I've been an active writer on the internet for five years now, and thus far I have only discovered a small number of avenues for distributing my writings to the masses. I've explored each of these avenues in turn and discovered that each one has a distinct flaw or two that prevents it from being a method for bringing together quality content.
The first method I chose was a personal web site. I have a firm understanding of perl, php, and databases, and using this knowledge I was able to assemble a very pleasant site that shared my writings with the world. After a time, I managed to get a small group of consistent visitors, but I was never really able to share my writings with a large audience.
The largest reason for this is that I simply had no way of attracting people to the site. I had no way, without spending my own money (not an option), of letting Joe Average know about my site. As an added kicker, I was unable to earn more than a trickle from advertisements, as I was adamant about not slathering my site in ads.
For a period, I attempted the "tip jar" concept that many sites are now using, and it was mostly a failure, too. I made at best a few dollars from it over a sizeable period. In fact, I have yet to hear of a success story from the "tip jar" model, and I don't hold much hope as it requires good will on behalf of the reader.
However, the freedom to write on any topic that I desired was a definite bonus. I was in complete control of every letter that appeared on the site; to me, this was a great reward on its own. What I really wanted, though, was a larger audience and some degree of financial gain from my writings.
After I realized that a personal web site was doomed to fail, I began to write frequently in the commentary section on Slashdot, reviewing products on Amazon, and writing on other well-known sites. I managed to gain something of an audience in this fashion, as I picked up a few acquaintances over e-mail and ICQ who enjoyed my writings, which was a definite plus. Another bonus in writing in such a public forum was the direct feedback I would receive; it pushed me to improve my writing and thought process.
The biggest pitfall in writing for such public sites, however, was the inability to earn any money at writing, not even a pittance. Admittedly, I am not a writer by trade, so this isn't a life-or-death matter; that doesn't mean that I am not out for no financial return whatsoever.
My search finally brought me to another approach, which was submissions to some of the well-known content distributors (like salon, slate, and red herring). I had a few things published here and there under a variety of pseudonyms; I felt that I was fairly successful. But, still, a few things were missing: I got no response and no feedback from my readers. There could be no continuous evolution in my writing style. Sure, there was money coming in, but how can one grow as a writer with no feedback?
Some people might criticize my approach for writing under pseudonyms. I maintained the same contact information across all of them, yet I received next to no feedback at all. Posting on user-created content sites like Slashdot made me a better writer; these paid me, but didn't improve my writing.
Eventually, I wound up writing a great deal on a web site called Epinions, which is an example of another model of content distribution. I got paid for writing there mostly based on my raw output, whether it was good or bad. At epinions, it is possible to earn more by begging for clicks (they pay per click) or by writing consistently well and gaining a following. They also had a commentary system that allowed users to follow up on articles and comment on the good and bad points. I was in the process of building a following and doing quite well financially when they completely destroyed what was there. They took the focus away from regular authors and instead put the focus directly on the products, nearly to the point of eliminating the need for the writers. I left the site, as my content was no longer really being focused on or shared.
I finally decided that, given the choices for sharing my writings to a mass audience, kuro5hin was my best choice. It has a very strong critiquing and feedback system for articles; the audience is intelligent, well spoken, and active; the topic selection covers a pretty wide spectrum; and the kicker is the diary section that allows me to try new things and discuss topics that really don't fit elsewhere. The only drawback is that one can't make any money from this site.
So, how can a web site be created that rewards the writer for quality content through both recognition and pay, creates a consistent community, and still manages to keep its head above water? I think there is a needed niche for a site that is something of a mix of the pre-product-oriented Epinions and kuro5hin, one in which there is a strict moderation system for acceptance of articles and that authors are financially rewarded for providing quality content that is able to survive the moderation system. The same could go for comments; a well-written comment should deserve a few pennies in the jar.
Another alternative is an mp3.com-style sharing method for other types of content creators. Everyone would distribute their content equally and would receive a cut from the pie per download. I believe that the model that mp3.com is using holds a lot of promise, particularly in the sense that it helps unknown artists to get noticed and to at least earn a small pittance. The drawback, however, is that it's really difficult to get feedback on a performance art through the internet; reading through mp3.com, you can rarely find a topical debate outside of "This band rules! This band sucks!" There is no real way for the artist to improve his or her work through mp3.com.
I'm sure that there are a great many other ways to share quality content and have both the facilitator and the content creator make money on the internet. The biggest promise the internet holds is the ability to help individuals share their information directly with others, cutting out the middle man and increasing the money made by people who can create good content (music, writing, and so forth). Unfortunately, the current internet doesn't support a model in which an aspiring content creator can really make himself known to a wider audience.
Is such a model feasible, or even possible? I think that it is, but it's a question that merits discussion and investigation.