Transient Content

Nicholas Carr published a polemic on Matthew Ingram’s post about the value of providing links to the sources you use for your content. Carr focuses on Ingram’s nepotistic link habits, but the deeper issue is more interesting. To summarize Ingram’s post: news sites that publish articles based on someone else’s scoop should always link back to the original rather than try to reword and hide the source. This would: 1) reward the investigative work of the original author, and 2) build reader trust by ensuring that you’re not seen as a thief.

The deeper issue here is that the content in question is tied to events rather than ideas. This means that what we see is not an essay by the author forming and explaining a new idea, but rather a short summary of an event. In the latter case, the content is easy to steal because it is fairly trivial to reword a description of an event; not so in the former case, where it is the original author who most understands the idea they are trying to express, and as a result, it is also that author who has the advantage when it comes to transforming their idea into words. Now, it is of course possible to steal ideas and employ better language in their expression, but that requires much more effort and skill than the latter case in which the author has to simply summarize an event.

The online “journalist” investigates, they don’t create (with a few exceptions). When they steal content from each other, they are upset because someone is taking the shortcut by using their work, by using the time they’ve spent covering the event in question. But that very ease of theft reflects the worth of that which is stolen. I am not suggesting that taking that “shortcut” is a good thing to do – it isn’t, especially if you try to hide the source – but that very fact that people are taking shortcuts using your work also tells you something about that work.

If you don’t want scavengers looting your content, create something they cannot take. Instead of covering events, create ideas. The more time you spend thinking through and following out your idea, the longer its roots would grow and the harder it would become to steal. Covering events does not give you ownership over them and so that sort of content will always be easy to take away from you. Worse: that sort of content is transient – it doesn’t ever add up to anything and will always be replaced by what’s new. Ideas on the other hand do add up, and just like placing brick upon brick to build a larger structure so do you chain ideas together to develop advanced concepts. Better: ideas won’t go anywhere until proven false; once formed and assimilated, they become your own.

Links are still important, but only when you build on something else, only when the content you link to is used as a foundation or support for your own work, and not when it is merely a hat tip to the source you’re taking your reworded content from. If the “journalist” has nothing else to add, then they should restrain themselves to tweeting a link. The ideal Web is one where every page has something unique to add, where the pages are not used as a news fire-hose, but as small bricks in a knowledge base much larger than themselves. An example of such a Web is Wikipedia, that’s what the original Web was always meant to be and that’s the direction we must take.

July 2012