David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Meta-ing Ourselves to Death

Recently, after a couple of suggestions from blog commenters, I decided to try StumbleUpon.

StumbleUpon buttonStumbleUpon installs a toolbar in your browser that allows you to give instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down ratings for the websites you’re viewing. You can also tag them, comment on them, and recommend them to others. Click on a button while you’re browsing and you’ll find a page of user reviews for the site you’re on.

A year ago, I might have been really excited about this. StumbleUpon seems like a perfectly nice and well-implemented service. Instead, I’m suddenly feeling jaded. There’s just too much web 2.0 gimmickry around and I’m starting to get that bursting-bubble feeling.

I have a Reddit account. I regularly use Technorati. I run a WordPress blog with plenty of plug-ins to allow cross-posting, related posting, and comment previewing. I have a Firefox extension called coComment that allows me to track any blog conversation I want. I maintain a MySpace page, a LinkedIn profile, a LiveJournal, and an Amazon blog. My library is on LibraryThing. I sync my browser settings with Google BrowserSync, read e-mail on both GMail and Yahoo!, and read the news on customizable Google News pages. I read RSS feeds in Sage, Bloglines, and IE7. I have instant messaging accounts on Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Google Talk, along with a Trillian client to run them all.

Where does it all end? I could sign up for Digg and del.icio.us and Blogger and Friendster and…

Every single one of these services has a few things in common: they’re all meta information tools. They don’t actually, you know, do much of anything. They’re the Wonder bread that’s supposed to be sandwiching the meat of my online experience. They simply allow me to noodle around with my information in interesting and novel ways, to disseminate it far and wide, to share it and crunch it and squeeze it and caress it. Or they point me to other information that someone else has shared, crunched, etc.

But here’s something else that I’ve noticed: all of their revenue streams are somewhat suspect. Google, Yahoo, and MySpace might have big market capitalizations and lots of dough in the bank, but in the end they’re funded mostly by advertising. Many of these other services are even a step removed from that, and depend on Google’s advertising.

What’s wrong with advertising? Nothing. Except that me and hundreds of thousands of others run ad blocking software (I choose the AdBlock Plus extension for Firefox along with Filterset.G) that wipes all of those ads off the screen without a trace. Except that there are morons who perpetrate click fraud on their competitors’ search engine ads with no remorse and (generally) no repercussions. Except that for all of this money that keyword-targeted advertising is supposedly making for so many people, I very rarely actually click on any of it.

Many of these companies have other services that they’re trying to charge money for, but I don’t know how much success they’re having. Google and Yahoo have a whole host of additional services ripe for premium, paying versions, but I don’t think any of them are actually setting the world on fire. StumbleUpon, quite amusingly, tries to convince me to buy “accelerated distribution” of my website whenever I click on a StumbleUpon referring link in my web stats package. But are people buying?

So we’ve got a) four zillion start-ups that b) don’t charge a penny for their services, and c) stay afloat through shaky advertising revenue. Sound familiar?

Now, don’t get me wrong — I like a lot of these services. I’ve blogged before about my adoration for LibraryThing, for instance. I’ve found many an interesting (or at least diverting) website through Digg and Reddit. And StumbleUpon seems like a perfectly good idea, executed in a perfectly good way, available from a perfectly good website. (Let’s also keep in mind that I’m being unfair by lumping an open source project like WordPress in with the rest of these for-profit companies.)

And of course, none of these companies (with the possible exception of Google) indulges in the kinds of gross financial negligence that the dot-coms of the ’90s did. I’m sure the guys who run Digg are doing very nicely for themselves, but I doubt that every lowly coder in the place is getting a six-figure signing bonus and company BMW. I’ve talked with Tim Spalding, founder of LibraryThing, in the past, and while their membership is growing like crazy, Tim hasn’t exactly started shellacking bundles of money and using them as office furniture.

And yet…

I’m starting to get that same feeling all over again. You know, the feeling you got when that twenty-pound bag of dog food from Pets.com arrived on your doorstep in 1998 for some ridiculously low price with free shipping, and you looked at your spouse and said, “This is just too good to be true.”

It was. And maybe, just maybe, it still is.

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  1. Tim Spalding on September 4, 2006 at 10:39 pm  Chain link

    LibraryThing CHARGES! (If you have more than 200 books, you pay.) It turns some people off. The smart ones realize that paying turns you into a customer. Del.icio.us doesn’t OWE you anything. :)

  2. David Louis Edelman on September 5, 2006 at 12:49 am  Chain link

    You’re right, Tim, forgot about that. Just reinforces my impression that you’re one of the smart ones! LibraryThing charges, and doesn’t rely on Google ad revenue either. But soooo many of the other Web 2.0 companies don’t charge, and do rely on ad revenues. How do they do it?

