Independent content is the new web app

Attending SXSW Interactive not only tunes us in to web trends and ideas we may have missed, it also makes clear where we are in the life cycle of developments with which we are familiar. Thus in 2001, if you weren’t already aware of it, a quick scan of panels and parties made it manifestly obvious that blogging had peaked. The spread of web standards was the previous year’s meme: practically everyone I met in 2000 apologized that their blog didn’t validate “yet.”

Two years ago, everyone I talked to at SXSW Interactive asked what app I was working on. I felt painfully unhip to still be doing content and design—like I’d shown up for a punk gig in disco drag.

But times change. Even the quickest scan of this year’s parties and sponsors made it obvious (if it wasn’t already) that the Web 2.0 “get bought” window is closing fast. If your tag management app isn’t out of alpha by next week, don’t bother—unless you actually wanted to create a tag management app, and weren’t building it to finance a Sean John lifestyle.

I came away this year with two impressions:

  1. Possibly because “Web 2.0″ has pumped money into the field, people care about the craft again.
  2. Web 1.0 is the new Web 2.0.

As the second point is more interesting, I’ll focus on it.

SWSX Interactive is about zeitgeist, and what’s on people’s business cards can tell you as much about the industry as what’s being discussed on the panels. Last year people’s business cards told you that AOL, Google, Apple and Yahoo were hiring everyone with a nice blog, a SXSW panel, and an A List Apart article to their credit. This year’s business cards are about (drumroll) content.

The kind of content we used to create on personal/independent sites like {fray} and afterdinner.com, many of us are creating again (not that we ever stopped). But this time, we are creating it at the behest of companies like AOL, Google, and Yahoo.

Ficlets, for example, is a collaborative fiction site put together by Cindy Li and her colleagues. It’s awesomely cool. But instead of being something Cindy and her colleagues do at night, after their day job, Ficlets is their day job. And it’s not a long-shot day job at an underfunded startup. It’s a day job at America On-Line (and the content is part of the AIM.com network).

Not long ago, giants like AOL were buying startups like Brian Alvey and Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. network. That was smart. Now the giants are creating their own startups and networks. That’s also smart, and it’s doubtless more cost-efficient than hunting and buying.

What is the trend? First, big companies (excluding AOL) ignored the web. Then they hired professionals who didn’t understand the web to design their sites and other professionals who didn’t understand the web to create their content. Last year, or maybe two years ago, these companies began hiring smart, experienced web designers who understand usability and web standards. Now they are hiring smart, experienced web content creators. Web 1.0 is the new Web 2.0. Long live Web 3.0.

[tags]sxsw, sxswi, web1.0, web2.0, independentcontent, webdesign, aol, google[/tags]

38 thoughts on “Independent content is the new web app”

  1. Pingback: Design-Feed Latest
  2. Can anybody recommend a book or two on writing quality web content? It’s something many people always preach but nobody ever explains exactly what “quality web content” is. There are people who say “write to your audience”, but that is vague. Nielsen recommends writing on an 8th grade level. Every SEO company in the world will say to write using keywords strewn throughout the text (how awful is that to read???). What if you have an e-commerce site, how should content be written? There are a ton of questions I have but I am having trouble finding good resources to help develop the skills required to write quality web content. This sounds like a frustrated rant but interpret it as a desperate cry for help.

  3. Jeffrey, it was great meeting you (albeit briefly) in Austin and we’re all psyched you’re enjoying Ficlets! It’s been really satisfying working as a startup within AOL and we’re hoping to spread that bug into other areas of the company. Cheers!

  4. Bill: haven’t read any books on the subject, but I think it boils down to:

    1. Keep it succinct (cos people scan more and read less on screens).
    2. Use headings, paragraphs and lists to indicate the individual ideas in the writing (cos whilst scanning, people will process the shapes and thus get an idea of the structure much more easily than actually reading).
    3. Keep it succinct. I know I said this before, but it bears hammering home: good writing is conveying the same information with fewer words.

    Great examples on daringfireball.net.

  5. Bill, “quality content” has two parts: 1) you have to have something interesting to say, and 2) you have to present it in a way people can (and want to) read and retain.

    For the first part, you either have an interesting idea or you don’t. See Seth Godin’s marketing books for some pointers on developing/recognizing good ideas and making them “stick.”

