Last Wednesday at 10:55 a.m. Pacific Time, or thereabouts, there was an earthquake in Seattle. At 10:59 a.m., someone posted to a Web site called MetaFilter: "I'm sitting at work in the Real Networks building," which is in Seattle. "We have just experienced close to a minute of jostling and shaking. There is now a six foot crack on the wall of my office." Someone else followed quickly with a post from the Capitol Hill neighborhood, then came a third: "What's amazing is this news is breaking on MeFi"—that is, on MetaFilter—"when it hasn't been reported yet on CNN or Yahoo." It was 11:06 a.m. A whole thread followed, including another early post at 11:12 a.m: "MetaFilter scoops national News TV and Web sites. I wonder what combining 'opensource' trends & users all over the world can do to the news business?"
I don't know if that's a serious question or if it's meant tongue-in-cheek, but as long as we're here, what about it? Does the rise of user-created content, to use a current buzz phrase, carry grave implications for the information business?
First, some background. MetaFilter calls itself a community Weblog—"a community of users that find and discuss things on the web." The term Weblog, according to this item linked from MetaFilter, dates from 1998 or so and refers to "a small web site, usually maintained by one person, that is updated on a regular basis and has a high concentration of repeat visitors. Weblogs often are highly focused around a singular subject, an underlying theme or unifying concept." MetaFilter, along with the famous Slashdot and more recently Plastic, are similarly made up of grass-roots material, although from multiple users.
Often the main thing you'll find on Weblogs are links elsewhere, to an article, or maybe a game, or just some random, time-wasting, but irresistibly cool Flash thingy. I became familiar with the term "blogging" about a year or so ago when my girlfriend, E., showed me the site of a Web designer named Jason Kottke. Later, Kottke was a subject of an article in The New Yorker, which concentrated more on the diaristic qualities of Weblogs as the backdrop for a kind of love-in-these-modern-times narrative about a blog-enabled romance, but which still represented a kind of definitive mainstreaming of the Weblog concept. (The other day, Kottke posted his own interview with the author of that article on his site.)
I like blogs, or I guess I should say I like a few blogs. I looked at Kottke's and at another one called Dack.com (and I've linked to both in the past). I've also looked at MetaFilter from time to time, and I've "stopped by" many other blogs that I never got around to revisiting.
What I have not done is stopped or cut down on reading newspapers or visiting "real" news sites as a result. And judging by how many MetaFilter posts link to "real" news stories from elsewhere, I'd say even the site's many contributors haven't exactly given up on straight journalism either.
Still, are there things the bloggers do better than regular journalists? MetaFilter did "beat" by some minutes the initial AP report that there had been an earthquake. (And even press criticism seems to travel faster online—it took just six minutes from the event for MetaFilter contributors to start dissing the press and less than 20 minutes for the earthquake to inspire a disaster prophecy for the media in general.) I'll also concede the example mentioned by another blogger: MetaFilter allowed for extensive ruminations on the IT/Ginger nonphenomenon (see here, here, here, and here for more—way more).
But I would argue that any comparison between blog reports and straight news, on the basis of speed or anything else, misses the point. What Weblogs are really good for isn't adding to an existing media pile-on but ferreting out strange and wonderful, or merely strange and strange, things you are likely otherwise to have missed. Recently, for example, I would cite this thread on the subject of corporate theme songs, several of which you can listen to via this referenced site. Pure gold is what that is.
My caveat is that I do think MetaFilter is superior at "breaking" certain stories of interest to very particular audiences. Specific technology news, for example, or the deconstruction of Web marketing campaigns. Back in August, an interesting discussion picked over a Lee jeans effort that included a character named Super Greg. Anyone in the Web marketing business ought to follow MetaFilter as closely as Ad Age.
Still, those are niche audiences. For the big picture, it's often worth it to trade some meta for a little more filter, which is why I read the Wall Street Journal instead of sifting through 400 trade journals every day. All of this is to say that what MetaFilter and its ilk really are is just one more part of a well-balanced information diet. The notion that user-driven content somehow competes with regular general-interest sources seems like another example of a common new technology theme: the assumption that the world is made up of zero-sum games, so if this is a new way of getting information, just think what it can "do to" the news business, etc. But I don't think that's the case at all—and I think we're lucky that it's not.