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The Flaw in The FanHouse: A Look at the Blogosphere

On November 29, 2005, Orson Swindle published perhaps his most famous posting at Every Day Should Be Saturday, entitled "52 Reasons ESPN/ABC/Disney Sucks." This posting inspired an epic comment thread and several derivative discussions of why ESPN sucks, including a weblog devoted to said suckage, allegations that the Worldwide Leader in Sports is actually the devil, and a lengthy addendum to the original list. As Orson noted the following day, ESPN got batted around like a dead goat in an Afghani tribal game.

I do not come to praise ESPN, but instead to point out that the Worldwide Leader is not alone among scourges of the sports world. We in the blogosphere like to take aim (and justly so) at such mainstream media figures as Rick Bozich, Colin Cowherd, Tom Dienhart, Dennis Dodd, Mike Greenberg, Jim Kleinpeter, Stewart Mandel, Gary Parrish, and Bob Ryan, but, as Kirk Bohls has pointed out and I have argued, we must be willing to point that same perception at ourselves.

This brings me to The FanHouse.

From the outset, I should offer a couple of disclaimers. First of all, quite obviously, Dawg Sports is affiliated with SportsBlogs Nation. The FanHouse and SBN are not, strictly speaking, competitors; the novel landscape of the blogosphere does not demand the sort of brand loyalty expected of those who choose Ford over Chevy, CNN over Fox News, or Miller over Bud. However, there are growing organized blogging networks out there, and I happen to be criticizing one while writing for another.

Secondly, there are several very good bloggers working for The FanHouse, some of whom are friends of mine. My quarrel is not with the writers who produce the content for The FanHouse, it is with the format into which their work is so unceremoniously shoehorned.

In order to understand precisely the problem with The FanHouse, we should engage in a brief exercise. Quick . . . sum up the reason for the success of the blogosphere in one word.

Most likely, the word you came up with was originality or some synonym thereof. The content produced and published in the blogosphere is not confined by predetermined deadlines or space restrictions, which is why the writing to be found here provides some of the freshest and most varied commentary available anywhere. Dan Shanoff said it best:

The depth of quality in sports blogging is phenomenal. The leap that has been made even in the last 18 months - or even the last year - has effectively allowed sports blogs, as a whole, to become as much of a fundamental part of fan consumption as ESPN or their local newspaper coverage. (And of all sports-media outlets, blogs have, by far, the most exciting growth prospects. . . .) . . .

What really separates sports blogs from traditional sports media is that it's far closer to a meritocracy: The best stuff - the fastest take, the freshest angle, the most prolific posts - tends to create its own influence.

Top sports bloggers are shaping the new paradigm, taking stands on important issues, going up against ESPN on-air personalities . . . and winning. Genuine reporting is even being done in the blogosphere, as mainstream news outlets are getting their information from weblogs.

In short, the beauty of the blogosphere is its lack of boundaries, its ability to reward the unique voices of its authors and to fill particular niches for its readers. When AOL undertook to gather numerous quality bloggers together and set them to turning out top-flight content under the aegis of a central hub, therefore, it seemed like a great idea at the time . . . but we all know where roads paved with good intentions can lead and this one has led The FanHouse down to what David Letterman once characterized as "AOHell."

The problem is that, to put it politely, AOL is not known for its originality, as evidenced by the similarity between AOL's portal redesign and that of another well-known internet presence. It is unsurprising, therefore, that The FanHouse forces upon its talented writers a restraining yoke that, almost without exception, requires of them an artificial brevity that mutes their distinctive voices by denying them room within which to work and imposing a bland homogeneity wholly unsuited to the rich variety of the blogosphere.

This, at the heart of the matter, is my problem with The FanHouse. What makes AOL's conglomeration of sports weblogs different, and what makes it so fundamentally flawed, is that it is neither fish nor fowl. In attempting to forge a hybrid that is half mainstream news outlet and half fan-produced weblog, it does justice to neither enterprise and is reduced to skimming surfaces. The result is a simplistic table of contents pointing the way toward actual news and commentary offered elsewhere, as The FanHouse comes across as the Velveeta of the blogosphere, consisting only of a blogging-like substance.

