Syndication and the Live Web Economy

by Doc Searls

Editor's Note: The following article is a version of Doc's SuitWatch column from December 8, 2005. Click here to become a SuitWatch subscriber.

Until recently, the verb "syndication" was something big publishers and agencies did. As a kid I recognized that "© King Features Syndicate" was the one unfunny thing about Blondie or Dennis the Menace. All it meant to me was some kind of Business was going on here.

Now, millions of individual writers syndicate their own works, usually through RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Publishers and other large organizations do too. This article is syndicated. So are updates to product manuals, changes to development wikis, updates on SourceForge and searches of keywords. You name it: if there's something that updates frequently on the Web, there's a better chance every minute that the new stuff is syndicated, if it isn't already.

Far as I know, not many sources are making money with it. A lot, however, are making money because of it. The syndicated world may not look like an economy yet. But trust me, it is.

At this early stage in its long future history, syndication is primarily a feature of blogging, which is primarily the product of too many people to count. Blogging is not about large-scale things. It's about human beings who have no scale other than themselves. Only you can be good at being you, and nobody else is the same as you. Syndication does more to expand individual human potential than anything since the invention of type. Or perhaps ever. The syndicated world economy is the one that grows around unleashed personal powers of expression, productivity, creation, distribution, instruction, influence, leadership--whatever.

In a loose sense, syndication is one side of conversation. Think about conversation in the best sense of the word--the way people teach and learn from each other, the way topics start and move along. Syndication makes that happen in huge ways.

The notion that "markets are conversation", popularized by The Cluetrain Manifesto, was borrowed from the case I used to make for a form of marketing that was far more natural and powerful than the formal kind:

  1. Markets are conversation, and

  2. Conversation is fire. Therefore,

  3. Marketing is arson.

If you want to set fires, start conversations that tend to keep going. Nothing does the latter better than syndication.

There are three reasons why we still don't hear as much about syndication as we should (and will). First, it's still new. Second, it didn't come from The Big Guys. (It came from Dave Winer, father of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Third, it points toward a value system not grounded only in exchange, one especially suited for the Net, a deeply ironic worldwide environment where everybody is zero distance apart.

But let's park the value system until later and talk about next week. That's when I'll be in San Francisco for Syndicate. It's the second in a series of conferences by that name. The first was held in New York last spring.

Since I'm the conference chair (disclosure: it's a paying gig), and since I'll be giving both the introductory talk and the closing keynote, Syndication is on the front burner of my mind's stove.

Other subjects are there as well, some of which will be visited in sessions at the show. Tagging, for example. That's a practice so new it's not even close to having standards of the sort we find at OASIS, the IETF and the W3C. Instead, it has emerging standards, such as the ones we find at

Like syndication, tagging is a long-tail activity, something individuals do. Along with blogging and syndication, it helps outline a new branch of the Net we're starting to call the Live Web--as opposed to the Static Web with "sites" that are "built" and tend not to change.

"The World Live Web" is the title of my December Linux For Suits column in Linux Journal. In it I note the directory-less nature of everything on the Web that falls in the UNIX file path east of the domain name. Every path to a document (or whatever) is a piece of straw in the static Web's haystack. Google and Yahoo help us find needles in that haystack, but their amazing success at search also tends to confirm the haystack nature of the Static Web itself.

The Live Web is no less webby than the Static Web. They're both part of the same big thing. But the Live Web is new, and very different. It cannot be understood in Static Web terms.

In that piece I also observed that blogs, as continuing projects by human authors, leave chronological trails. These give the Live Web something of a structure: a chronological one that goes /year/month/day/date/post, even if that's not the way each post's URL is composed. There is an implicit organizational structure here, and it's chronological.

Tagging, by which individuals can assign categorical tags of their own to everything from links to bookmarks to photos, has given the Live Web an ad hoc categorical structure as well.

So that's what we're starting to see emerge here: chronology and category. Rudimentary, sure, but real. And significant.

But not organized. New practices and new ideas are coming along too fast.

