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From Issue #1 October 11, 2012

Fireballed

It’s not just “Linkblogs” that have become popular: it’s the Fireball Format.

By Guy English Twitter icon 

There was a time you’d pay good money for a Linked List, but these days it’s de rigueur for smaller, independent sites. Ten years into Daring Fireball (though only six into the Linked List) and you’ll find Apple commentary most often in the form of a link, a pull quote and a brief remark.

This article has been in my hopper for ages, long before I realized that Daring Fireball was turning ten this year, and before Marco approached me with an offer to write for his new project. I’d been noticing the shift in the way commentary was being approached and had jotted down some notes, some notions and a fair bit of nonsense. Marco’s New Thing seemed like a good reason to actually put my nose to the grindstone and get something written. Working glacially, as I often do with writing, turned out to be serendipitous. There was a brief flurry of introspection triggered by this piece by Marcelo Somers: The Linkblog Cancer.

Despite all the discussion surrounding a topic that had been nagging away at me, I didn’t really find anything said about what had been on my mind. It’s not just “Linkblogs” that have become popular: it’s the Fireball Format. It’s not simply a matter of finding a link, pulling a quote, and coming up with a quip — the way that the Fireball Format brings in money has also been adopted.

It’s relatively easy to see why the Linkblog portion of the Fireball Format has become popular. It’s deceptively easy to link to articles of interest, and it offers the author a voice in the conversation without them having to invest in writing a longer piece. In this format, it’s the voice that starts to become of paramount importance. The voice isn’t just the jokes and commentary, it’s the editorial stewardship of the links that are shared. A Linkblog is, fundamentally, a personality-driven endeavour.

In this way, a Linkblog is not too different from something like The Daily Show or The O’Reilly Factor. The publication selects the topics of the day and offers their opinions. Linkblogs are commentary, not news sites. As such, their success is often based upon the personality of the authors. Read through John Moltz’s Very Nice Web Site and you’ll immediately get a sense of his personality. It comes as no surprise that he once wrote Crazy Apple Rumours Site. Dalrymple & Cohen, Marco, or Brent Simmons, among many others, all have unique styles and very apparent personalities and positions. They often write serious (though necessarily brief and quickly thought through) commentary. Like The Daily Show, however, if it’s a slow news day, they’ll be OK with running nothing but Weiner jokes.

By building an audience through personality, these authors let their sponsors know the types of people they’ll be able to reach. By being constantly part of the conversation, these voices become familiar and comfortable to readers. By being familiar and having their points of view well understood, these writers become trustworthy. By being trustworthy, a sponsorship becomes meaningful. Even better, a glowing thank-you at the end of the sponsorship period becomes the equivalent of Johnny Carson inviting a comedian over to the couch after their set — it’s a serious endorsement. It’s this funding model that makes the difference between what’s simply a Linkblog and a publication that has adopted the Fireball Format.

Like The Daily Show, the Fireball Format lies in direct opposition to a more prevalent model. For The Daily Show, that’s the 24-hour news networks and their requirement to just keep talking even when there’s nothing smart to say. The Daily Show feeds off the stupid (and there’s a lot of stupid). In the case of the Fireball Format, the competing model is the traditional Page View ad impression model.

The pressures of the Page View model are well-known by now: overly paginated articles to show more ads per piece, slideshows that display two lines of text per image to create more ad impressions, and sensationalist headlines on link-bait articles hoping to earn traffic from other sites pointing out their stupidity. Obviously, not all Page View-model sites succumb to these pressures: Macworld, The Verge, iMore, The Next Web, and many others have placed their bets on well-written articles and aim to be trusted sources of news. By and large, though, we’ve come to expect the Page View model to encourage a certain approach to delivering content.

The interaction of these two models has been of interest to me recently. When Apple pulled out of EPEAT, many Fireball Format sites missed covering it. It wasn’t an issue easily addressed with a pull-quote and a comment because the ramifications weren’t immediately apparent. Within a week, however, Apple had reversed its decision, an almost unprecedented move for the company. The Linkblog portion of the Fireball Format appears to be ill-suited to taking the time to examine larger and more subtle issues.

A business model where the author only occasionally writes longer pieces can’t be sustained — there’s too much time between pieces for sponsorships to work, and daily site traffic will be so low that ads won’t work well either. A Linkblog format offers the author a way to keep consistent traffic, be a constant voice in the greater conversation, and buy time between more in-depth pieces without losing audience interest.

But there’s a potential pitfall: where’s the pressure to write longer, more thoughtful pieces? A Fireball Format site enables a writer to take longer between more further-reaching, thoughtful pieces, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage them. Indeed, simply keeping up with the news to be able to comment on it takes a huge amount of time — time that could have been used researching and writing less timely but more timeless pieces. And sponsors expect that the site will be updated as regularly during their period as it was during others. Does taking a day off the Linkblog beat to research and write an in-depth piece make sense for many of these sites? It could work a few times, I imagine, but it could hardly be a regular thing. The link-and-commentary coal must be shoveled into the furnace or the engine will slow.

So, here we are. Marco’s New Thing. It’s something old and something new.

It’s old in that it follows a very traditional incentive model for authors: they get paid. It’s new in that it offers writers a way of making money off their work without the pressures of either the Page View model or the Fireball Format.

It’s old in that its publication schedule is glacial in Internet time. It’s new in that its publication schedule encourages authors to write more broad-reaching and hopefully more timeless pieces.

It’s old in that it just seems so obvious in retrospect. It’s new in that its pressures will result in a different approach to the articles.

I’m excited to find out what that looks like.

Guy writes popular software for iOS and Macintosh and, intermittently, at Kickingbear. His latest endeavour is Aged & Distilled, a company co-founded with Chris Parrish. A&D's goal is to improve visual communication through software.

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