    For the second part, there are a few books that touch on the subject, but most boil down to the same points as this eyetracking study of how users read and retain news: make it scannable, don’t scrimp on whitespace, and use images that say something.

  6. Does that mean though that because content creation is on the rise, that site design is (going to be) in decline? Or can the two co-exist and thrive together?

  7. Ara: No, I don’t think that it means this at all. I think that good design will be assumed. Sites must be designed well, or else they will distract from the content. But we must remember (and I think this is why the trend is going this direction) that it is the content that makes up the internet. Design is a mode by which we communicate that information.

  8. @Chris: You know what’s funny, I distinctly remember Jeffrey talking about standards based design freeing us up to focus on content eons ago (in the first edition of his book I think). I guess it’s finally catching on … ;)

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  10. Every SEO company in the world will say to write using keywords strewn throughout the text (how awful is that to read???).

    As an internet marketer who helps people with the SEO on their sites, I’d like to respond to that comment, Bill.

    Certainly people should use words that their audience will expect to see, and will search with to find that content in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with making some intelligent choices about the words that you use when you write something.

    But the practice of writing for people and for search engine optimization is pretty much the same – use a particular phrase to be the subject of a page and then use that phrase naturally within the engaging and thoughtful prose you create for that page. Chances are good that because it is the subject of the page, you will use it in the title to the page, the main heading, and in the body text of what you write. You likely will even use it in links to the page, and others will use it to link to you.

    It’s not a question of writing something, and then stuffing it with keywords, but rather using your keyword phrase as the subject of what you write, and then writing naturally. Take the post at the top of these comments, for example. The focus of the post is “independent content.” It appears in the page title, it appears in the post title/main heading, and it could easily and naturally appear once or twice in the body text of the post, without the post being “horrible to read.” Many links to the post will likely use the post title in the anchor text of the link.

    Good writing for SEO purposes isn’t a matter of stewing a dictionary of keywords through text, but rather of writing intelligently, with focus. In a few days or weeks, this page has a chance of ranking well for the phrase “independent content” because of that focus.

    Places to learn about writing quality content?

    Any good book on writing fiction or prose will likely help you learn about writing quality content for the web. Sitting down and writing, and writing some more, and then some more will even bring you further. Write some fiction, try out some sonnets, haiku, lymericks, satire, letters to friends.

    Read some good books, and think critically about them, and how the writer reaches out to his or her audience, evokes emotions, gets you to care about different characters, gets you to maintain an interest in the story, tells you about the setting.

    Go to places like Poynter online, and read through the many articles about journalism, editing, photo journalism. There are many blogs from marketers and copy writers who describe what they do when they write to audiences.

  11. What’s in store for the next generation? Are they to sit at their machines all day creating content? How much reading are we all to do?

    The rapid evolution of content equally requires sophisticated philtering phor phreeing up time phinding phavorable rather than phony content. The net effect of generating such massive amounts of content is a new Web 2.0 filtering, aggregation, and SEO industry providing jobs to techos and communication creatives while content producers hedge their bets on Affiliation and Adsense as a viable source of income.

    Brace! Corporate World 1, for our collective consiousness is already pushing your boundaries for accountability and transparency as we say whatever we like about you and have our friends cast their votes.

    Web 2.0 is environmentally friendly. Writing on our wired solar powered machines at home there is no need to commute, saving a ton each of CO2 per year.

    All hail the content re-purpoSirs!, Blogmaniacs, Soshil bookakimaaks, and SEOligists – the net is MUCH more interesting, expanding, filling my mind, connecting me, making me smarter.

    When I was a kid whatever my parents told me was gospel. But my own kids will never take anything I say as the truth until they have corroborated with others on the subject matter – online. If I told my kid that Emporer Nasi Goreng built the Great Wall of China to keep the rabbits out, they will quickly identify me as an idiot.

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  13. I found this post by googling ‘collaborative fiction weblogs,’ because- well, I’ve been feeling rather at sea in describing my site to people and what it is, exactly. It’s kind of a fiction/humor thing, there are several writers and it’s not strictly a weblog.

    It’s more of a zine that happens to use weblog software in order to publish online. I mean, is there more of this out there? Is there some sort of organization of it all? None of the major directories have a specific category for it- it’s just broken into whatever genre… It seems like this medium is perfect for something like this- easy to publish, easy to let people know whenever a new ‘piece’ is up, etc. There’s just that odd stigma that the weblog format tacks onto the whole thing.

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