Why Aggregation Is Not Distasteful

What is it about aggregation that riles so many journalists? I understand the competitive motives behind the objections of legacy publishers like Rupert Murdoch and the New York Times. They don’t like the idea of anyone “harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material,” as Times editor Bill Keller wrote. But why should individual writers, who have much to gain from the exposure aggregation can provide, find it offensive?

To judge from a TABPI Twitter debate I took part in last month, one reason for some may be that they don’t understand it. After offering a few mild criticisms of Keller’s anti-aggregation editorial, I received this comeback:

“If stories were aggregated & printed to distribute, I think people would find that distasteful. Curious why Web is different.”

It takes a little while to unwind the argument of this Tweet, even more gnomic than usual for this ultraconcise medium. I doubt that the writer really objects to the authorized collecting and reprinting of articles: Reader’s Digest popularized that concept nearly a century ago, and until recently, at least, plenty of subscribers seemed to like the idea.

More likely the writer was thinking not of legitimate republication, but collecting and reprinting entire articles without permission or payment. That would indeed be distasteful; in fact, it would be theft. But in this respect, few would argue that the Web is any different. You only need to review the online outrage over the swiping of a blog post by Cooks Source last fall to see that. But this is not what aggregation is about.

When people talk approvingly of online aggregation and curation, they are referring not to copying, but citation, quotation, and commentary. The practice takes a variety of forms, but straightforward examples include Digg, TechMeme, and B2B Marketing Zone. The nearest print analog would be those dimly remembered volumes in library reference rooms that indexed articles from journals, magazines, and other periodicals. Except perhaps among library scientists, they were never best sellers, but neither were they distasteful.

Where the Web is different, of course, and the reason why aggregation has become so popular, is that unlike the print versions, you don’t have to visit your local library, fumble your way through the stacks, and hope you can find the right issue of the magazine with the story you seek. Instead, you simply click on the link and start reading.

That is a powerful difference. Any journalist who ignores or deprecates such a useful tool for sharing information with readers is doing them a disservice. It’s honest work that benefits readers and writers alike.