Platform Creep

The platforms: they’re creeping. There’s Twitter:

On Twitter’s mobile app, there will be a new button in the center of the home row. Press it and you’ll be taken to a screen that will show various events taking place that people are tweeting about. These could be based on prescheduled events like Coachella, the Grammys, or the NBA Finals. But they might also focus on breaking news and ongoing events, like the Nepalese earthquake or Ferguson, Missouri. Essentially, if it’s an event that a lot of people are tweeting about, Twitter could create an experience around it.

And YouTube:

In partnership with Storyful, a social news agency we’ve worked with since protests broke out in Tahrir Square in 2011, we’re rolling out the YouTube Newswire, a curated feed of the most newsworthy eyewitness videos of the day, which have been verified by Storyful’s team of editors and are embeddable from the original sources.

And Instagram:

Instagram has real-time coverage of almost everything happening in the world. Now its unlocking that content with a revamped Explore tab featuring Trending Tags, Trending Places, curated content, plus a new Places Search. You’ll be able to see all the photos from Father’s Day or Coachella, scope out your next vacation spot, or see photos of important topics chosen by Instagram’s team.

About which founder Kevin Systrom tells Recode:

The Holy Grail is to give people the sense of now and what’s happening now. The gap between something happening in the world and you knowing about it is becoming fractionally small. I think we’re all in a race as companies to provide you that information.

For some time now, Snapchat has been offering something similar: collections of videos and photos created in or about places and events, slotted in between your contacts. These “Stories” feel like a more natural extension of Snapchat than the channels in its Discover page, a strange and sickly panel inhabited mostly by outside media companies. Vine’s human-moderated channels are, in addition to the platform’s homegrown celebrities, which they routinely feature, the app’s main attraction. Instagram’s human-moderated tags alternate between broad bordering on incoherent (collections like #lightning and #calendar) and focused, deep documents about cultural events. (It’s effective mainly as a showcase of the sheer amount of primary material posted to Instagram; it’s more thorough, in this respect, than almost any conceivable celebrity publication.)

Since channels like this feature at least some editorial oversight, it is tempting to see them as a sign of the re-humanization of the platforms; to suggest that they are evidence, or confirmation, that audiences cannot survive by algorithm or feed alone. This is comforting because it implies a basic flaw in the systems that are increasingly dominating the internet — a flaw that, in a satisfying turn, can only be fixed by the very people who feel most marginalized. It is also wrong.

The use of human editors is evidence only of a temporary inadequacy in human-created software. It is easier, cheaper and more effective — for now — to hire people to fill Snapchat channels, or to stock the Facebook Newswire, than it is to have different people design software to do the same thing. [DRUNK PROGRAMMER VOICE] The distinction between human editorial control and human editorial control through software design or sorting algorithm is one of tools and scale and time.

Our feeds and home screens — the ones filled with and by people we’ve followed or befriended using the mechanisms of the platforms — are the basis of the platform economy. They are incredibly compelling and demanding of attention. In the context of these large, central, diverse feeds and home screens — the perpetually refreshed interfaces that generate billions of dollars in advertising revenue a year — outside publications, posting as brands, offer a solution to two problems: that, in order to be good, engaged, ad-viewing platform citizens, people need a strong supply of things to talk about; and that our personal networks, as interesting as they might be, aren’t always the best or most complete sources of anything except news and information about, and projections of, themselves.

This is a diminished role for publishers — content-stocker and secondary curator — which don’t control the manner in which their content is displayed or distributed. But it’s still a role: the Times gets to remain the Times on Facebook or Twitter, in spirit if not in body. Savvy (or just game?) publications have found footholds in enough of the hundreds of millions of feeds to maintain some sort of institutional identity, or at least revenue. They have been able ingratiate themselves with users not just through individual posts but as institutions worth following. (What this ingratiation is ultimately worth can, of course, be altered by the platform.)

Internet publications are, in other words, making the best of a strange and inhospitable situation. Those most able are adapting, others are contorting, and some are convulsing. The optimistic outlook, fast becoming conventional wisdom, is that it is now the responsibility of a media company or news organization to meet readers and viewers wherever they are, rather than depending on a captive or even intentional audience, catering to the styles and voices and sensibilities of whatever platform might provide an audience. The prospect of making, or remaking, an internet media company around much larger companies’ audiences, rather than your own, is at once terrifying and exhilarating: the potential upside, at least in raw audience numbers, is as large as the potential downside is total. It’s all… very……. exciting?

Platform publishing is a strategy that depends on platforms welcoming other businesses as guests. And it would seem like these homegrown channels — event and location-based live feeds on Twitter; event and location based live feeds on Snapchat; event and location-based live feeds of photos on Instagram — complicate this relationship. Whether or not the platforms characterize them as such, and whether or not outside media companies want to believe it, these channels amount to competing publications.

General interest content operations, old and new, have done well on social platforms by swarming around news or events or Cultural Moments in such a way that wins them admission into millions of users’ feeds. Their contributions range from fresh and valuable to utterly duplicative, cynical and stupid; many amount to little more than repackaging things posted on social platforms for the social platforms. Adding secondary, publication-like feeds is an attempt to annex some of that activity — or, at least, to recapture some of the heat it throws off. For younger, tighter platforms, this transition is more seamless and additive. On older ones, the addition of editorial channels is, possibly, an attempt at replacement and correction.

