I remember when I first started using the web in the early 90’s. Web sites were quite ugly with blinking text, slapped together images, and unstyled text. But in those days, we weren’t too bothered by that. There was an excitement about the possibilities of all the information that could soon be available on the web. With the slowness of modem connections at the time, I thought that article-based web sites (or online magazines as I would have said then) was where the action was going to be.
I guess looking back, I was pretty naive not to see that broadband was inevitable and the web was not going to be a great repository of articles but an active social network. I had thought that urls were too nerdy and would prevent nontechnical folks from using the internet directly rather than going through a more user-friendly website such as AOL or at the time, Prodigy.
I wasn’t completely wrong about the impact of article-based web sites. The print media today seems close to extinction unless it can reinvent itself online.
I thought that Clay Shirky wrote a very interesting essay about the future of TV and I think that his observations apply equally well to the print media:
The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)
Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecosystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken. Expensive bits of video made in complex ways now compete with cheap bits made in simple ways. “Charlie Bit My Finger” was made by amateurs, in one take, with a lousy camera. No professionals were involved in selecting or editing or distributing it. Not one dime changed hands anywhere between creator, host, and viewers. A world where that is the kind of thing that just happens from time to time is a world where complexity is neither an absolute requirement nor an automatic advantage.
Wikipedia has demonstrated the force that article-based web sites can have. It has also demonstrated the power of crowdsourcing as an important source of content creation. Recently, Huffington Post has been attracting lots of attention as it has risen rapidly in traffic and readership.
Nothing to my mind speaks better to the changing state of the print media than a list of the top article-based sites. The list below is based on US unique visitors as estimated by Quantcast. I am also excluding sites that do not focus primarily on articles such as Facebook, Yahoo, Google, AOL, and Microsoft.
Here’s the top 20 list for June 18, 2010:
- Wikipedia (75M)
- Blogspot (58M)
- Blogger.com (52M)
- Answers.Com (47M)
- About.Com (45M)
- eHow (44M)
- WordPress (30M)
- Huffington Post (26M)
- imdb (21M)
- cnn.com (20M)
- webmd (18M)
- Associated Content (16M)
- NYTimes.com (15M)
- cnet.com (15M)
- bbc.co.uk (15M)
- tmz.com (15M)
- people.com (14M)
- HubPages (13M)
- WashingtonPost.com (13M)
- examiner.com (13M)
A list like this is a bit deceiving. NYT owns about.com, Associated Content is owned by Yahoo, and Blogger consists of both Blogspot (for readers) and Blogger (for writers). It also doesn’t tell you which sites are on the rise, on the decline, or staying roughly in the same spot. Still, it is very interesting to note the new names that are appearing along side the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, People, and CNN.
I think it is appropriate to end this blog post with one more quote from Clay Shirky in the same article that I quoted before:
When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.