For Xtreme evidence of that fact, follow Steve Gillmor around. For the last year or so, Steve has been directing the attention of everybody he can to the subject of, well, attention. His message, or one of them, is that Attention Matters, and that it's worth something, both to those that have it and those who want some of it. There's your economy-in-waiting, right there.

Once Steve made clear that the Live Web economy would involve attention, he and some friends launched Its purpose is to make clear that attention is personal and that there are sovereign personal rights to attention data, whatever form it takes.

Meanwhile, advertising as usual and promotion as usual continue to grow. Dollars may migrate from off-line to on-line, but the advertising jive itself is changing little. It's still all about "reach" and "exposures" and "clicks" and, ultimately, sales. The flywheels of Business as Usual continue to spin.

Not that this is stopping Steve. On December 2, Steve reported on his meeting with some Yahoo honchos. In the course of the meeting and the report, Steve fanned attention and then set another conversational fire. Or two. Or three:

The senior Yahoo was Geoff Ralston, chief product officer. After some preliminary fencing (are services products?, yes) Geoff looked for feedback about Yahoo's aggressive RSS stance. I gently walked him from RSS to attention, then dropped the bomb: Now that everything is about attention, we're on the move to the Gesture Economy.

Of course, nothing is for free, really. Gmail is free, but at the cost of your metadata. Search is free, but at the cost of a tactical answer, not a strategic one. Which result you choose is the payment, setting off an event chain that sometimes results in action and monetization. The metadata--which item you choose, the fork in the road you take--is captured but not shared. The result: an opportunity cost lost to the Google or Yahoo or MSN silo. The cost: time not saved.

Follow the breadcrumbs for a minute. If a gesture is not shared, what is lost? The network effect, for one. GestureRank for another. What? GestureRank--the price the market will bear for harvesting the authority of a particular gesture. Remember: this is a post-attention world we're living in. Just as the RSS wave triggered an embarrassment of riches and triage cost, the Attention wave triggers an authority architecture and corollary characteristics. If PageRank crystallizes link authority, GestureRank crystallizes gestures of intent and, crucially, the lack of intent.

Attention to something is valuable, but in a world of too much information divided by the time to consume a portion of it, signaling a lack of attention is more valuable. By that construct, gestures of inattention will fetch a greater price, and purveyors of gestures of indirection or redirection will gain inordinate value as compared to domain experts. Deriving GestureRank is therefore a function not only of who the gesturer is, but what is the nature (or type) of the gesture, and who or what group or domain it is directed toward.

The Gesture Economy's power derives from its obedience to the time constraints of the user-in-charge. The key to understanding the inevitability of this transformation is the profound effect the gesture dynamic has on the content that it refers to. Where current information is created in a broadcast, attention-seeking environment, Gesture-triggered data is generated as a result of multiple preferred contracts with users. It's the opposite of invasion of privacy, the invitation of privacy. A request for proposal, complete with cues as to how to prioritize the inflow of information to deliver the most time-efficient transfer.

This is the podcasting fundamental--not the triumph of the amateur but the intersection of the receiver in the conversation that is the material being created. It is neither better nor more valuable than its predecessors, but simply unique in its low barrier to entry and targeted economic reason for being. Gestures become inextricably interwoven with so-called content, creating a fabric of intelligence, emotion, and humor that is difficult if not impossible for audiences to resist. Why do we like comedies at the movie house?to enjoy the laughter of the idiots next to us.

Shared laughter efficiently reveals the power of gestures. All around us we hear and generate the sounds of humor -- the chuckle of recognition, the cackle of just deserts, the snort of derision mixed with self-knowledge, the humanity of it all. It's jazz, isn't it; the improvisation we all want to sit in on. Let's try an experiment: when you wake up in the morning, what's the first thing you click to get up to speed? Email? OK then what? RSS? News? Memorandum? Scripting News? Om Malik? CNet? Paidcontent? Crunchnotes? Battelle? Email newsletters? Back in email and around we go again.

