July 22, 2008

Techmeme and TechCrunch's Detractors Prove It's Hard to be On Top

One downside of being in a visible leadership position is that you often have a bulls-eye on your back. Sometimes it's from your competition. Sometimes it's from people who feel what you offer isn't benefitting themselves personally, and other times, it can arguably be your biggest fans, who want to change what it is you do to serve their whim of the day. In the tech blogosphere, there is no single blog more influential and visible than TechCrunch, and there is no single aggregator or news site more influential and visible than Techmeme. That the two's fortunes are at times seen as being closely linked only helps to fuel the flames of frustration by those eager to see change, be it through finding alternative sources for news, or, instead, asking for either site to change its tone, its breadth of coverage, or its methodology.

From a third party point of view, it seems the day in and day out potshots against both Techmeme and TechCrunch have taken their toll on the most visible representatives of each site. Techmeme's Gabe Rivera is well-known for his sarcastic, evasive, answers when his site's reputation is questioned, and TechCrunch's Michael Arrington is often described as short-fused and sleep deprived. Recently rumors have circulated saying Arrington wants out of the blogging business, and is looking to sell, no doubt in part due to stress of the "always on" atmosphere and ruthless competition. Of course, rumors are simply rumors... but given most PR firms have gotten to the point where reaching out to TechCrunch is part of their standard shtick, it's likely not as fun fielding all the inquiries and sticking to others' schedules as openly writing once was. And TechCrunch has burned through its share of strong writers, with talents like Marshall Kirkpatrick and Duncan Riley leaving, one on good terms, and the other, not as well, as it turned out. (See: On Arrington, My Final Word)

The two sites' major detractors tend to rail on common topics. TechCrunch can be seen as egocentric, and Arrington is perceived to have a bee-line on exclusives. Techmeme similarly has been described as elitist by those who don't get included, navel-gazing by those who think it's too insular, biased by those who feel they have been overlooked, or a single person's playground, by those who feel Gabe's claims to automation are overblown. And some industry blog veterans who regularly appear on Techmeme have even taken to saying it's not as relevant and influential as it once was, replaced by other sources of news.

The complaints around either service became so commonplace that a new word, bitchmeme, was made, loosely defined as "bitching about Techmeme", usually on the weekend, when some tech bloggers had no news to write about. The phrase since took on a life of its own, meaning any silly conflict between blogs that took place on the weekend.

TechCrunch and Techmeme get as much grumpiness tossed their direction as they do because they each own a valuable niche in the blogosphere, and are expanding their lead, rather than relinquishing it. While you could say that TechCrunch competes with ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, GigaOM or others, they have cemented themselves as the go-to site for new services entering the market, and even their opinion pieces are widely read, with almost a million unique RSS subscribers taking note. Techmeme's best competition at this point is BlogRunner, with Hacker News, Dave Winer's TechJunk, Duncan Riley's QMeme and more organic sites like RSSmeme or ReadBurner coming up in conversation. But Techmeme's original perceived competition, like TailRank and Megite, are mere shadows of what they initially promised. Meanwhile, TechCrunch is bringing on new writers, and posting more stories than ever (See: The Statbot: TechCrunch Statistics A-W), and Techmeme is going more mainstream, with news sources like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times featuring more prominently than most individual bloggers.

And with this leadership position, the sites don't have the luxury of acting without criticism any longer. Gabe almost has a part-time position made for himself just to go from blog to blog and explaining that in fact, Techmeme is not evil, and that it is relevant, explaining that TechCrunch has built a reputation as a reputable source for tech news, and therefore, is adequately represented on his site and in the leaderboard. Seemingly every day, Gabe is having to answer questions on Twitter or FriendFeed from people like Robert Scoble (or me in one example, when I wondered why a hot topic wasn't getting airtime). Meanwhile, Arrington gets called nasty names, mocked by Valleywag, and yelled at on Twitter.

But if you take a step back, TechCrunch's goal is to be a technology blog focused on Web 2.0, and it's doing that. Techmeme's stated goal is to be like the front page of the memes that are happening in the tech blogosphere at any given time, and for the large part, it does do that. While there is some uncertainty as to all the criteria that makes up being part of Techmeme, or rising up and down the page, or when something makes the site, it typically takes discussion, not only on the original site, but through links from other blogs, on Twitter, and other sharing sites.

The argument could be made that you could possibly find your technology news faster in another way. Maybe you could find it on FriendFeed, and get a broader scope of sources. Maybe you prefer the democratic approach of ReadBurner and RSSmeme. Maybe you want to go through Google Reader yourself, or rely on others' shared link blogs. But there is no question in my mind that Techmeme is relevant, as is TechCrunch, and being mentioned on either site continues to drive traffic today.

I also believe that Techmeme does a very good job at being available to those bloggers who aren't elite household names. Just tonight, we saw a blog that was born only three days ago make the site, and Yuvi Panda's work on The Statbot shows one third of all Techmeme headlines come from the "Long Tail". Techmeme is accessible to bloggers who write quality content and spur discussion. While I'm absolutely active in places like FriendFeed and Twitter, I don't believe that discussions from FriendFeed belong on Techmeme any more than do popular Twitter posts or popular YouTube videos. Techmeme has specialized in bringing us top tech blogging news, and it's doing it.

The bottom line? If you don't like Techmeme and you don't like TechCrunch, stop reading, or go out and make your own. The best way to show they're no longer relevant is to take them down yourself through competition. But today, they are both standing strong whether you like it or not. I just hope Mike Arrington and Gabe Rivera are enjoying what they do as much as when they first started, and that the daily body blows haven't gotten them so jaded that they want out, for that would be a big loss.