Such a format is fine for some objectives, but it is frustrating for those of us who enjoy reading The FanHouse's talented writers when they are producing original material in the natural habitat of their own individual weblogs, where they are unencumbered by the crabbed soullessness of a corporate conglomerate that renders their content so miniaturized, sanitized, and scrubbed clean of any distinguishing features, stylistic flourishes, or excess verbiage that The FanHouse invariably reads like an amalgamation of bullet-pointed blurbs.

When AOL stuffs these capable authors inside that cramped and darkened box, the result is what we might have expected had Maxwell Perkins edited Thomas Wolfe's original manuscript of what was to become Look Homeward, Angel so that it would fit into a travel brochure. No . . . it is worse even than that; it is what we would have anticipated had William Faulkner been reduced to writing Jay Leno monologues.

It's not that travel brochures and Jay Leno monologues are inherently bad, of course; they serve their purposes. McDonald's became a successful fast food chain at the same time that the interstate highway system made cross-country vacation junkets possible for many millions of Americans precisely because the golden arches were a comforting symbol for transcontinental travelers who took solace from the fact that they could get the same hamburger, French fries, and milkshake from a McDonald's in Albuquerque that they could from one in Schenectady.

Chain restaurants are fine, even good, when we are taking trips out of state, but, when we are living life locally (in the manner in which most of life is lived), we like a little local flavor and enjoy some good home cooking. No one with sensibilities more refined than those of an eight-year-old wants a Big Mac for supper on a daily basis.

What AOL does well, it does well because it is the McDonald's of the internet. Its familiarity and uniformity for customers from coast to coast are comforting to readers who are looking for constancy and reliability, for quick content in fast-food fashion for a country on the go. Such a model is fine, even good, for its intended purpose, but it is not conducive to the uniqueness and originality that typify---indeed, define---the blogosphere.

Local color cannot be outsourced, manufactured, and shipped like a fungible commodity made more cheaply overseas. Individuality cannot be diluted down to the lowest common denominator without losing its distinct character, yet AOL has attempted to force the square (and, sometimes, hexagonal) pegs of wildly original webloggers into the smooth-bored (and, oftentimes, boring) round hole of its staid and unsurprising format. Because of the failure of this hamhanded attempt at uniting disparate elements, AOL's foray into a sports blogosphere that is a freewheeling open market in the town square has produced a prefabricated FanHouse that amounts to a strip mall on an off-ramp of the information superhighway.

AOL inadvertently is restricting the considerable talents of its gifted writers by giving us the Reader's Digest condensed version of their work. This is tantamount to taking a proud lion out of the jungle and tossing him into the concrete enclosure of a zoo. Webloggers are at their best in the wild and the exceptional stable of writers assembled together under AOL's auspices needs to be released from captivity rather than held under FanHouse arrest.

For years, fans accepted with growing dissatisfaction the nonsensical notion that the very companies that broadcast athletic events and reported sports news were fit to provide us insightful commentary and editorial opinion. The clear conflicts of interest produced by this mixed marriage of media account for the force of the visceral response to Orson's aforementioned denunciation of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, as no one seriously supposes that the content of "College GameDay" is not driven by the marketing and promotions departments at ABC and ESPN.

Fans rebel against such hypocritical posturing because one size does not fit all. A division of labor is called for and the growing popularity of the blogosphere is evidence of a sea change in which the law of comparative advantage gradually is segregating straight news coverage from persuasive commentary.

Although the two increasingly are distinct functions, AOL continues to treat both forms of sports content as modular parts to be fitted together as seamlessly and artificially as discrete units of inventory stacked together on the same pallet in a central warehouse, shrink-wrapped in a single tight package for easy delivery and consumption. Consequently, The FanHouse has been imbued with all of the suckage of ESPN and none of the benefits of genuine weblogging.

The bloggers in part-time residence in The FanHouse are as capable as Calvin Johnson, but, when they go slumming on AOL's platform, they find their work being marginalized by the weblogging equivalent of Reggie Ball.

Go 'Dawgs!