“All power ultimately arises from content depth”

Behind the scenes, we’ve been conducting a round-robin interview with three “independent content creators” – a trio who run their own tightly-focused, deep, authoritative sites on specific topics. (And you know what we think about tight focus and specificity.)

Who are the people in our neighbourhood?

  1. Caroline van Oosten de Boer, the brains behind U2log.com, a Weblog on the world-dominating rock band. The widely-loved Caroline runs a raft of ancillary sites, including her famous personal blog, Prolific (“She Logs for Europe”)
  2. Tom, the single-named Webmaster, author, and critic who runs the site on the sexy, uplifting, life-affirming, mouthwatering topic of mad-cow disease, fittingly named Mad-Cow.org (“You Are What You Eat”)
  3. Stephen Maeder, a young lad engaging in the balancing act of overseeing Biketrials.com, which has quickly become the preëminent source of information on the most underground discipline of cycling there is – bicycle trials, alias observed trials or trialsin. (It’s bicycle obstacle riding, if you don’t know)

Our three correspondents put a lot of love into their sites, not to mention time. And they beat the shite out of corporate sites. Time to find out why and how.


contenu.nu – What role do you think good Web design (however you define that) plays in the way your site is viewed? Are you seen as more authoritative or credible by having advanced (or simple) graphic design? If you had the same “content” but your site looked like a Tripod automated homepage, would it still work?

Caroline – It wouldn’t work for me. For me there has to be a good balance between brain and brawn. I don’t know whether the site is seen as more authoritative or credible by its visitors. In my experience, people will believe any old shite online (or offline) no matter what it looks like. 50% of the people who E-mail us at U2log.com thinks we’re the band. And I am sure it wouldn’t be any different if the site didn’t look as slick as it does. What’s important to me is whether I think it looks credible.

contenu.nu – We’ve encountered a similar phenomenon in other fields, like print typography. 99 out of 100 people couldn’t tell the difference between the thoroughly-researched and absolutely correct and refined way to do something and the defaults in, say, Word for Windows. Who’s right?

The Web seems to involve different expectations from print. If you run a print newsletter on a pet topic, even in the age of desktop publishing, it only takes a minimum level of “professionalism” to seem credible. Usually this means a big headline and text in columns, and maybe photocopied on tabloid paper and folded in half, making it look like “a real brochure.” Yet online, people seem to want very sophisticated design, or at least they want a site to look like all the big corporate sites they’re familiar with, using left-side navigation, frames, and so on. The gap between a hastily-laser-printed paper screed and what people think is credible is much smaller than the gap between a Tripod-style site and what people think is credible online.

Tom – My site is very dumbed down by intent and experience. Plus I never revisethe design. People don’t like change. I am locked down and love it – five years of this and I look what makes the absolute least work for me.Visitors are from all walks of virtual life; I have a person a minute 24/7from 57 countries, there is not time to deal with browser gripes. You can’tshut anybody down on a disease site.

Content grows by about 20 or more articles per week, that’s my reality. Igang them up in top-anchored packets of 10 off a new link on the main page:Uninspired but efficient. What people want is old information just whereit was last, and new information up front. The site depth is two clicksto read 6500 articles. At one time I thought, just swipe the design over at Alzheimers.com, beauthoritative looking. Later I realized it didn’t matter, content rules.

All power ultimately arises from content depth. My job is to drive largegovernments into information oblivion. Try it sometime. For real depththere are no shortcuts to hard work, only efficiencies.Project all the subliminal site authority you want, at some point they’regoing to say, where’s the tofu? So I went with the design I had and bustedbutt on content. They can’t catch up now, like how are you going toout-feature Excel. All power ultimately arises from content depth.

Stephen – How the site is designed really doesn’t matter much to my viewers, asit’s one of the very few sources for biketrials information. As long asthere is new content, they’re happy. They don’t care that I have thishorribly long left navigation frame and bad organization of content. Theway the site is designed only seems to bug me! It would actually almost workas a Tripod automated homepage, but I’ve got to give myself a little morecredit than that! :-)

contenu.nu – Is personal voice important? If you were an absentee landowner and everyone else did the talking, would your site suffer? Is it important that it’s Caroline’s U2 site, Stephen’s biketrials site, Tom’s BSE site?

