January 04, 2018

A Decade of Silos Has Throttled Open Content Distribution

The 2018 Social Media Flow is Driven by Content Silos

In the ten-plus years since I started this blog, one of the clearest trends on the Web has been for destination sites to want to control the user session and experience. In parallel, sites focused on aggregating content from external sites or highlighting the best of the web - serving as a filtered pass through, have struggled. Many are gone.

While significant efforts were made during the forging of Web 2.0 to drive open standards and allow for data to flow from one site to another, through RSS, Pubsubhubbub, Atom, XMPP, or whatever your preference, 2018 on the social web is a much more challenging place to write once and publish everywhere.

As I view the publishing space, I often turn to four big challenges that have to be solved for a platform to be a success to both authors and readers:

1. Creation

A platform, be it for photos (Instagram, Flickr, Google Photos, etc.), short updates (Twitter), long form (Medium, Blogger, WordPress, etc.), video (YouTube) or a mishmash of all (Facebook, Google+, etc.), needs to make it easy for the content creator to share what they want, in the form they want, and have the output be what they intended. This is true whether we are talking about desktop or mobile creation.

2. Distribution

Once the content is created, it has to be sent somewhere. If you write a post and hit publish, how do people find it? Is it sent to a third party network where they are hanging out? Is it sent by email? Do they get a notification on their phone? Does it flow down their timeline, as they have new items to consume? Or is it just another flat file, waiting to be indexed by Google and other search engines?

3. Discovery

Readers want to find new content. They seek relevance, freshness, and community. This mirrors the three pillars of social sites I highlighted back in 2009, and echoes that readers want intriguing views that mirror their own preferences. Like I'd predicted in 2006, the Web has become a divided place, where we all flock to our groups of like minded people, and disavow opposing views, but we still are eager to find more who reinforce our position. We still crave new friends and stories and we want to find them quickly.

So how good a job do these apps and sites do of surfacing new people and ideas? Do they have an aggregated site with highlights and popular people or posts? Is there a place to find more obscure viewpoints and new voices?

4. Consumption

Since the smartphone revolution, kicked off by Blackberry and the iPhone and now led by Android, more people are constantly connected and reading news from their mobile devices. In many countries, the mobile device is the only window to the Web. Does the content flow well for mobile consumption and new ways to navigate from screen to screen, update to update? Or is it best suited for a leanback tablet experience or for the desktop?

What typically happens with content platforms is the content fills the available container. Twitter is a clear 140 or 280 characters. Social hubs like Facebook and Google+ favor large photos and a short introduction. Instagram is all about the photo with a small description. Blogger and WordPress and Medium are as long as you want to go. One has to consider if users and screens keep up.

2009's promise of sharing everywhere wasn't meant to be.

We've Come a Long Way from Aggregating Streams and Sharing the Web

As content started to be created in a wide array of social sites, aggregation services like FriendFeed helped bring people's streams together. Bookmark services like Delicious helped people save the highlights from the Web and amplify the world's favorites. Users voted up posts from Digg and passed them along with StumbleUpon. The most voracious consumers lived in Google Reader and didn't miss a single post from the RSS feeds they were subscribed to.

It was too good to last.

The largest social platforms were not content in simply being links to external sites. Facebook focused more on original content shared on the platform, with less priority given to send traffic off site. Google Reader shut down, and while Feedly and others stepped up, the world of RSS never recovered. Delicious died. Digg is a shadow of itself. FriendFeed was obliterated. LinkRiver closed. Socialmedian closed.

In the wake of all these gateways' demise, taking content from the open Web and getting it in front of new viewers is more challenging. While I've always said you need to be where the users are and can't force them to come to you, what could be automated is now requiring manual intervention at practically every step.

Just What Am I Talking About?

The alpha and omega, yin and yang of social outlets (for text, anyway) are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is much bigger and much more profitable, but don't get distracted. People creating content for the Web also need to make sure that content fares well downstream on Facebook and Twitter. You can write it for the open Web, but you then have to take explicit action to share the content downstream - or set up automation to either site, usually backed by RSS. At that point, whether you get discovered or not is up to each site's algorithm, which has leaned more in favor of implied interest rather than chronology of late - meaning you can see viral content from hours or days ago before you get the newest stuff.

On a mobile phone, notifications are the holy grail of getting someone's attention. (See: Life by Numbers and Notifications from 2014) It's not uncommon to get notified when someone tweets, but it's very uncommon to ask for a notification when a site makes a post.

In parallel, the feedback loop from such networks, as well as Instagram or others, is near instant and acts as an incentive for the author to initiate their content on that silo natively. Post a 20-tweet storm to Twitter, and immediately start seeing those likes and retweets roll in. Post a story to Facebook and wait for the Likes and comments. Post a news story or a blog post, and ... wait. Wait for visitors in Google Analytics? Wait for the post to be shared downstream? Wait for the story to be indexed in Google News and search?

The elimination of Google Reader, FriendFeed, and Digg as amplifiers of Web content, alongside the attention absorption by Facebook and Twitter makes it harder for Web authors to get visibility - and they they aren't dropping their content into the real time stream.

So What Does the New Flow Look Like?

In 2009, it seemed pretty easy to me. Post on the blog. RSS would take it to FriendFeed and Google Reader. FriendFeed would post to Twitter. Twitter would post to Facebook. Then I'd run around and answer comments wherever they were distributed. (More on distributed conversations from 2009)

Now, I can still post on the blog. And the RSS link is the same. I even get the small bump of engagement on Google+ from the blog's page automatically adding my content there. But then, to make sure I cover all my bases, I then make another share of the same content to Medium, for those who love their site, and I've even found good engagement on LinkedIn, by making a third post of the same content on their channel. It's a different audience, but, if on topic, they share and engage.

So that's three posts. Meanwhile, I still have to share the story on Facebook and Twitter separately, hoping that someone will break their consumption flow and engage on my content downstream.

It feels like more work to get less return. And yes, I recognize that some may not miss FriendFeed because they never used it. Maybe others think Digg got replaced outright by Reddit, and gains similar traffic. Others prefer Hacker News. So aggregators do exist, obviously, but hubs aimed at surfacing new content, as opposed to highlight content on the site and keeping readers there, have declined.

To properly make the Web as desirable and viable a platform for publishing, we need to work together to fix the distribution and discovery gaps, make content fantastic on mobile for creation and consumption, and allow for engagement that is as simple as a Like. I applaud (there's the joke) Medium's approach to reward users with claps, for at least they're trying something. We should all be trying.

Disclosures: Yes, I work at Google. Sometimes, I help the Blogger team. I used to work on Google+ and have many friends on those teams still. I miss Google Reader every day. FriendFeed too.

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