"Media's changing," says John Jeffrey, executive vice president of corporate strategy at Live365.com, a website that allows users to create their own Internet radio station for free. "People want to have more control over what they consume and what they create, and we want to provide them with tools to be the creators." To this end, Live365.com gives users the software they need to stream audio on the web, and the bandwidth to reach up to 365 simultaneous listeners. You can either upload programming (i.e., MP3 files, WAV files, etc.) to Live365.com's servers and have that play in a continuous loop, or broadcast live from your own PC. To do this, however, you need DSL, cable, or a T1 line.
While DJs are free to create whatever kind of programming they like - news, comedy, talk shows, whatever - Jeffrey says that at the moment 94% of Live365.com's programming is music. Which makes sense, of course. If you create your own website and don't offer new content on a regular basis, people won't come to it. But while creating new content from scratch every day is no easy task, Live365.com simplifies the process by allowing you to use other people's content - the songs of your favorite artists. "Music is one of the easiest ways to express yourself," says Jeffrey. "I don't know anyone who's passionate about music who doesn't think they have a better record collection than anybody else they know. Live365.com gives you the opportunity to prove that by putting it out there."
In this respect, Live365.com takes the concept of a music-based file-sharing community a step beyond Napster: instead of just sharing individual songs, users can share a thoroughly crafted version of their musical sensibilities. And they can do it legally too, because Live365.com pays all the music licensing fees that webcasting currently requires. "If you think about it, we built this model around the law," says Jeffrey. Meaning that music, rather than TV or movies, is actually one ready-made source of content that users can utilize in a fairly liberal manner. "In some respects, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is somewhat limiting, is also a great benefit," Jeffrey continues. "Because if you're following the rules it sets forth for webcasting, then you get a statuatory webcasting license that can't be taken away unless they change the law."
As long as Live365.com's DJs follow certain rules regarding frequency of airplay, then, they're pretty much allowed to stream whatever songs they like. And as a result, Live365.com is a much more compelling build-your-own-website environment than, say, GeoCities, because it doesn't just help you with the technological aspects of media production; it also helps you acquire content to use in your own creative efforts. While a GeoCities homesteader might lose momentum when he runs out of things to say about his cat, a Live365.com DJ can simply upload some new MP3 tracks to his playlist.
Like music, the news is another source that people use frequently in their own media production efforts. Indeed, you follow the news not only for what it tells you, but also for what it allows you to tell others. And the Internet, thanks to email, bulletin boards, chatrooms, and hyperlinks, is the ultimate pass-along medium. What was the first website? Who knows? But you can bet the second one was a link to it, along with a brief critique.
Over time, such activity has evolved into its own form - the weblog. While there is no absolute definition for what constitutes a weblog, in general they're frequently updated, text-oriented sites whose creators compile links to other noteworthy sites, along with brief descriptions or commentary about they're linking to. Some webloggers link mostly to sites produced by independent creators, others link mostly to professional news sites, and still others combine the two approaches. And some don't necessarily offer links at all, but instead maintain sites that are more diary-like in nature. But except for this group, the strategy is the same: to express your own sensibilities without having to produce all-original content yourself, you incorporate other people's content into your own media production efforts.
Soon after the form began to catch on amongst independent publishers, developers began creating tools to automate the weblogging process. In August 1999, a company called Pyra created an application called Blogger. After a brief set-up process at the Blogger.com website, updating and archiving a weblog-style web page becomes as effortless as sending an email or posting to a bulletin board - you don't have to hard-code HTML pages, you don't need access to FTP software to publish your pages, you do it all from the Blogger's web-based interface. It's similar to Yahoo!'s GeoCities.com, but with features designed specifically for webloggers, like automated archiving and tools to manage group publishing efforts. And unlike GeoCities.com, where you have to publish your site on its servers, Blogger lets you publish on any server that you have FTP access to.
As useful as Blogger is, however, it doesn't quite represent the ultimate in weblog automation - for that you need another Pyra product, Newsblogger. While Blogger helps make the technological aspects of media production easier, Newsblogger, found at Newsblogger.com, helps out in a more unusual way: it streamlines the process of content acquisition too. "Newsblogger is a meta-content tool," says Derek Powazek, a former Pyra employee who helped design Newsblogger. "If your shtick is going through the news and linking to stories and saying something about them, this is the dream tool."
Newsblogger combines the functionality of Blogger with that of a site called Moreover.com. As a standalone entity, Moreover.com provides users with free webfeeds of headlines and links from over 1500 news media sites that it continuously scans for new stories. You choose the news categories or sources that you want your site to feature, add some HTML to your pages, and then Moreover.com automatically pushes fresh headlines and links to them on a regular basis.
In the context of Newsblogger, however, Moreover.com functions like a real-time search engine of the day's news. For example, say you maintain a weblog devoted to TV game shows. To find the latest news stories about Regis Philbin, you simply type his name into a search-box in the Newsblogger interface, and Moreover.com returns a list of links to all the current news stories in its database that contain Philbin's name. Click on the link that looks most promising, and Newsblogger shows you the full text of the story in one panel, and at the same time, it copies the story's headline and URL into a text-box in another panel. At this point, you simply add your comments to the text-box, click a "publish" button, and Newsblogger updates your web page with a new entry that contains your commentary plus a link to the story you're writing about.
Combining the functions of Moreover and Blogger makes for a somewhat cramped interface, but as Powazek suggests, Newsblogger is a dream tool of sorts. Using it makes interacting with the news almost as easy as simply following the news, and what armchair pundit can resist that? With only a few minutes of effort each day, anyone can now exhibit the hyper-accelerated authority of a Sunday morning TV show talking-head.
Newsblogger's not for everyone, though. If your weblog focuses on sites that aren't news-oriented, or if you enjoy the process of manually surfing for new sites and stories, Newsblogger isn't really necessary. At the moment, it's more of a niche product. The standard version of Blogger is Pyra's main attraction right now; according to Pyra CEO Evan Williams, over 41,000 users have registered to use the free service since Blogger.com's launch a little over a year ago. Now, Pyra is planning to create more powerful versions of Blogger designed for enterprises and other organizations, and those will not be free. In the meantime, Pyra has received funding from computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates and Advanced Publications, the second-biggest magazine publisher (it owns Conde Nast and Fairchild Publications) in the United States. "Part of the reason Advanced is interested is they see the potential to add reader-generated content to their websites," says Williams. "We're talking about that idea with a lot of different companies, where'd we be licensing out the technology."