Caroline – It’s important to have a voice. My site is not just run by me; I’m lucky to have a handful of people working on it that I can trust to put up good material. I can go to bed at night and wake up and know I’ll find something funny or interesting on the site. When I first started, I had more people working on it – I gave access to anybody who asked. But that didn’t work out. So I restricted access to some people I hand-picked. I guess that does mean it has a personal voice.

Tom – Yes. Though I completely depersonalized myself from day one. A lot ofnews articles are preceded by Comment (webmaster) but the webmaster isnever named anywhere. If there is some big fat lie, I insert a bracketedclarification because I am ethically opposed to the further disseminationof misinformation, plus in spongiform encephalopathies it could kill peopleif they took the government’s advice. Then I colour text, often highlightingsomething very different than the press “officer” would have wanted. Ikeep it factual and sober, with links to supporting documentation. Inliterature, they call it deconstructing. People love to see me kick ass,talk back to the media, truth getting in the last word for once. So that’sthe personality of the site: no compromise.

I have people over in London helping round up news. In the end, I gavethem a room of their own, within the site. So that is a separate style.There are two other sites within the site, one on Frankenstein foods,another a hardcore human genome project annotation tutorial.

contenu.nu – The trend we see here is benevolent dictatorship: “I decide the look and tone, but I am not the only subject in this kingdom.”

Caroline – Definitely. I do not believe in democracy in projects. One person needs to take the lead, and needs to lay down the law. I cannot work any other way. (Which makes the day job pretty hard on my nerves.)

Stephen – It is certainly very important to have a personal voice. BecauseBikeTrials.com is run by me, the beliefs and views I hold about biketrialsfind their way into how I write about certain happenings and what I writeabout. My perspective absolutely influences what newcomers think of thesport. Also, people often directly ask me questions in the online messageboards, titling their messages – “A question for Stephen....” Some of thetime, people really want to know what I think about something. It’simportant in the trials community to be accessible in this way, at least tosome extent. (It just eats up a good deal of time, occassionally!)

contenu.nu – Oh... mustn’t forget. Why’d you start it? Why was the topic so important that you made an open-ended commitment to maintaining a site about it?

Tom – I was raised to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it. It didn’treally matter: global warning, dioxin, nutriceuticals, endangered species,or mad cows, whatever, it was time to put an oar in the water. The truthis out there because someone put it out there.

Caroline – I started on a whim, when U2 put Webcams up in their studio earlier this year. I was bored and wanted to have a new project to play with. I’d been talking about it with one of my friends and one night I just got the domain and started it. I’ve been a U2 fan since 1984. My interest has waned over the years, but I’ve always kept up to date with what they do. It’s almost impossible for me not to, because most of my IRL friends are U2 fans and at one point all my online friends were too. The new album has pulled me right back in.

It was important for me to put up U2 site up that is different from what is out there already. There are tons of U2 sites and they are almost all quite serious. It annoys me that a band that I know as a well developed sense of humour isn’t exactly known for its “humourous” fans. On the contrary. So I wanted a site that reflected something intrinsically Euro/Australasian: Taking the mickey. We love the band, so we slag them off – that’s the principle of things. We do parodies and piss-taking in between real news and very illegal MP3s. Not everybody gets it.

contenu.nu – This is a big thing with “fan” sites (term used advisedly). We seem to work – to use another imperial metaphor – from the ethos of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: “I may bitterly disagree with something Bono or Ot Pi or Prusiner does or says, but fundamentally I want U2/people with TSE/biketrials to succeed and flourish because I am personally committed to the topic.”

Caroline – Also, we, the “knowledgeable” fans, are the only ones allowed to mock. When others – non-fans – do the mocking, it is a crime that needs to be punished. This is how it seems to work.

contenu.nu – We get this a lot ourselves. “If all you want to do is complain, why don’t you get out of the business?” “Because we have knowledge and skills and can do a better job. So why don’t you let us contribute, you dilettante halfwit?”