The biggest feeds have broad but distinct palates (Facebook’s is informed more by identity, Twitter’s by timeliness, Instagram’s by… brand?). There are types — whole categories! — of media that were well suited to, or extremely contingent on, a previous medium that do not fare well on current platforms; there are types of media and stories that fare well on one platform but not another; there are undoubtedly types of media that fail on Facebook that might succeed on some outwardly similar future platform, or that we aren’t even trying right now that will dominate in some incredibly, deceptively near future. Media companies, eager to stake a claim on any platform that will have them, occupy the volumes that are left open using any means possible. Their success at discovering and filling and even expanding these voids may be seen by the platform as evidence of its own latent or undiscovered potential; it may also be seen as evidence of a flaw in need of correction. Upworthy found great success in repackaging YouTube videos on its website and linking to them with Facebook-friendly headlines. Facebook, meanwhile noting the broad success of outside video on its platform, saw both a problem and an opportunity. Now, it’s a video host on the same scale as YouTube, and Upworthy is making a semi-voluntary “transition from curation to storytelling.” Facebook saw what worked and made it theirs.

Virtually every large platform has expressed an interested in news and media, and we should assume, as they make plans, that they are paying very close attention to what’s already working. Twitter was improved by URL-shortening services, so it built its own, privileged it, and made others obsolete. Twitter was improved by image-hosting services, so it made its own, privileged it, and made others obsolete. For online publications, which have made Twitter — and other platforms — better, but which have become dependent in the process, this pattern is disconcerting. Which of the things they do, and which of the services they perform, can just be turned into a feature? Or would be better done by a platform employee with more access to data, greater promotional ability, and a less convoluted and desperate set of incentives? Twitter has been improved by media companies in a variety of ways. Etc!

In a Q&A; on Facebook today, Mark Zuckerberg responded to a question from Arianna Huffington. He said, regarding how “stories will evolve online,” the following:

I think there will be a couple of trends towards richness and speed / frequency.

On richness, we’re seeing more and more rich content online. Instead of just text and photos, we’re now seeing more and more videos. This will continue into the future and we’ll see more immersive content like VR. For now though, making sure news organizations are delivering increasingly rich content is important and it’s what people want.

On speed / frequency, traditional news is thoroughly vetted but this model has a hard time keeping us [sic] with important things happening constantly. There’s an important place for news organizations that can deliver smaller bits of news faster and more frequently in pieces. This won’t replace the longer and more researched work, and I’m not sure anyone has fully nailed this yet.

Facebook’s Instant Articles will provide an optimized testbed for what really works on Facebook — not which headlines are best at luring people to outside sites, or which types of stories most reliably pull people away from their feeds. They will exist within the feed, alongside videos and images and personal updates. Zuckerberg’s recommendations: “increasingly rich content” or “smaller bits of news faster.” “Traditional news,” he says, has had a hard time keeping up. He’s not sure “anyone” has fully nailed this yet. Finally doing the work of a news organization on Facebook’s platform will help news organizations figure out what news on Facebook should actually look like. It will help Facebook figure out the same.

And maybe it will turn out that, even with every advantage, platform journalism is a marginal business. The most successful publications on Facebook still hover dangerously close to that faint line between attention-sapping middlemen and consistent contributors to Facebook’s own goals as a media company (an improved “user experience,” as indicated by usage metrics). Perhaps that’s where media companies fit in the platform picture — as verified users allowed to extract, at rates determined by the administrators of each micro-economy, a portion of the revenue they create in it. (Or, haha, maybe a platform stable enough to seem hospitable to current news media companies is a platform that has stagnated into failure?)

It’s worth asking, however, what happens if someone truly succeeds. Should some, or many, publications follow Zuckerberg’s recommendations and do especially well, turning their agile Facebook news operations into vast and lucrative enterprises that profit from new, Facebook-specific forms of media, how might a rational platform — a rational business — respond?

In 1998, a CNET writer surveyed an increasingly centralized internet.

In 1997 [netizens] found that there were any number of places — from traditional search engines such as Yahoo and Excite to software companies, online services such as America Online and Microsoft Network, and start-ups — that delivered, or at least promised to deliver [everything].

Web sites reorganized and launched, trying to morph themselves into that perfect site — the one so well-organized, so fast, and so filled with information that surfers need go nowhere else.

Call it the ‘Year of the Channel,’ she wrote.

These channels were arranged around search, not feeds. They were much smaller than today’s platforms. They predated smartphones and social media. But they were, in their time, the center of internet experience. They had the people — people they needed to keep, people they needed to turn into money. So they offered tools for communication and play, entrenching themselves with email and messaging services as best they could. For years, wielding enormous audiences, they provided news. They navigated syndication and aggregation deals with news organizations and wire services. They partnered with TV networks. They tried mingling media with their search results; they incorporated it directly into their portals. Sometimes they sent huge traffic to outside sites; sometimes they sucked it away.

In contrast to their glory days, Yahoo, MSN and Aol exist in various states if comparative failure, so their lessons are hazy. (Their closest modern counterparts are all-inclusive apps like WeChat.) But one thing sticks out: Eventually, to the last, they tried to make media of their own.

Gifs via BMG KAIST