(This column appears in the August 05 issue of PC Advisor)
The great debate about how content on the internet should be funded took a new turn recently, with the trial introduction of Google adverts into selected RSS (really simple syndication) feeds.
RSS is the latest method of keeping informed. Combine it with a feed reader application and you can quickly keep track of when your favourite sites are updated. But all feeds aren't equal - and herein lies the problem.
Some sites opt for the summary feed: just a headline and a precis. If the reader wants the full story then they must follow a link. Some users find this a pain in the click, and favour feeds containing the complete item, where no additional is surfing required to get the big picture.
If a user clicks through from a summary feed to read the story on the web then the site earns its advertising dollars as normal. Bung all that info into a full-story feed, however, and there's no reason for them to visit the site, which means no valuable ad-eyeballs.
The solution? Pepper your full-feed RSS with adverts and you're quids in again. Except some users aren't pleased. RSS, they say, should be advert-free - but then, that's what they said about the internet.
Dave Winer feels particularly slighted by ads in RSS, since he was responsible for developing part of the RSS standard.
"Advertising in RSS is just starting now, for all practical purposes. If we, as an industry, wanted to reject the idea, we could - by asking the people who create the software to add a feature that strips out all of the adverts," Dave whined on his blog at www.reallysimplesyndication.com.
Jason Calacanis, co-founder of WeblogsInc, which groups blogs to sell adverts together and is involved in the Google RSS ads trial, struck back: "If you're not willing to have ads in your RSS feed, are you willing to pay for the content you get? If not, how will the writers get paid?
"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, Dave. RSS was just a temporary free lunch like the web was in 1994. However, both those parties are over (thank God!) and now we have great free content available to everyone around the world.
"You can cry about it all you want, but this train has left the station - and you're still at the ticket counter bitching about needing a ticket."
Dave, who isn't the kind of man to take something like that sitting down, hit back with: "How the writers get paid is a problem you created, not me. It's not up to me to solve it, Jason - that's your job. What exactly is wrong with the way the BBC and NY Times do it? They write good one- or two-sentence summaries and link to the full story from the feed, and the ad is there, not in the feed. Jason, think about it - RSS itself is an advertising medium, if you use it correctly."
Obviously neglecting the fact that the dear old Beeb would never take adverts, Dave is clearly positioning himself in the summary feed camp. We'll have to wait and see if RSS remains an advert-free sanctuary or becomes the hottest web billboard on the block.