Rock, Paper, Shotgun, And Why We Need To Make Publications Into Homes, Or Maybe Just Local Pubs

I was fascinated to read Wired UK‘s take on the Apple tablet, the rivals to the Kindle, and the race to create a digital magazine format, as featured in the latest issue of that magazine. Peter Kirwan’s article relates to the kind of topics I’ve touched on before on this blog, but it wasn’t so much the HTML vs other online design that really grasped me, but rather how a number of comments made in the article relate to the experiences I’ve had with something I haven’t talked much about on this site: the creation and success of Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been my other project for the better part of three years, and I co-own it with three other writers. Our intention was to create a unique website – specifically one about PC gaming – which we’ve done fairly successfully. The site now sees roughly 400,000 visitors each month and largely pays for its own smooth running. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, the way in which we’ve identified a community and then managed it. We realised early on that the rush to create commercial blogs for the generalist gamer had left one particular format – the PC – out in the cold, despite the fact that the same format had dominated the early days of the web. PC gaming media had fragmented into community niches, or particular gaming genre sites, and there was no equivalent of, or supplement to, the kind of thing that magazines like PC Gamer were doing, which was to deliver a broad survey of what was going on in that space. We wanted to do precisely that, because it matched with our own diverse tastes. Secondly, much of the web is rude, thoughtless, or chauvinistic. That’s often true of Rock, Paper, Shotgun too, but we’ve gone much further than most other communities in actively cracking down on it. Rather than rely on a crowd-based system of voting comments and up and down, we’ve opted to curtail free speech and employ massive deletions. Create an atmosphere in which trolling and idiocy is not tolerated at all, and it starts to recede. All this left us with an excellent place for people did want to discuss the issues of PC gaming to start reading on a regular basis.

So anyway, the Wired article quotes Sara Ohrvall of Bonnier R&D, who says of web media consumption: “People become ‘rootless’ in their behaviour… They consume media in places where they happen to end up. This leaves consumers uncertain about whether they have read/listened to/viewed what’s relevant to them, or not.” She goes on saying that you “always link somewhere else, the story never ends.” It’s about curation, says the article. Magazines curate content for readers. Which is, of course, a lesser feature of news blogs and RSS feeds. They are an attempt at a different kind of curation, one that is similar to, but more fragmentary than, the kind magazines offered previously.

What has perhaps fallen by the wayside is the sense of a connected community that is built into the systems. Many of these sites aren’t engendering the kind of communities we’ve seen based around magazines, sometimes because they’re just news links that point elsewhere, and sometimes because they’re hostile environments, difficult for a newcomer to break into, or feel comfortable in. However, if they do manage to create a sense of community then that rootlessness begins to become less significant. Online readers begin to regard certain sites as bases from which to head out onto the web from. One of the most common bits of feedback I hear from RPS readers is that they’ll always have the site open in a tab, because they feel the need to check back and see what everyone is talking about, both in the editorial and the site comments. For my part, I use a number of sites I’m familiar with the explore the web from, returning to them later on. They’re my homepages in a very literal sense of the word.

Later in the Wired article the founder of The Wonderfactory, David Link, is quoted saying that new digital magazines designed for tablet-readers won’t link out much, because “they’ll want to keep the readers immersed in premium material.” They will, in effect, want to retain the “walled garden” that they’ve previously had with magazines. This seems to be me to be nonsense, and a recipe for disaster. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a far better model for a web magazine: a stream of news punctuated by longer articles, embedded within a community which is reasonably well-policed. This new generation of digital magazines, if and when they happen, should regard themselves as home-pages, or bases from which their readers can make excursions into the web. They are somewhere to focus a particular interest, to provide relevant material, and signposts to exploration. They’re also a place to return to later on. The best example of how this works on RPS is our regular ‘The Sunday Papers’ feature, in which readers regularly return to RPS to comment on an article, rather than – or in addition to – commenting on the source site. Why do they do that? Because they’re coming back home to share their thoughts with the people who they know have a similar understanding of the world to themselves. They’re not going to do that with something that is all controlled editorial, and an unpoliced pure-news site will have similar issues. Sure, we have riotous arguments, but the common thread of the site is enough to keep things ticking over, and keep people feeling invested.

Magazines, paper magazines, can be translated into these e-reader formats, but that does not mean the transition is actually useful or that it won’t be pointless against the backdrop of what the web is already doing. Learning from how the smaller, consistently popular sites like RPS are operating is the only way print media can evolve to meet the demands of the future reader.

8 Responses to “Rock, Paper, Shotgun, And Why We Need To Make Publications Into Homes, Or Maybe Just Local Pubs”

  • Richard Beer Says:

    You’re a very perceptive chap, Jim. I always enjoy your more serious musings on the future of t’Internet.

    One of the major failings of traditional media online comes from their unwillingness to cede control. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section is a notable exception to this, but that rather highlights the dangers of the lack of moderation you mentioned. I love George Monbiot’s articles, for instance, but the comments underneath them are a (rising (hah!)) sea of global warming denialists and paid shills for the fossil-fuel industry, and make pretty depressing reading.

    One of (for me) the major differences between RPS and most other publications is something you didn’t mention: strength of personality. Too many brands are terrified of having an opinion these days in case they offend someone. They don’t say what they think, they say what they think people want to hear.

