Is Aggregation Theft? It’s Definitely Complicated

I went to a SXSW panel called, “Is Aggregation Theft?” I tweeted from it. Then some people got unhappy, at least momentarily. (Sorry.)

Aggregation is an ugly word. The phonetics of the word are uncannily close to “gag.” But everybody’s been talking about it a lot lately, particularly at SXSW. A Curator’s Code was established; columns were written; columns were mocked. So a panel titled “Is Aggregation Theft?” was of course going to be a little explode-y.

A lot of interesting points were made, like Reuters’ Felix Salmon noting that — to lightly paraphrase — “We all know deep down that original content producers tend to be really bad at headlines and aggregators tend to be really good” at them, and that so much of the aggregation economy is fundamentally driven by the professionalization of blogging.

In the miniquest to define good aggregation from bad aggregation, one of the principles laid out was that big sites that aggregate ought to drive big traffic — at least relative to smaller sites that aggregate. Example: Huffington Post aggregating driving 100 clicks to a story (bad), the tinier MediaGazer driving 700 clicks to a story (good).

Slate’s Deputy Editor Julia Turner had a slightly more complicated example. Seth Stevenson wrote a pretty amazing piece about a pretty amazing person and cultural artifact, “the greatest paper map of the United States you’ll ever see,” produced by one guy in Oregon. When BoingBoing first wrote about (or reblogged or aggregated or whatevered) it, they linked directly to mapmaker David Imus’s site, with a hat tip to Bob Pescovitz — no mention of Seth Stevenson by name. This, Turner said at one was point, was “galling” because BoingBoing is a site that knows how to drive traffic when it aggregates, but wrote this particular piece in a way that it didn’t push any traffic to Slate. In the end, Stevenson wound up emailing BoingBoing’s David Pesocvitz, and now there’s a prominent mention of both Stevenson and Slate. (Turner was also careful to state she didn’t want to cause a ruckus with BB over it.)

(Update: David Pescovitz clarifies the record a bit via email, telling me that he had always linked to and credited the Slate piece — Stevenson even thanked him for doing so. He just hadn’t originally directly named Stevenson as the author.)

Salmon’s counterpoint shows just why this instance is so complicated: Is the source document Slate’s piece, or Imus’s website? In other words, was BoingBoing obligated to drive traffic to Slate in equal measure to Imus’s site? Sticky questions!

I’ll just say that my takeaway from the panel and thinking about aggregation and sourcing other people is basically this: Please Be Kind, Rewind. Oh, and sometimes you need more than 140 characters to cover an event live.

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