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The outsourcing of blogging… and everything else?

Via MetaFilter, I discovered an interesting new blog today: Blogoriented. It appears to be the blog of a pair of American entrepreneurs starting a “blog outsourcing” business in China. (Then again, it’s a blog, and there’s widespread speculation that it’s a hoax, a piece of collaborative fiction, or a sociology experiment.)

Assuming for the moment that it’s for real: The essence of the business, if I understand correctly, is this: dozens of young Chinese bloggers, fluent in English, will create hundreds of English-language blogs, focused on different aspects of North American/European popular culture. The blogs will make money in two ways: blogads, and promoting products via astroturf campaigns. A possible sideline – “covering” for bloggers while they go on vacation.

Reaction on MeFi is one of predictable skepticism and outrage – the general belief is that it’s a hoax, and if it’s not a hoax, the sentiment is that the entrepreneurs should be hanged from a high tree.

And I’m both skeptical and somewhat annoyed by the concept of astroturf marketing. But I’m also fascinated by the idea that it could be for real.

My experience travelling the world is that kids in developing nations often know more about American pop culture than I do. I have no doubt that some of my Ghanaian friends could maintain compelling and effective blogs about hip hop or American country music (oddly, the second most popular non-African musical genre in Accra…) So I have every confidence that Chinese kids fluent in English could succesfully pretend to be American teens blogging about pop culture.

It’s unclear to me whether any of these blogs would be especially succesful. My general sense is that these blogs rely heavily on social networks for whatever traffic they get. (I know that I rely very heavily on social networks for the little traffic this blog gets…) If a Chinese blogger pretending to be a California teenager doesn’t know any other California teens, does his blog get linked to?

What fascinates me, though, is the idea that one or more of these blogs might succeed, and that their authors might decide to go “indie”. Once Jane Brown’s blog makes it into the top 5000 blogs on Blogpulse, will we suddenly discover that Jane is Li Xiao Mei? Will she break away from the Blogoriented empire, launch her own site and place ads on it? And will we stop reading her if she’s still dishing good dirt on the new Coldplay album?

And what does it mean for Global Voices if Chinese bloggers are successfully masquerading as Americans? Do we link to international bloggers only if they’re sufficiently international?

A good friend is in the midst of an interesting international outsourcing experiment. He’s a talented software developer who’s written millions of lines of code over the years, but who, for reasons I may never understand, is currently making a living through online gambling. He does this by signing up for online casinos that will match his money – i.e., give him an additional $100 for each $100 he deposits into an account. The catch? You can’t take out your $100 or the $100 you’re given until you’ve made a certain value of wagers, usually a few thousand dollars worth.

My friend’s strategy: Deposit money, get the match from the casino, then play precisely as many hands of blackjack, using basic strategy, as required, then withdraw your money. Since the house has only a slight advantage playing basic strategy, you should be able to make $80-85 profit on your $100 investment in an hour or two. If you’ve got a higher tolerance for risk and are willing to risk more money, you can play $25 hands and cash out your money in about fifteen minutes…

One of the tools that would help someone gambling this way would be a counter that tracked how much one had wagered, so you could cash out as soon as the casino allows you. So my friend – who’s written many a technical spec in his day – spent a few hours writing up an extremely detailed spec for the product he wanted, including the language he wanted it coded in, the toolkit he wanted used, etc., and posted it on Rent A Coder.

Within a few hours, he had bids from three coders: a Chinese coder, bidding $100, who didn’t seem to understand the problem well; a Russian coder who bid $118 and clearly understood the problem; and a Malaysian coder with minimal English, but who had used the toolkit in question and bid $50. My friend went with the coder from Malaysia, and, thus far, reports they’ve had a number of good online chats, and he expects the tool to be completed ontime and to function…

My friend’s take on the situation: Finding coders is easy. Writing a good spec is hard. So hard that it might be impossible to outsource. Writing a spec requires language knowledge, domain knowledge and piles of experience. In a world where Malaysian coders are willing to work for $5 an hour, perhaps writing good specs is the one space where programmers from the North will be able to continue making money… for the next few years, until many of the clients are in developing nations and the Malaysian, Russian and Chinese programmers are in a better position to write those specs than the Americans.

