and value

The idea that some sites, like blogs and aggregators or whatever they’re called, are parasites on traditional news is interesting. It’s not crazy.

Those who run traditional news sites see aggregators benefiting from the resources of the traditional players and worry that they, the traditional players, may be hurt by that use. The worriers say, “Digital vampires” are “sucking the blood” out of traditional news players. (That’s a shibboleth, not a fair rehearsal of a smart argument.)

Some decry the notion that traditional players are hurt or harmed or injured by that use. The decriers say, “Wait! Vanquish your backwards self-pity because aggregators actually help you via the link economy.” (That’s a shibboleth, not a fair rehearsal of a smart argument.)

My sympathies lie deeply with the decriers. But I wonder whether they are right. I’m not sure they are—and, probably more importantly, I don’t see their argument convincing everyone it intends to, especially the worriers. So let me take a different tack.

What if it were the case that aggregators were parasites in the way the worriers worry about? But what if it were also the case that readers or users or whatever they’re called were actually better off as a result? What kind of parasite hurts one host in order to help another? And what might it mean if the help is greater than the hurt? What then?

Would we cheer the gains of the readers? Would we feel bad for the worriers? Would we despise the aggregators? And here’s the real question: Would we forsake the gains of readers in order to prevent the harm felt by worriers and brought about by aggregators?

I don’t know the answer to that question. For one, it’s really hard to imagine what we’d even mean by “gains of the readers.” Would we mean total utility people derive from news, however we define it? That seems empirically pretty impossible to measure. But could we use total traffic or pageviews of traditional news sites and blogs and aggregators as a proxy? But would all pageviews be created equal, as it were, or would we care about the loss of hard news if it were replaced by soft? How would we even know what blend of hard and soft news—serious and light-hearted, intellectual and whimsical—is ideal?

Or maybe we reject the paternalism inherent in claiming the right to answer the question about what blend of hard and soft news is ideal. Maybe all pageviews are created equal, or about equal, or about equal within some bounds of reasonability.

*    *    *

Blogs and aggregators or whatever they’re called as a group add value to the news on the web in a few ways. They add reporting, analysis, and context. They mobilize advocates; they amuse and entertain. They also decrease the uncertainty inherent in experience goods like the news—in other words, they add trust. They increase social capital.

There’s only so much attention in the world. The outfits that help allocate it efficiently—to content, comunication, games, etc.—will win it, even if it’s at the expense of civically important news, ceteris paribus. Worriers worry because they see their slice of the pie decreasing. And maybe it is. Maybe the theory of the link economy is wrong! But maybe the pie’s changing in other ways too.

Maybe the slice owned by traditional news sites is decreasing while the size of the whole pie is increasing. Maybe users are better off. That would be good, right?

*    *    *

And yet we’re not one inch closer to persuading worriers worried about their own demise. No, what we have is possibly an argument that let’s us look beyond their worries to a bigger picture in which it might well be the case that their worries will never go away till they themselves are gone. We may have freed ourselves from that responsibility, and maybe that’s important. After all, it’s unreasonable to blame a worrier for worrying about his own death. It’s folly to try to persuade a worrier to sacrifice herself.

4 Responses to “Parasites, readers, and value”

  1. 1 Kirk Caraway 2009 August 27 at 12:06 am

    The real problem is that the traditional media didn’t become aggregators themselves. They were too busy building their walled gardens to notice that we the readers didn’t want play that game anymore. They missed out on the opportunity to serve the readers, choosing instead to serve themselves. And they continue their ignorance to this day, whining instead about how these aggregators have stolen their readers. Why didn’t Gannett or NYT see the value of Google 10 years ago and invest? The shortsightedness of this industry is stunning.

    • 2 Josh Young 2009 August 27 at 2:48 pm

      But isn’t there value in niche context? The bigger an aggregator gets, all else equal, the weaker the human connection between it and its readers. Sure, that’s a sweeping statement, but the fact is that we’re hard-wired to have better relationships with humans than with brands, and we can only have so many relationships anyhow. It may well be the case that newspapers should run their own aggregators or their own social networks or whathaveyou, but there may still be problems.

  2. 3 The Truth 2009 August 27 at 1:33 am

    Love your posts and twitter feeds. However, I believe your logic may be flawed. Even if the reader is better off with the parasite feeding off the host, if the parasite kills the host, or weakens it to the point where it can no longer contribute to the parasite and thus the reader, doesn’t this harm the utility of the reader? Basically, don’t you see a short term gain for the reader followed by a long term loss?

    • 4 Josh Young 2009 August 27 at 2:53 pm

      I think there’d be an equilibrium between hosts and parasites such that the hypothetical process above wouldn’t run its way to zero remaining hosts. It would stabilize because of diminishing marginal returns to value from the effort bloggers or aggregators put into filtering hosts. So, for a toy e.g., if there were only five hosts, no one would need any help finding the good stuff because they would simple read everything.

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