Thursday, April 08, 2004

Kinja: Everything Old is New Again 

If you’re paying some scant attention to developments in the Blogiverse, then you’re aware that last week, the latest addition to Nick Denton’s Empire was launched. Kinja purports to be the “blog of blogs,” rounding up the most noteworthy blogs in a variety of categories, like music, politics (conservative & liberal), movies, and books. (Full disclosure: for whatever reason, this blog has been “Kinja-approved” and is listed in the Books category.) As well, any user can sign up for free and create his or her own list of blogs that Kinja monitors. So instead of clicking through link after link to see if your favorite site has been updated, Kinja does the work for you. A nice system, right? A novel one, even?

Um, not exactly.

During the heady days of the dotcom boom or bust, back when websites were simply websites and blogs were solely the domain of teenage girls spilling their guts about all the minisculia that filled up their lives, a bunch of folks came up with an interesting idea: why not take the ideas and people that were responsible for some of the liveliest, content-heavy dotcoms and aggregate them all together? As such sites were in a variety of categories—tech, music, culture, to name a few—the proprietors of such sites were responsible for trolling the web and searching out content that related to their original sites—or, when things got lazy, they just linked back to their own.

And so, in early 2001, Plastic.com was born. The project was infused with millions of dollars in venture capital funding; sites like Suck (now known as the place that launched Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette fame), Feed, Inside.com, Spin, News Republic, and Netslaves—all defunct (or virtually so, as in the case of Suck) were asked to be involved, and so they were. Here’s what Steve Baldwin, one of Netslaves’ co-founders, had to say about his time at Plastic:

The Plastic.com site was launched in early 2001 with high hopes that it would soon become "The Slashdot of Culture". Its revenue model was advertiser-based, which was unfortunate, because advertisers were fleeing from Internet ventures at that time. Despite gaining rave reviews from The New York Times, a sizeable number of participants willing to post topical links and engage in online discussions, the site's traffic never reached the critical mass required to either pay external content partners (I worked full-time on the project for several months and never received a penny), or to begin paying for all the bandwidth it was using up.

Automatic-Media limped along until June 2001, when its $4 million of VC-supplied capital ran out. Carl Steadman, one of the founders of Plastic, took the Plastic.com site over and began paying for it out of his own pocket, and it remains today as a place for users to post links, rate stories, and conduct quasi-Socratic debates on issues of the day.

Baldwin points out, and rightly so, that Plastic was sort of a “pre-blog.” And although it still exists, it’s a shadow of the former self it desperately tried to be. But when you promise your contributors that the money that’s allegedly coming will show up in your pocket, and it doesn’t, people get kind of upset about it. Never mind that by mid-2001, the dotcom boom had decidedly turned sour, and people were, and still are, extremely wary about investing in Internet companies.

So why am I bringing up the plight of Plastic? A few reasons: a history lesson, to show that this concept has been tried before, without success, and the fact that Nick Denton isn’t—yet—making an attempt to pay the people that collect the blogs together into handy digests (even though he’s hired on people like Meg Hourihan, one of the founders of Blogger), makes me wonder if history will eventually repeat itself. Also, I’m forever amused by any and all attempts of the blogosphere to “go professional.” Much as harpies like Jason Calacanis think that there’s money to be made in blogs, let’s get something straight—whatever money can be made is minimal. Are people really going to invest in the Internet like they once did? Only on a limited basis, with the prospect of near-guaranteed returns.

And somehow, I just don’t think Kinja meets the above criteria. But it’ll be interesting to watch it, and Nick Denton, try.

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