So here’s my question: is blogging more like programming or like writing a technical specification? Is it easily outsourced to a (potentially fictional) company in China, or does it have to come from an authentic (more expensive?) voice? Is my blogging a high-value added activity or a low one?

And do we really believe that I’m writing this from Cambridge and that I haven’t found a team of smart Ghanaians to write this for me?

8 thoughts on “The outsourcing of blogging… and everything else?”

  1. Here’s my attempt to answer your questions:
    1) It depends upon the type of blog being authored – a blog with commercial underpinnings should be easy to outsource, a very personal blog would be difficult (and pointless) to outsource.
    2) Your blog is very valuable offering your unique perspective and experience with little regard for (personal) economic impact.

    Your general question is similar to the question of whether any given automobile is ‘American’… an answer which in reality is useless or irrelevant. If this blog is really the work of Ghanaians the value hasn’t diminished but it would call into question several things such as the general credibility of the blog and its other assertions. If I value the blog for its perspective then no loss/no foul, if I used the blog as a source of statistics for my own purposes (and these were all fabricated like the background) then it could be a total loss.

  2. As far as the outsourced blogs, yeah I see it working in the same way as the various serials the publishing industry has, e.g. Harlequin – there’s no such author a lot of the time, the publisher just picks the storyline and farms out the work to the lowest bidding ghostwriter – I figure the blogs should be able to achieve equivalent shlock levels – and yup, anyone who does actually manifest talent will bolt and become an independent voice, i.e. not outsourced no more :-)

    Regarding outsourcing of coding and your comment on writing a good spec – it’s the same thing – one huge mistake made by most outsource project managers is not recognizing the shift in costs. In the old daze, we had 20% into specs, 60% into devt, and 20% into test and integration (which usually ballooned to 80% of the work because we sucked so bad at doing the spec. In the outsourcing world, a lot more costs have to be shifted to the spec side, and the spec has to be formal, i.e. your best wins are if you can automate the tests for whether the delivered goods equal the spec. All considered, the ratio I use is 25% spec, 25% formal spec (something like uml with a tool like rational rose), 30% outsourced costs, and 20% test and accept. What I get is a better product on a more reliable schedule at a somewhat reduced price. The actual code writing has always been the cheap part, it’s the figuring out what should be written thats the expensive bit.


  3. I’m coding again for the first time in a couple years, having done a substantial amount of requirements writing and project management in the interim.

    Experiencing the reverse of the trend identified in this thread, I have noticed how much requirements and management time I am saving.

    Because I am invested in the outcome and empowered to make the decisions, all kinds of questions and judgement calls which would normally get referred to me as product manager are solved as part of the development effort. There’s no stop and go and putting things on hold slowing down the coding and no picayune details requiring me to shift gears out of marketing strategy back to an implementation decision I had made and put down on paper weeks ago.

    It’s very pleasant, though not scalable in the least.

    Mark, I’d be interested in seeing the old days vs. new days ratio you offer for costs, broken down for time invested as well.

    Ethan, back to your original topic, one of the questions I’m fascinated by is how people decide what to read. The most recent Pew Internet data I find states that only 20% of Americans read blogs. My belief is that readers choose based on a combination of social, professional, and interest-based networks and that these new blogs will have to tap into the last.

  4. Really interesting post.

    A question of particular interest to me is the intersection of author identity and Natural Language Processing — there is an entire subfield of NLP related to author identification. I suspect that if the sort of outsourcing you describe here becomes commonplace, that hackers will react, and that tools will surface for measuring the likelihood that particular posts are consistent with a particular author’s textual history.

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  6. I’m skeptical whether this particular project is genuine, but I think that some form of “blog outsourcing” is inevitable in the near future, applying some of the same methods as software and business process outsourcing. There’s too much economic incentive, and the technical barriers are low.

    I’ve posted a longer comment on my weblog.

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  8. According to many who contracted outsourcing services, understanding the real benefits of offshoring and setting reasonable expectations are also important to ensuring success.

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