When I wrote Identity and The Independent Web last Fall, I was sketching out the beginnings of what I sense was an important distinction in how we consume the web. This distinction turned on one simple concept: Dependency.
Of course, the post itself was nearly 2500 words in length and wandered into all sorts of poorly lit alleys, so one could be forgiven for not easily drawing that conclusion. But since that Thinking Out Loud session, I’ve continued to ponder this distinction, and I’ve found it’s become a quite useful framing tool for understanding the web.
So here’s another attempt at defining one corner of the “Independent Web,” as distinct from the “Dependent Web.” In my original piece, I state:
The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.
The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are.
Yahoo, for example, will show you one of a possible 38,000 home pages, depending on who Yahoo believes you to be. Yahoo Mail (or any other mail, for that matter), is an utterly dependent service: it will only show you your mail (we hope). Facebook, of course, creates an entirely different experience for you than it does for me, because what Facebook shows us depends on who Facebook thinks we are. And search, in general, is a dependent service – what you see as results depends both on what you input as a query, as well as who the search service believes you are (personalized search).
And while I believe this idea of a dependent service being defined as “one that changes depending on its profile of you” is important, this isn’t the only feature that distinguishes Independent sites from Dependent ones.
Another way to understand the distinction is that Dependent sites tend to be ones we, well, depend on for some basic service in our lives. You might depend on Yahoo or Google for mail. We depend on Facebook for our social graph, and Twitter for our “interest graph.” Of course we depend on Google (or Bing) for search. And I’m starting to depend on StumbleUpon to surface sites I might like.
In fact, most of us “depend” on Dependent-web services to discover independent sites – a fact we may as well call “the interdependence of the independent and dependent web.”
Whew. We employ both kinds of sites, and each type depends on the other for value. What would Google be without the billion points of independent light out the rest of the web?
The funny thing is, Dependent web sites crave the dollars that big marketers spend on branding, but their services don’t complement brands, in the main. Yet up until recently, brands haven’t have many other places to spend their dollars online (brands love scale), so they’ve spent them at large dependent web services, and, in the main, bemoaned their comparative weakness to television. Yahoo Mail is a famously terrible place to put brand advertising. Google is a direct marketing machine, but it’s not a great environment for brands. Brands love Twitter and Facebook, but are still trying to figure out how to leverage those services at scale – Facebook’s “engagement ads” are not exactly brand friendly, though they can serve as great distribution for a branded story somewhere else (same for Twitter’s promoted services).
So where does that brand story live? My answer: On the Independent web.
Consider the sub-category of “content” on the web. It’s a very large part of what makes the web, the web – millions of “content sites,” ranging from the smallest blog to ESPN.com. Most of these sites don’t change what they show us depending on who they think we are. So does the “independent/dependent/interdependent” framework help us distinguish anything interesting here?
I think it does. To me, an independent content site is one driven by a sense of shared passion around a subject or a voice, one that a consumer independently chooses to visit and engage with.
Publishers pay close attention to what visitors choose to do independently on our sites – we covet “repeat visitors,” “high engagement,” and “low bounce rates.” Do visitors come back independently, or do we, as publishers, depend on acquiring one-time traffic from SEO, SMO, or other “tricks”? Once visitors come via a dependent service like search or social or StumbleUpon, do they independently elect to consume more than just the one page they’ve landed on?
When it comes to “engagement”, dependent sites tend to have more of it, at least if you are measuring in user minutes. Folks stay on Facebook for a long, long time. Twitter users go back over and over again, especially power users. The average Google user goes back again and again. Most of Yahoo’s engagement is in mail – take mail out of Yahoo, and Yahoo would lose a huge chunk of its user minutes.
But there’s a big difference between engagement on a dependent site, and engagement on an independent site. And in a word, that difference is what makes a brand.
When we engage with content, we engage with a shared narrative – a new story is told, an old story is retold or re-interpreted. And that shared narrative shifts what we believe and how we see the world. We are in the space of shared symbols – brands – and it is in this space that marketers can tell their stories and shift our perceptions.
I’m fascinated by how brands can leverage Dependent services in conjunction with the Independent web, and if there’s one conclusion I’ve come to, it’s this: Brands must be robust actors in the Independent web, underwriting its ecosystem and participating in its ongoing creation and curation. It’s not enough to “have a presence in Facebook” or “do an upfront with Yahoo and Google.” Brands must also engage where ideas and narratives are born and shaped – and learn to join the Independent web.
Sure, that idea is self-serving – FM’s tagline is “powering the best of the Independent web, at scale.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t love us some Dependent web services. We’ve been pioneers in working with all kinds of great services, from Digg in 2006 to Facebook Platform in 2007; Twitter in 2008 to Foursquare in 2010. If you’re going to succeed as a publisher or a brand on the web, you need to work with both. They’re interdependent, and wonderfully so.
Some might argue that you never need to leave a particular service or domain – that you can “get all you need” in one place. I certainly hope not. That sounds like a movie we’ve seen before, and don’t need to watch again.