Here are the caveats for the rant I am about to write.
- The fact that I am writing this on Medium will cause many of you to dismiss me for hypocrisy. Don’t. Read to the end.
- I will be saying the word “F*CK” a lot. If that bothers you, time to depart for calmer waters.
- This post will be subject to dismissal due to charges of high nostalgia — I will be accused of living in the past, failing to get the future, not getting with the times, being the old man yelling “get off my lawn,” etc. These characterizations will be all entirely right. And totally irrelevant.
- This post will be compared, most likely unfavorably, to the many, many, many, many wonderful (and better) posts that have already been written on this subject. That’s fine. I just want to add my voice to the conversation.
- This post will piss off friends of mine at Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn, and probably Google. Sorry in advance. Kinda.
Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to say something out loud.
WE GOT IT FUCKING RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.
We were lucky, we were visionary, we were idiots, we were savants. But we got Internet publishing right the first time — and then we (sometimes actively, sometimes by inaction) fucked it up. Moreover, we KNEW it was on a path to peril, and we slouched towards Bethlehem, expecting that at some point the problem would correct itself.
Internet based publishing is so fucked up that the people most responsible for some of its loveliest platforms — Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress — these guys positively, absolutely HATE the Internet’s chosen business model. Always have. Probably always will.
Ev hates advertising so much, he damn near killed his own company last week trying to get away from the practice. Matt, well anyone who knows Matt will tell you, the guy would rather wear a tutu than woo an advertiser. Both feel there’s something utterly corrupt about the whole affair. And they’re not entirely wrong.
But they’re not entirely right, either. More on than in a minute.
But first, for those of you reading this and wondering “What the F is this guy talking about?” well, first of all, welcome to History 101, and secondly, thanks for sticking around. We can’t fix this without your help. I certainly don’t want to go back to using early versions of WordPress or Moveable Type.
But when I was, I’ll tell you one thing.
I KNEW WHO THE FUCK WAS READING ME. I KNEW WHY. I KNEW WHO SENT THEM TO ME, AND I WAS GRATEFUL TO THOSE PEOPLE/SITES/PLATFORMS THAT SENT ME THOSE READERS.
Now, I have no idea. Again, for emphasis: despite all the whizzy bang-y social media we’ve invented these past ten years, I HAVE NOT ONE CLUE WHO IS READING ME ON A REGULAR BASIS, NOR DO I KNOW WHO TO THANK FOR SENDING THEM TO ME.
Sure, I have a general idea. I can look at my analytics in all those aforementioned platforms, and I could, if I have either earned or hired a double PhD in Big Data and Theology, I might be able to divine some patterns as to how my readers ended up reading my stuff. But given they’re scattered across four, five or six platforms, all with different algorithms, business models, presentation layers, analytics (or lack thereof), and permissions, well, good fucking luck making sense of your audience as an actual community that cares about what you’re saying.
And we wonder why publishing is so fucked.
This is the single most immutable rule of media, folks. PUBLISHING IS COMMUNITY. And if you don’t know who your community is, you’re screwed.
Kudos to Jessica, to Ben, to Sarah, who’ve realized this and demanded readers become paying subscribers, and not on anyone else’s platform, but out there on the messy, attenuating Open Web. But let’s call their success what it is: Proof by exception. These are small communities of thousands, or tens of thousands of readers, all willing to pay in the tens or hundreds of dollars for inside access to a valuable industry. Would each of those readers pay similarly for a dozen or two dozen other services, so as to be both well read and members of diverse communities? NO FUCKING WAY. And therein lies the problem.
It’s a big problem, folks. It’s a mighty big problem. Sure, we might see the “pay for a few important sources” model play out across all manner of “industries” — lots of small, focused publications paid for by a subscriber base that has a vested, commercial interest in the information they receive. But how is that possibly encouraging the open, democratic access to information upon which our Republic depends?
If you’ve read your Hamilton (the book, damnit), you know America is built on the back of brilliant pamphleteers, but damn it, it’s also built on capitalism. And capitalists need a place to speak to the people! Rivington’s newspaper (where Hamilton first published) was called the New York Gazetteer, sure, but it’s second name was the fucking Weekly Advertiser.