Stephen – I started Stephen’s Trials Page (one of two predecessors toBikeTrials.com) to provide information that I wished was up on the Web. When I was first learning trials, there were no sites out there with ahow-to manual. I tried, as best I could, to provide a resource thatwould’ve been helpful to me when I was starting out. It started out verysmall, and slowly worked up to very big. What keeps me going now is howmuch of a positive impact it has on the sport and on people. When I get anE-mail from some kid in the U.K. saying that he found two new riders to ridewith who live in his town because of my Web site, I smile. When I get anE-mail from someone in a far-off country where “nobody” rides trials sayingthat the only reason they keep riding is because of my Web site, I smile. In a very big way, BikeTrials.com is a positive influence.

contenu.nu – What does official sanctioning mean to you? If U2 made U2log “official,” or if the BSE Inquiry (ha!) placed its stamp of approval on Mad-Cow.org, or the BIU or UCI somehow anointed biketrials.com the official Web site, would it influence you at all?

Caroline – The fun of U2log.com is that it isn’t official – which means I don’t have to go through the Kommissariat to have things approved. I do run an official site for an artist, GavinFriday.com, where I take things seriously and the goal of that site is to keep fans informed and to promote the artist. However, we (myself and team) do feel the need for recognition – and would love to know whether the band or management check out the site. In fact we do hope to be the site management goes to for a laugh.

Tom – It would drag the site into all sorts of compromises. It sounds great atfirst but soon you are sucked into “the people would panic and commitsuicide if they knew the truth about mad-cow disease” or the “people willnot get the elective surgery they need if they fear the blood iscontaminated” so back down off the truth a little. Soon it is a downwardspiral and you become another voice of the establishment. You may knowmore inside stuff, but you can’t do anything with it. It is a differentkind of power involving elite, closely-held knowledge vs. a power that comesfrom credibility with a broad audience that wants to know the truth.

contenu.nu – Are we right to think that the fact the sites are unauthorized is rather preferable for you, if not an actual point of pride, and you’d turn down official imprimatur even if it were offered?

Tom – No, I am interested in effectiveness, not in being controversial per se.It does grate on me, however, that a scientifically impeccable, precautionary,principle-oriented site is viewed as radical instead of what it is – ultra-conservative. It is mixed right now, some governments, scientific journals, andnewspapers (e.g., New York Times) provide links now. Many government sites are leery ofseeming to endorse external content in any event. Plus there is aninherent rivalry over who shall provide the information.

There was probably more of a middle ground, where I could have gotten linksmore often without watering down the content. No question but that theplacement and authority of external links help with site traffic. But atthis point in time, anyone with a substantial interest in the subject isaware of my site and is forced to use it whether they like the tone or not,because of content depth. The subject is so complex that only a seriousvisitor is worth recruiting. There are 424 external links to me at thistime, plus the site is so huge that it dominates keyword searching on anyengine.

Being “unauthorized” cuts down on future opportunities to commercialize thesite. For example, you won’t see any veggie-burger ads on my site. Thatopens another whole can of worms, infringing on your primary purpose andpreceived credibility. You can’t have it all. I chose to focus onunfettered content.

Caroline – I wouldn’t turn down running an official U2 site, I think, because (1) it would mean shitloads of cash; (2) I’d do a better job, especially if I get to choose the people to work with.However, it would be a different site from U2log.com, with a different approach and a different purpose.

contenu.nu – How much of your time does the site eat up? How many visitors, etc.? Are bandwidth costs a hassle?

Caroline – I am online 24/7. I have no life.I get between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors a day – more than any other personal site I’ve ever worked on.I just got billed $124 extra because I went over my bandwidth allowance. This is a hassle and it means I can no longer host the files I want to host. I’m looking into solutions as we speak.

Tom – About half of the working day. (I am paid – not at my commercial consultingrate, though.) Running about 1.7 visitors per minute 24/7 of late or about12,000 a week or about 43,000 a month. It is fairly awesome, really,compared to college teaching or a seminar where you might have a class of20. Bandwidth cost? No, $14 a month from a small provider, no limits onanything. But that provider knows and approves of the site purpose, andthat is important to security if you know what I mean. I keep it under100k on a single visitor page load.

contenu.nu – You started your sites because you’re interested in the topic – passionately so. That’s all well and good. But how do you maintain the commitment? Was stoking your obsession, as the Internet so readily permits, worth it after all?

Caroline – I don’t ever seem to have problems committing to my own projects. When it gets boring, I’ll quit or change.

Tom – I would be spending just as much time on something else, so no alternative,really. Used to work on rare-plant conservation, that took up a lot timetoo. It has been worthwile in that I am still interested and learningthings. When that gets old, I will pass on the site to a new person.

Posted on 2000-11-06