The WordPress linkfarm furore – symptomatic of a wider problem

There’s been a lot of discussion about the way that Matt Mullenweg has been trading‘s Google PageRank for cash, hosting unrelated articles on his server in order that they rank more highly in Google. discusses the issue at length, Shelley, as usual, gives a great overview, Jonas Luster adds his thoughts as someone involved with WordPress, and Jason Kottke is short and to the point.

I don’t think there’s all that much to be said about the pros and cons of the case – it was probably a mistake for Matt to enter into an agreement with a company in which he assists them in gaming Google for money. It doesn’t just run counter to the ‘spirit’ of the blogosphere, where we are constantly fighting against spammers and gamers, but more importantly it has created a lot of ill-will, and open source projects like WordPress depend on goodwill. But the furore will die down, and Matt and WordPress will survive, and maybe Matt will be a wiser person in the future.

To me, though, the important thing here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but which I haven’t blogged because I haven’t been able to come to any solid conclusions. I had a conversation at lunch yesterday about this with Saul Albert, Possum and Javier Kandinski and despite the high calibre of the conversation, I still couldn’t find an answer.

The real problem here is that there are a whole raft of people who are struggling to keep the wolves from the door whilst doing something which benefits a community but for which that community are not paying. Matt saw a way to keep the wolves at bay without having to ask for money from the WordPress community, and whilst maybe it wasn’t the best thing for him to do, I understand completely why he did it.

Creative people have always had a problem making enough money to live, there’s nothing new in that. That’s why the music industry is so exploitative – musicians generally make crap business people and, because many reach a state of financial desperation, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Wherever you have vulnerable creative people, you will have someone exploiting them. Happens all over the place.

For a while, it seemed that the internet would be a great leveller, and anyone with the talent would be able to make at least a modest living from the products of their creativity. The boom could be seen as a product of that optimism – people with ideas managed to find funding to develop those ideas even though in many cases they had no solid business plan to back them up. And we all know what happened next.

So where we are at the moment is that ideas are not enough. Creativity is not enough. And there is such a low barrier to entry that lots of people have entered the market, creating a signal:noise ratio unfavourable to the discovery of any individual person’s talent.

Yet there are a lot of people with very good ideas which fulfil the needs of a given community who have the skills to bring those ideas to fruition. What they are missing is a business model to allow them to earn enough money to make development of their idea financially viable. But because there seems to be a fundamental disconnect in many people (not everyone, I hasten to add) between creativity and business acumen, and becuase there is no existing business model to follow, we now have a creative class who are chock full of bright ideas but who just don’t know how to scrape a living from them.

Unfortunately, many business models that are being tried out at the moment can work only for a small minority of people. Jason Kottke’s micropatronage system, for example, has worked for him but, whilst this may be overly pessimistic, it’s not going to work for many other people – you need to have a huge audience, and already be at the top of your mountain in order to be in a position to ask for donations.

If you’re in a niche, and let’s pick the Welsh language niche because that’s something I know all about, your work may well be addressing a fundamental need within a clearly defined community, but if that community is not willing or able to donate, or even buy merchandise, then your business plan, all those pretty numbers you invented for your bank manager, is oh so much toilet paper.

Advertising is another ‘will work for some, not for others’ revenue stream. Some projects, for example, do well out of advertising, but for others it is a waste of screen real-estate. Again, you need to have a high traffic in order to get the clickthroughs you need to make any decent cash.

Plus advertising doesn’t always sit well. I keep thinking that I should put some ads on Chocolate and Vodka, but I haven’t got round to it yet, at least in part because I am really not sure I want ads on my personal blog. I get decent traffic there, according to my server stats, but yet putting ads up somehow feels wrong, even if I can’t articulate why.

Perhaps the root of it is a fear that I’d earn bugger all money whilst simultaneously appearing greedy – a no-win situation. Instead I’d prefer to go the Hugh Macleod route, making money because of my blog, instead of from my blog. That seems to not only suit my personality better, but also to be more probable.

There are cultural problems too. The ‘free as in beer’ attitude is ingrained in the majority of web users, particularly when it comes to content. Subscription models are not only unpopular, they are on terribly thin ice as more and more people find ways around them. For news vendors dependent on the walled archive model, there is going to be a nasty shock awaiting them as more and more people find ways to tunnel round or under those walls.

For companies with large amounts of data online, however, there are additional services that they could offer which might replace the subscription model. Make your archives free, but make money out of data-shuffling – provide keyword tracking services, research services, clippings services. Stop being a repository and start being a service.

But yet again, there’s only a small minority of companies who could turn their large data stores into money. That model doesn’t work for the micro-company or the self-employed.

So where does that leave us? Thrashing about in the dark, searching for a way to earn enough so that we don’t have to do hand-to-hand combat with the wolves at our door every month. We can moralise about whether Matt should or shouldn’t have taken money for helping a company game Google, and we can say ‘Oh, he should have asked for donations – I would have given him money’, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

Matt’s actions are symptomatic of a far wider problem, and that’s that there are a huge number of very creative people out there who don’t know how to make money out of their ideas. (Not saying that Matt is one of them, necessarily, but his actions could be interpreted that way. Or simply as bad judgement, but I’m being generous.) Some people find it hard exploit their own skills for their own benefit, and existing business models are too unreliable, too hit-and-miss, to be of any real use.

Maybe the people who are clueful as to the realities of such things could assist the people who are grappling with the wolves by discussing their business models in detail in public a bit more, instead of hiding them away where they can’t benefit anyone else.

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