  3. Fiona Avery on September 5, 2006 at 11:54 am  Chain link

    Damn, I’m a plebe. Um … I have gmail notifier! I also have trillian and all those chat accounts but I’m hardly ever on most of them. I use some kind of RSS feed to get my Live Journal (which I’ve had for ages) to cross-post to my website blog. And I was a member of sff.net and its newsgroup community for a long time.

    But I hadn’t heard of LibraryThing before this post. And many other of the services listed here. That kind of says something too, though. How well are these people targeting users who would use them or benefit from their use? I’m pretty net-friendly, though by no means an expert, and yet those services haven’t reached me yet. And there are “four zillion” of these…

  4. Thom Stanley on September 5, 2006 at 7:00 pm  Chain link

    Library Thing is new to me, and it’s neat, but they charge.

    Perhaps you’re a bit jaded, Mr. Edelman. I mean, I’m twenty-five I’m not of the current genre of techbrats in my own demographic, nor am I a wizard, as technophiles before me seem to be. I’m an enthusiast. I do notice the number of embedded ads and secondary plugins for the various browsers, but is this a bad thing? You don’t have to use them and they are exactly as you said: a voluntary package to enhance the web-browsing system.

    In all, considering the alternative, I’d rather have the possibility of a pop-up I could block, or embedded ads I can ignore, as opposed to launching Windows and watching a three minute block of commercials indicating that Vista is sponsored by Pepsi, Toyota, and ABC’s Lost (Wednesdays 9:00 pm, 8:00 central).

    (And at this point I’m just biding time until you ban me for being too meta :) )

  5. Liz on September 6, 2006 at 10:39 am  Chain link

    Thom, you live through a bubble bursting and watch your options devalue into toilet paper,and see if you’re not jaded. 😉

    The point is, yes, you can ignore ads, and easily. But companies are relying completely on ad revenue, so if nobody sees the ad, these companies don’t have income. So at some point, maybe you will have to sit through a three minute block of commercials when you launch Windows.

  6. Jose on September 6, 2006 at 1:00 pm  Chain link

    I’d have to agree with you on the Meta overload. You’d go crazy trying to do them all as they’re all competing for the same “space” in my opinion. But the offerings you list each have subtly different pros and cons so it isn’t a matter of opting into them all but picking and choosing.

    Reddit, Digg and Stumbleupon all compete for the same slice of your attention but they each have a different value proposition. Digg is good for tech news, Reddit is good in case you can’t find enough US culture war reading material on your own and SU does a variety of things some very well (I have a few friends whose links I browse) and some badly (their groups are crap). I’ve ditched Reddit and Digg actualy and just use SU.

    Myspace seems like a vast blackhole of time. Sometimes I walk up to the edge and peer into the abyss but I always find myself pulling back. It seems like the internet equivalent of a bustling high school hallway. However I’m fully aware that there are people who use it and love it and are getting something out of it. Different strokes.

    I still use Technorati though, but it’s of limited use. I suspect Technorati gets the bulk of its traffic from bloggers checking their own technorati rankings.

    So to sum up I don’t think the overload effect is only really a problem if you try to do it all, but that’d be crazy.

  7. Thom Stanley on September 6, 2006 at 5:38 pm  Chain link

    Liz-

    That would suck. Very much. And you’re right. I was a bit young and dumb when the “bubble burst” but even then I knew that something was going to happen; all that positive influx of funds to the technical sector had to stop somehow. I didn’t dip my feet into that game, and I’m reluctant to do so now in any case.

    The point here is that all of these things: MySpace, SU, Digg, LJ, and etc. are free to mostly free services that serve the purpose to “enhance” an online experience, not shackle it. Most of them have embedded banner ads or GoogleSearch ads that I more frequently ignore than not. But someone *is* clicking them, or MySpace would have shut down very recently. With the new policy of AOL (limited free tools, but not service), it would seem that this is the way ISPs will work in the future, and all of it would be based on ads. So someone, somewhere, is clicking and it must be enough to keep Big Business afloat.

    The negative is that Joe Coder would be out of a job if his particulare MemeFactory closed down. The positive is that there are so damned many of them out there that he could (probably) easily get a job at another. Or create his own. And honestly, would that be so bad?

  8. Stephenson Crossley on September 7, 2006 at 12:35 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for all the great info! You just saved me months of legwork to find the best Ad blocker etc…

  9. Geoffrey Allan Plauche on February 12, 2008 at 5:26 pm  Chain link

    To further rain on the online ad revenue parade – from Slashdot:

    6% of Web Users Generate 50% of Ad Clicks

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