There’s a conversation going on about advertising in RSS. Dave Winer doesn’t think that advertising belongs in RSS at all, and apparently there are a bunch of people who feel the same way. That certainly makes some sense, I felt the same way about the Internet as a whole opening up to commercial influence when I was back in college. I figured that once commercial influences showed up online the value of the information available would go down. There would be so much advertising and selling that none of the useful information would be findable. It was possible I guess, but relatively myopic. Not that mediums can’t be ruined by transformations of content or audience. I think Usenet is effectively a ruined medium, unable to bear the influx of a large number of belligerent and uninformed participants. But I don’t think the web was ruined by the introduction of commercial concerns, and advertising in particular. The web actually got a whole lot more interesting after businesses showed up. I spent a bunch of time thinking about why that is, cause I felt like an idiot after spouting off again and again about “the death of the web” that would occur if businesses were allowed to influence the future direction of the Internet.

So why not? Why wasn’t the web completely overtaken with advertising? Because advertising only works if people see it. If you’ve got a website that does no one any good, and no one is interested in going there in the first place, you don’t make any money off your advertising. That’s not necessarily true everywhere in advertising. In the offline world advertisers can buy billboard spots along highways and know that people will see their message. Cars follow particular paths, and people can get properties that expose drivers and passengers to their message even if they add no value because they know people are forced to go along roads when they drive. In part it was expected that the online advertising world would be somewhat the same. People would buy advertising at the roadside to the online world, which at one point people figured meant buying advertising at search engines and portals. That wasn’t really the best model of how things worked out however. It turned out that buying ads online was a lot more like buying ads in a magazine than buying outdoor advertising. That’s really important for a number of reasons. First of all, the value of the advertising space moves a lot closer to the point of value creation. If someone creates a site that lots of people love and visit every day, that person sells advertising on it and can directly profit. That incents some people to create useful sites who wouldn’t necessarily do so, which means more good stuff out there than if there were no advertising. Ooops! I blew that one, didn’t see it coming at all. That’s what I get for spending the last 20 years working on computer science and engineering instead of business and market theory. And unlike billboard space, you can’t just build more to blast out your message. You have to create a site with draw in order to be able to create the advertising space to monetize. The portals and search engines still were able to sell advertising space, but it wasn’t because they were necessary stopping points, it’s because they had to add value in terms of the services they provided. As Google proved to the rest of the search community, searchers are not a captive audience. They are a set of customers who you have the privilege of trying to monetize if you provide them a valuable enough service to keep their attention. The same holds true with any property online. If I post information about what I had for breakfast along with a few dozen ads for mesothelioma I don’t necessarily make money from it. Unless the advertising matches the property and the property provides value to visitors the system just doesn’t work out in favor of the publisher, so it’s simply not worth doing. People might be out there putting up sites like that, but I don’t really care cause I don’t have to visit them.

The same holds true for RSS. If people want to put ads in the feeds and they’re annoying enough that I don’t feel like seeing them I unsubscribe. But Engadget can have a shitload of advertisements in their feed before I unsub. Russ can feel free to toss just about any amount of advertising in his feed and know I’m not going to drop him from my high priority reading list. If a publisher has created a feed with a lot of value why shouldn’t they be able to directly monetize that feed? They might be able to create a feed with snippets and put advertising back on the main site. But that’s only one potential model for how to use RSS as a new publishing medium. And speaking as a technologist, I’m almost completely definite that the decision about how to use the medium should not be made by people like me. I’m sure that policy decisions about the content that’s acceptable in RSS should not be enforced by the tools. What made the Internet successful was the end to end principle. The technologists came up with a system that made just about anything possible and then stood back and let the users of that system figure out how to create value with it. I think the same thing is true with RSS. As techies working in the field it’s our responsibility to make just about anything possible. There’s exactly one person who should decide what goes into the feed - the publisher of the feed. There’s exactly one person who should decide if a feed should be subscribed to - and that’s the reader of the feed.

I think the questions from Richard MacManus are right on target. Of course I think that advertising in feeds is a valid technique, I wouldn’t be working on the FeedsterMedia stuff unless I thought it was something that would be of value to at least some people. I also don’t really see RSS becoming “polluted by advertising”. I learned from my mistake with my misassessment of advertising on the Internet at large. Sure, some people will toss advertising in low value feeds and I’ll be forced to unsub. But it’ll also mean that some people who don’t have feeds now will start producing them. It’ll mean that some people will start producing “feed properties” because there’s space for properties that didn’t have the proper draw as websites but do work as feeds. There will always be a continuum of feeds also. Some will have no advertising at all but provide extremely valuable info. Like, oh, say my blog. Absolutely fricking brilliant stuff, and not an advertisement in sight. See, sometimes there is a free lunch actually. Why do I continue to write a blog for free? Because I value the connections I make through publishing here. But just because I’ve decided to put my info out there for free, that DOES NOT mean that everyone else has to follow the same model that I did. It’s just arrogant and narrow minded to think so. Probably even more arrogant than calling your own writing “absolutely fricking brilliant stuff”. Some people will produce excerpt feeds with advertisements on the main site, others will produce full text feeds and want to put advertisements in them. Depending on the situation all kinds of different combinations make sense.

Most people believe that the best way to manage a market is to not manage it at all. Just let the people with the products decide how much they want to sell them for and the people with the money decide what they want to buy. Same thing applies here. Let the publishers decide what they want to publish and how they want to publish it, let the readers decide what they want to read. Everything else will work itself out. And like in a free market, the most value is created when there’s the least friction in the marketplace. The more tools publishers have at their disposal, the more they can experiment with models and find the ideal mix, the quicker we’ll find that maximum value point. And that’s not maximum value for just the publishers, it’s value for the medium as a whole. The two go hand in hand. Maybe Dave is right, and the real way to deal with the issue is to think creatively about how to make money with feeds. I say let the market decide that. If readers really don’t like ads in RSS, and there is a way to provide value and make money without doing ads, someone will set it up and the readers will flock there. Hell, I’ll be happy to post about it myself. Trying to prevent publishers from doing what they want and making decisions on the behalf of readers is just preventing progress however.