Are Aggregators Really The Problem?

Earlier this week, blogger and media mogul Mark Cuban, who owns HDNet and famously sold to Yahoo! for nearly $6 billion in 1999, had some choice words for content aggregators such as Google News when discussing the issue as part of a panel.

He said that, when thinking about such aggregators, “The word that comes to mind is vampires. When you think about vampires, they just suck on your blood.”

He also encouraged newspapers to block Google News from linking to their content as well as block other aggregators.

While these types of words are often heard from newspaper CEOs and others within the mainstream media, they are more rare coming from those inside the tech industry, such as Cuban. Though he has since posted a more tame clarification of his stance, one which focuses more on the ability to monetize traffic from aggregators, his comments reignited the debate over the role of aggregators, including a rebuttal from TechCrunch, and once again put the role of such sites in the spotlight.

But are aggregators really the problem many in the mainstream media want to believe? The answer, in my view, is more complicated.

Symbiotic Aggregators vs. Parasites

The problem with aggregators is that you can’t paint them with a broad brush. It’s a term that can apply to almost any site these days, including the 3 Count column here on Plagiarism Today, as most sites, including mainstream media sites, do some element of collecting links and news from elsewhere and repackaging it.

Good aggregation, as mentioned in the TechCrunch article, provides not just a valuable service to readers by helping them find interesting news and information, but also to the sites they link to by giving them added exposure. In short, they may be middle men, but they can greatly benefit both sides.

The problem arises when aggregators don’t want to serve as mere middle men, but want to replace the original sites. An example of this is the All Headline News lawsuit, which was recently settled, where the Associated Press accused the service of simply rewriting and republishing breaking news from the AP, thus saving money on reporting.

Where the line is drawn is admittedly murky. Fair use and fair dealing, fortunately, provide a lot of guidance. The idea of “transformative” use is certainly a key element to any “white hat” aggregator and, while the law isn’t perfect (the All Headline News case largely hinged on an archaic “hot news” ruling from 1918), it can help

Still, it’s clear that there is a lot of new tech and new ideas in this particular space and many of the lines haven’t been drawn. That is something that groups like the Fair Syndication Consortium are trying to sort out.

What is An Aggregator Anyways?

The other problem with the aggregator argument is that virtually any site does some level of aggregation. If you use or link to other content, you probably are an aggregator, at least in some capacity.

There are three different ways a site can provide this kind of service:

  1. Editor-Driven: A single editor selects stories and publishes them. Includes the 3 Count here and many tech blogs.
  2. Crowd-Driven: The selection of stories is handled by a crowd of people. Includes social news sites such as Digg, Reddit, etc.
  3. Computer-Driven: The process is handled by an algorithm. Includes Google News, Google and even spam blogs.

Though Cuban singled out Google News, the reality of it is nearly every site does some level of content aggregation and, unless we all stop linking to one another completely and live on islands in the Web, it is the way it is going to stay. Doing as Cuban suggests, blocking links from aggregators that can’t be adequately monetized, opens up the very real danger of no inbound links being allowed.

Most people, myself included, feel that the Web is better, by in large, for the service of “white hat” aggregators. The only problem lies with some who approach it with bad intentions. Those people do need to be dealt with and the law does, by in large, provides a means for doing so though there may still be a need to address certain kinds of aggregation where the law is more gray.

However, that will be a slow process to say the least as the law seems to be eternally behind the technology that is built upon or around it.

Bottom Line

To slam aggregation broadly is to condemn most sites on the Web, or at least part of their presence. Aggregators can be a force for good or for evil.

In the end, if newspapers and magazines felt that aggregation was hurting them they could, with a few lines of code, pull out of Google and Google News completely. They haven’t done so and the few who have tried it have consistently gone back after seeing the impact first hand.

Still, I am eager to hear your thoughts on this topic. As bloggers, artists and other creators, how do you feel about the issue of aggregation? Do you side with Cuban, with me or with someone else?

Obviously there is a lot of room for debate and discussion of this issue and I hope to start at least a small side conversation on the topic here.

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