So I’m tired of all this nonsense about how the Internet’s business model is broken because advertising sucks. I call bullshit. Advertising is a greatbusiness model. But it has become completely divorced from the creators and conveners of community — authors and publishers. It’s been channeled into a few oligarchic platforms which have, through no obvious, direct, or apparently malicious intent of their own, drunk our fucking milkshakes. The rest of us (and there are MILLIONS of us, and we are MIGHTY, if we decide to be), well the rest of us are left fighting over a shrinking pie, building extraordinary technology which we have increasingly bent toward the gray.
I know, I know, it’s fashionable to blame Google, Facebook*, and their ilk for siphoning off all the advertising dollars publishers used to get, but I’m not going to. They simply did what conditions allowed them to do, which is create a welcoming place for advertisers who were feeling a bit unloved by the vast, bleached coral reef that is the open web. They identified a need, and they filled it. They built impressive, scaled, data-driven advertising machines. They won.
But what they failed to win was the Gazetteer portion of the equation. The CONTENT. Thanks in large part to Safe Harbor syndrome (I just made that up, please hashtag that shit and make it a thing), these platforms disavowed any responsibility for the content that pulsed through their systems, the very content written by us millions, the very lifeblood of our Republic. They were never publishers, after all, nor were they media companies. No no, they were platforms, neutral to the core, bloodless algorithms matching a reader’s intent to a publisher’s content, nothing to see here, move along, just providing a service and taking our small tax along the way…
And that was kind of true, in the beginning, anyway. Back when Google was young, blogging was a thing, and the web shone brightly in its Golden Age. The great Search Engine That Won ruled as a benign monarch, impassively distributing intent like oxygenated water across the kelp beds of web publishing. For a brief, wonderful moment, it all Worked.
I won’t go into why it broke down (that’s another essay), but I do want to take a look at why it worked. Because perhaps there are some lessons to be learned as we look to the future of Internet publishing. (And yes, I do think publishing has a future on the Internet — we must tell stories. We must converse, we must because that is who we are, at such a deep level I can’t even fathom an argument about it.)
So what worked? Here’s my list, add to it as you will (that’s why there are comments, after all):
- Open Links. An open economy of links allows authors and publishers to create a gift economy that sends attention and influence from one place to another. Of course, the open link economy is subject to fraud, abuse, rent extraction, and corruption.
- Trackbacks. Built on open links, trackbacks allow publishers to know who’s gifting who. They’re a critical social proof in an attention economy. In another essay, I called them “meaningful handshakes from one mind to another.” Knowing who was linking to your stuff was deeply important to trace-route the social fabric of your community. Of course, trackbacks failed because spam (see above).
- Analytics. Early web publishers had access to meaningful signals of how readers engaged with their content. Of course, once you’re publishing on someone else’s platform, the meaningful signals are reserved for the platform, not for the content creator.
- Comments. I know, I know. But before comment spam and the rise of troll culture, comments Really Fucking Mattered. Medium has brought comments back in a meaningful way through Responses. Thank you.
- Advertising. I’m sorry, but advertising really does matter, in that it encourages small publications with ardent and meaningful audiences to continue doing what they were doing, which is inform, connect, and inspire communities of people. What broke with advertising was its disconnection from community, just as with publishers. Sure, you can buy audience all day long. But without context? C’mon.
- And and and… There are more, but I want to get to my conclusion.
Here’s my point: One by one, we lost what was Good about the early web, and ceded it all to the platforms. What held promise ten years ago — that the web would spawn an ecosystem of millions of robust, connected voices — was lost to an oligarchy of Facebook, Google, and to a lessor extend LinkedIn, Twitter, and Snapchat. But I deeply believe we can bring it back. And yes, I believe advertising has a role to play. And Big Data. And subscription, but not if it’s of the micro-payment, subscribe-to-just-this-site variety.
We can get there, but not without all of us getting together and figuring out what our next steps should be.
- Yes, yes, YES, I saw the fucking news from Facebook today. Great! You know the best way to change this formula? Tilt the revenue gains to the publishers, and make sure they have kickass analytics (and real data!) about their readers. You know, get them paid, for reals, and connect them to their audiences, for reals (IE stop preferencing your platform over theirs). I’ve not spoken to a single publisher who feels they are getting reliable, understandable, reasonable, or meaningful revenue or data from chasing Facebook traffic. Fix that, be a hero. I doubt it’ll be more than a rounding error in overall Facebook revenue or growth.