Over the weekend, I was in Dallas and watched lightning strike the city in every direction. I was so mesmerized that I stayed outside on a terrace balancing my camera on the balcony, taking photos I later shared on Facebook and Flickr, and as a time lapse video on YouTube. The whole time, though, I kept thinking, "Is holding on to a metal balcony during a storm the smartest idea?"
A different kind of bolt struck the Web last week - a Bo.lt, to be precise -- and I had a similar reaction. It's one of the most fascinating technologies I've seen in a long time, though the risks of getting burned are high.
Its current tagline is, "Make better pages with BO.LT, the page sharing network that's kind of a big deal." On the surface, it works a lot like other page-sharing sites such as bit.ly: you shorten links through its site or via a browser extension and share them, with tracking built in. Bo.lt adds a layer of personalization, with every URL that you share including your username, such as dave.bo.lt.
The controversy is linked to the first three words: "make better pages." Consider all the effort you spend creating a website. Bo.lt comes along and tells any Web user, "Make this page better however you see fit." What does it mean to make that page better? Perhaps it's to make it more grammatically correct, as a publisher can do with the Editz (formerly GooseGrade). It's one idea I never liked; I don't want people going over my site with a red pen.
Ever since I became one of the earliest users of Bo.lt, my take on "better" has meant "funnier." For most sites, that's not very hard. Heck, as Bo.lt founder Matthew Roche showed me, someone memorably doctored Bo.lt's homepage. Bo.lt can turn the least sophisticated Internet user into a hacker. You don't change an actual website, but you create a copy of a page and edit that all you want. I took some liberties with the page showing recent Social Media Insider columns, editing the titles, copy, header and footer, images, and just about anything I could. The most significant lock on pages is that one can't edit the ads. I did make the background on the top banner ad prettier, though.
Note one thing you currently can't do -- which will irritate site owners -- is easily click back to the original page. It can be so hard to distinguish Bo.lt links when they're shared through sources like Twitter (with URLs sometimes obscured further by other shorteners) that I've come to doubt that any content shared via Bo.lt is what the publisher intended.
Having spent perhaps too much time testing out Bo.lt, four key questions keep coming up. I've got some initial attempts to answer them, but the answers will evolve along with Bo.lt.
1) Why would any consumer want to use it?
Most won't. Check out that MediaPost page I edited and see how many changes you can spot. Even when one makes simple changes to a page, it still takes conscious effort to do so, and that's more effort than most people will want to invest.
For users who do make changes, they're likely to be the people who enjoy taking control of content to the extent that they like to make it their own. They might want to personalize landing pages by leaving comments or asking the opinions of others.
Then there will always be a subset of users with that bit of a hacker or practical joker in them. Some might use Bo.lt aspirationally, as exemplified by my colleague Megan Conley, who is giving a certain Ms. Middleton a run for her money. Twitter user Shaun Dakin shared a different scenario of a popular consumer electronics product's role in a North African conflict. These are creative, but even now when Bo.lt has its share of buzz following its launch, these humorous links are harder to find than I expected.
2) Why would any marketer want to use it?
A lot of marketers will be terrified by Bo.lt and won't want to use it at all anytime soon. Some may be open to ideas of crowdsourcing, though, where they encourage users to create their own versions of a page, and the marketer rewards the user with the best iteration.
Another approach came via Bo.lt user Sarah Hodges. She emailed me that community managers can take ownership of content rather than simply curating and linking to it. "Traditionally, we've sent this traffic off into the abyss by linking to third party sites. With Bo.lt, we can now keep these users within our own network, and easily view which types of content generate the best reaction from our communities, helping to sculpt our social media/content generation strategies."
3) Why would any publisher allow it?
Most won't want to. I mean, really, who at MediaPost would want to allow me to do what I just did to their content? And I'm one of the good guys.
Guard rails are coming, though. For instance, Roche indicated that publishers will gain more controls on what can be edited, with a clear revision history to show what edits have been made via Bo.lt.
4) How is this legal?
This is the question that fascinates me the most and the one I'm least prepared to answer. While my mom, who spent much of her career as a real estate agent, routinely answers friends' medical questions just because she's married to a gastroenterologist, I have not been married to a lawyer long enough yet to have such nerve. The answer, as I've heard it from Roche, involves the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which has largely protected YouTube. The rough idea is that Bo.lt need not police every link, but if a copyright holder makes a legitimate complaint, Bo.lt must respect it and remove the offending content. For a real lawyer's point of view, read Andrew Raff's opinion on IPTAblog.
Ultimately, what I love about Bo.lt is that it opens my mind to what can be done online, and with media in general. Everything else -- practical or impractical, legal or illegal, savior or waste of time -- can come later. When lightning strikes, you at least need to watch it, even if you're not ready to brave the weather.