    I love RPS the most when you guys write articles that break this pattern, that take the piss out of random abortion quests in Mass Effect or cuss out developers for any other number of crimes.

    And I think a lot of other people love this too. RPS has integrity and we trust you. That, my friend, is gold dust, and it’s what’ll ensure your continued and increasing popularity amongst the maturing PC gamer crowd.

  • Tim Says:

    RPS is great. I stumbled onto it day one somehow, maybe via svgl or something.
    It’s always maintained the same tone.

    It feels like a “place” for people to discuss games and still use their brains. I feel like you expect a certain standard from your audience, so people try to live up to it.

    I suspect people actually become smarter by reading RPS.

    Yay for quality.

  • James Hofmann Says:

    I’ve had thoughts along a similar line for a while.

    As in your analogy, today’s media is more like wandering through a city, the largest city on earth, with rife possibilities for architecting both the “buildings” (the site’s content and features) and the community. I see a few distinct genres developing, and the underlying theme of each is that the distribution is easy, so a different service is being provided instead.

    Personal sites like yours or mine are relatively private spaces and usually sit “on the side” – we post content that’s important to us or to our identity, and sometimes it gets linked. But most of us don’t go out of our way to create a personality cult.

    Topical bloggers tend to act like a targeted storefront – “information about programming,” “updates on politics,” etc. There’s a natural crossover between the personal blog and the topical blog, where a single interest dominates; in this sense, we can no longer separate work life and personal life. A negative consequence is that the desire to commercialize often causes these bloggers to start manufacturing their image to look more authoritative or competent than they are.

    The social media sites deliberately aim to be some of the most central zones, albeit they tend to end up feeling repetitive and watered-down as a result.

    An editorial driven community site like RPS, Ars Technica or even Something Awful occupies a nice sweet spot where it isn’t just singular writings like the individual bloggers, but a mix of multiple targeted outlets – and there’s an invitation to collaborate. It’s “upscale” in that sense.

  • Web Cole Says:

    RPS is great, my favourite gaming related website by far. Often reminds me of an old Ninty mag I used to read (in fact, I believe it was actually just ‘N64 Magazine’ and later ‘NGC Magazine’).

    Glad to hear RPS is self sufficient :D

  • M├írio Figueiredo Says:

    And yet, I feel there are areas of possible improvement. I fear sometimes the writing style is either too terse or populated with cultural hints, hand-picked wording or complex sentence structures, that can provide non English speakers like myself with a tortuous reading experience.

    Maybe unjustly so, but sometimes I do wonder if a certain article or news piece is instead focused on a desire to show your literary prowess first, and on the actual content and your thoughts on the matter, only next.

    I’m a ~6 month old reader and I must say I very much enjoy RPS for both its news content, its position as an outsider to the commercial gaming news “industry”, and your — the gang of four — constant contributions to a possible increase of my brain size. But the subject of RPS is still PC games. A subject that can be discussed in plain English.

    In any case, I must congratulate you on the decision to moderate the website comments. It’s the only way to make these readable in this day and age. Trusting you are only interested in removing trollish behavior and no-content comments, while allowing for other manner of human flaws, like annoyance, anger, disagreement and being flat wrong, this is what to me explain my daily RPS reading routine.

  • Rossignol Says:

    There’s always room for improvement. We’re lazier than we are smart.

    That said, the site is partly intended just to amuse ourselves, and the colloquial gibberish of the writing is a consequence of that. We could discuss things in plain English, but then we’d get bored, and the blog would stop.

  • BooleanBob Says:

    Could I possibly (I know it’s rude to bring up income, we’re English after all) ask you to elaborate on your statement that RPS “largely pays for its own smooth running”, Jim? As in, it pays for bandwidth and hosting costs, or it pays out enough to contribute to the living costs of its owners?

    I have a terrible case of the guilts about the quality most RPS offerings being something I would happily pay for in PCG but am now getting for free.

  • Gunhover Says:

    RPS recently posted asking for subscriptions – I admit I hadn’t even given it a thought before that article, and I still didn’t waste a single moment on it… I was filling out the PayPal form as fast as my fingers would allow me.

    That’s a real credit to what RPS means to me (and many other regulars). Like Jim says, it’s not just a throwaway link we occasionally check out when we’re experiencing a pang of boredom, it’s the home of our PC gaming needs and desires.

    As an anecdote to back up the example of The Sunday Papers above, I have spent over 4 hours so far today with nothing but RPS and the URLs linked off it open in my browser. I’ve been to Wired, The Escapist, Gaming Daily, Ars Technica and a dozen other articles and comment sections at various sites linked from them. All of this because I opened that RPS tab in Firefox at lunch and systematically explored everything that was being suggested there.

    The really cool thing for me is that I wouldn’t have even given most of this content a passing thought normally, I’d never have searched it out myself and mused on these various topics being discussed. RPS helps me broaden my horizons, and not just specific to gaming, but of debate, humour, analysis, writing, abstract and subjective thought.

    The oh-so-thinly-veiled TL;DR here is simply that RPS rocks. You and the rest of the gang have my sincere thanks for maintaining a brilliantly unique and interesting site that I will never forget, Jim.