Now let's clear the slate and start over with gestures. Examine your inputs from an attention perspective and you'll see most if not all sources are based on attention fundamentals. Google Desktop's Web Clips are my current favorite example--click the Options link and you are offered the opportunity to "Automatically add commonly viewed clips." From the moment you check the box, Web Clips tracks not just what you drill into in the Web Clips menu but everything you read regardless of reader, interface, attention metrics, whatever. It is a blunt instrument, but it has built-in amplification of what you pay attention to across your environment.

Interestingly, it amplifies gestures more than raw attention. Take my vanity feeds, scoped to "Gillmor" across Technorati, PubSub, and Google. When Alex Barnett cites me in his OPML/Attention posts, I pick them up in a number of places--Rojo, Web Clips, even the occasional Google Reader sojourn when I am in search of a quick fix without disturbing my bookmark in Rojo's river of news view. But Web Clips records all of these inputs and slowly but surely subscribes in effect to Alex's feed, regardless of whether he cites my name.

I quote all that because, well, I know it's important and I don't understand all of it. But, I don't want any of the rest of you to miss any part of it that may be The Key that makes everything clear. To you, if not to me. Yet.

What matters here, above all, is user-in-charge. That's a concept so key to everything else that's happening on the Web, even on the Static one, that we may need a new word for it.

Or an old one, such as independence or liberty or sovereignty or autonomy. That's my inner Libertarian, choosing those. If your sensibilities run a bit more to the social side, you may prefer words such as actualization or fulfillment. Point is, the Big Boys aren't in charge any more. You are. I am. We are.

There's an economy that will grow around us. I think free software and open-source practices (see various books and essays by Richard M. Stallman and Eric S. Raymond) put tracks in the snow that point in the direction we're heading; but the phenomenon is bigger than that.

It's also bigger than Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and IBM and Sun and Red Hat and Apple and the rest of the companies people--especially the media--look to for Leadership. For all the good those companies do in the world, the power shift is underway and is as certain as tomorrow's dawn. They Big Boys will need to take advantage of it. We'll need them to, as well.

(I heard a podcast with Sun Microsystems' Jonathan Schwartz in which he seemed to understand all this rather deeply. So I look forward to the conversation I'll have with Jonathan on stage at the show.)

This power shift is what I'd like to put in front of people's attention when they come to Syndicate next week or when they follow the proceedings in blogs and other reports.

Now more than ever, power is personal. Companies large and small will succeed by taking advantage of that fact. And by watching developments that aren't just coming from The Usual Suspects. Including the Usual Economic Theories.

For example, not everything in an economy is about exchange, or the value chain, or about trade-offs of this for that. Many values come out of effort and care made without expectation of return. Consider your love for your parents, spouses, children, friends and good work. Consider what you give and still get to keep. Consider debts erased by forgiveness. Consider how knowledge grows without its loss by anyone else.

Sayo Ajiboye, the Nigerian minister who so blew my mind in conversations we had in a plane nearly five years ago (Google them up if you like), taught me that markets are relationships and not merely conversations. Relationships, he said, are not just about exchange. They cannot be reduced to transactions. If you try, you demean the relationships themselves.

Also, in spite of the economic framings of our talk about morality and justice ("owing" favors, "paying" for crimes, "just" desserts), there is a deeper moral system that cannot be understood in terms of exchange. In fact, when you bring up exchange, you miss the whole thing. (I believe many great teachers have tried in futility to make this point, for millenia.) Whatever it is, its results are positive. Growth in one place is not matched by shrinking in another. Value in both systems is created. But in the latter one, the purpose is not always or exclusively exchange or profit. At least not from the activity itself. There are because effects at work. And we're only beginning to understand them, because we're just beginning to practice them in a huge new way.

Toward that end, some questions...

Where did the Static Web, much less the Live Web, come from? What is it for? What are we doing with it? Whatever the answers, nothing was exchanged for them. (No, not even the record industry, the losses of which owe to their own unwillingness to take advantage of new opportunities opened by the Net.)

Nor was anything exchanged for Linux, which has grown enormously.

As Greg Kroah-Hartman said recently on the Linux-Elitists list:

Remember, Linux is a species and we aren't fighting anyone here, we are merely evolving around everyone else, until they aren't left standing because the whole ecosystem changed without them realizing it.

Yes, we have living ends.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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