Site or network? Own or join?

I think it’s wonderful that The New York Times did a deal to bring Freakonomics under its wing — hosting it, selling ads on it, promoting it, but not buying it or hiring its creators and not treating it like so much freelance fodder to go through the Times’ editing mill. That’s new. This follows my somewhat similar deal at PrezVid with the Washington Post and another big-media outlet to be named shortly, in which they also leave PrezVid as an independent entity (in this case, we keep our site and URL) but take up some of the content onto their sites.

What I like about this is that we see big-media services starting to act like members of networks. They are beginning to realize that they can’t — and don’t want to — do everything themselves. They are also recognizing that creators want to keep ownership of their creations and so hiring or buying isn’t always the best option.

But so long as these services still want to serve content from their own sites, there will be issues. In my deal, the sites pick the posts they want; if they don’t like something, they just don’t take it. But in the Times’ case, all of Freakonomics is now served under the Times umbrella but without the usual Times process. I think that’s a good thing. But some folks didn’t a few days ago when the Freaks started a discussion speculating about the best ways for terrorists to attack America, something that quite a few commenters and bloggers thought was dangerous and just stupid and unbecoming the Times.

And this leads me to suggest that syndication is still not the best relationship for big services and the new independent players. I’m delighted that there’s marryin’ in the air. But I think the independent guys are better left independent. And the proper relationship, I think, is a network. Imagine, instead, if the Times declared Freakonomics part of its quality blog network. It could sell ads there, telling its advertisers that it had found the best of the blogs just for them. It could direct its readers to lots of great new content. By promoting that content, it also increases its ad value: a virtuous circle. But there remains a distance that defines independence: The blog is free of the worries of what happens under the Times address and brand — though if they go too damned far, they can be dropped. And the Times has a certain deniability — it is clear that this content was not a product of the Times, though, again, if advertisers don’t want to be on that blog, it will be dropped. The further advantage for the big guy is it can grow much bigger much faster by becoming a member and enabler of a much larger network. The Times doesn’t have to create or pay for or host or be responsible for all the best content around. It can find it and help support it and bring that new, larger world to its readers and advertisers.

Be a network more than a site, that’s my advice.

This is what Glam has done, creating an ad network across independent sites and growing hugely, bragging that it is the no. 1 women’s site (service, network?) with 19.1 monthly uniques, growing faster than MySpace and larger than iVillage, AOL Living, and all of Conde Nast combined.

At TechCrunch, Mike Arrington ridicules Glam’s claims, saying: “A minimal amount of research into their business shows that the company is an ad network, not a content site.” With respect, I disagree

I say that’s what makes Glam so smart. As the web becomes more and more distributed — more widgetized with tchotzkes of content and functionality spread everywhere — the idea of measuring size by just measuring a site becomes obsolete. And here’s the fringe benefit: it’s better and cheaper to take your content to the people rather than marketing to bring them to you. This is the essence of CBS’ audience network strategy.

This is, dare I say it, the essence of 3.0: join and enable a network instead of trying to buy content and eyeballs on a site.

WWGD. What would Google do? Google would network.

There are still issues of quality. As both Arrington and VentureBeat point out, a network can grow too big by including junky traffic; that is why networks have gotten less respect and thus lower value.

But now let’s return to the Times and Freakonomics. No junk there. It’s quality, albeit sometimes controversial quality. The Times wouldn’t have embraced it otherwise. Its advertisers and readers know that. So there’s a power in the Times and the Post (which also runs a travel blog network) and a major wire service that’s about to launch a network of its own and other of the big guys growing bigger not by hiring and buying and building but by networking.

And by the way, I’d like to hear the Freakonomics guys explore the power and value of networks vs. closed content systems.