The Huffington Post, ‘over-aggregation’ and the attention economy

When does aggregation become appropriation? The question needs to be asked.

A writer for the Huffington Post has been suspended for “over-aggregation”. ¬†The suspended writer had linked to and paraphrased an article by Simon Dumenco of AdAge, who writes about it.

I aggregate a lot of content here on Strange Attractor, via Delicious and also through the social networks I use. Whether it’s here on the blog or for the journalism organisations I work for, I view it as sharing my attention with others, which they in return share with me. There are quite a few posts that I have written here that draw heavily on other sites. Sometimes, they draw from a single story on another site. However, I always take great pains to not only link to and identify the source, but I also try to give readers a reason to click and see the original source. That’s part of the value exchange. For the value that I get from that article and excerpting that article, I try to pay it back with traffic. That’s part of the attention economy for me.

It’s an issue I have with the Huffington Post. For me, too often they aren’t playing fair with fair use. They have built a video business off of aggregating and embedding lots and lots of video. For smart video producers, their ads travel with their embeds, and a click on the Huffington Post is as good as a click on their site. For other video producers, it’s a lost impression. Cynically, one could lay all of the blame on those not so smart video producers. That side steps other issues though. Hopefully, those video producers have related content in their embeds so that once the clip stops playing, they capture a little more of the viewers attention, but that’s a couple of related videos drowning in a sea of Huffington Post links.

Then there is the aggregation that the Huffington Post does. Sure, they paraphrase longer pieces into attention-deficit friendly shorter pieces. Yes, there is some value in that, but again, ramp this up to an industrial scale and we’re back to a pretty cynical strategy overall.

Of course, the standard defence is that the Huffington Post returns the value of its aggregation with traffic. Simon Dumenco challenges that, and he also draws a helpful distinction between the HuffPo and TechMeme, which he describes as a “an aggregator that takes a minimalistic approach¬†(usually just presenting a headline and a one- or two-sentence snippet)”. In terms of traffic?

So what does Google Analytics for tell us? Techmeme drove 746 page views to our original item. HuffPo — which of course is vastly bigger than Techmeme — drove 57 page views.

I love the link economy, and I link to give my readers more detail if they want it. However, I try to tell them what is behind the click so that they not only have the opportunity to explore but are encouraged. If the reader has no reason to click on the link, what purpose does it serve other than to try get a bit more link authority?

I know that I’m running the risk of being called a curmudgeon so be it. The Huffington Post’s practices make me feel uncomfortable as a digital journalist. There I’ve said it. I expect the shock troops of digital puritanism to descend. I believe that digital journalism needs to have standards, and at this point, I feel comfortable saying what I’ve long believed: The Huffington Post makes a mockery of fair use. We will lose the great value that fair use delivers if we continue to allow it to be treated unfairly.