The platform wars for your content — should you play?

Jon Reed and I have been angsting over the question of what happens to content for quite a while. Most recently, Reed said that the position he took in 2013 is now wrong:

I believe memorable content does get shared — without that much effort.

Nope — no longer true. Back then, if you wrote a brilliant/provocative missive on your personal blog, it would get shared widely — as long as you had enough industry contacts to jump start. Now we see a massive migration to bigger platforms. Sadly, most are walled social gardens, which my colleague Den Howlett has taken a defiant position on.

With each day, I see more influencers abandoning or downgrading their personal blogs in favor of networked blogs on LinkedIn, Medium or massive tech sites. If they can get ten or even one hundred times the social shares, can you blame them?

That’s a really tough ask in any situation. As both Reed and I know:

There continues to be a delightful/maddening mystery to what content flies and what dies.

We both know the frustration of sweating over a topic in which we believe, finally getting it in front of an audience only to discover that nobody cares. But then I think to simply secede to the large networks is fundamentally wrong. Dave Winer re-opened that discussion over the weekend with a story entitled Anywhere but Medium. He says as regards Facebook:

You can’t publish pointers to Facebook posts or comments, because you never know who might not be able to see it. I’ve never been able to fully figure out how this works.

Even if you work with Facebook’s Audience Optimized for Posts feature, there is no guarantee that more than five percent of your Facebook page fans will ever see a particular piece of content. There are some things you can do to improve the odds but you’re essentially a slave to the Facebook algorithm. That in part explains why brands are scrambling to acquire as many page ‘likes’ as possible and paying handsomely for the pleasure. Right now I see plenty of brands throwing millions at Facebook and yet when I look at their pages, they’re often little more than a stream of adverts. Do the brands seriously think that is what people want as ‘information?’ Does the fact that there is a Facebook page like signify any consistency of engagement? I doubt it.

Turning to Medium, Winer makes a similar point:

Medium is on its way to becoming the consensus platform for writing on the web. if you’re not sure you’re going to be blogging regularly, the default place to put your writing is Medium, rather than starting a blog on Tumblr or WordPress.com, for example. I guess the thought is that it’s wasteful to start a blog if you’re not sure you’re going to post that often. It’s something of a paradox, because blogs are not large things on the storage devices of the hosting companies. If they’re doing it right, a blog is smaller than the PNG image in the right margin of this post. They’re tiny little things in a world filled with videos and podcasts and even humble images. Text is very very very small in comparison.

I can see how the occasional writer will put content onto Medium as a way of avoiding the ‘overhead’ of rolling their own. Medium is, after all, a very nice, simple way to deliver text that is easy on the eye. But it is also a platform of the kind that has consistently failed to deliver what the content creators really need over the long haul. Winer develops his argument:

People also post to Medium to get more flow. But at what cost? Which pieces get flow? Ones that are critical of Medium? I doubt it. Or offend the politics of the founder? I don’t know. I don’t see a statement of principles, tech startups usually don’t have them. They’re here to dominate and make money off the dominance. I’m very familiar with the thinking, having been immersed in it for decades.

We already know that Medium doesn’t have a business model but that it is mulling a variety of options including subscription and advertising. My preference is for a paid subscription but I suspect Medium will fall prey to the allure of the advertising dollar, which refuses to die, despite its continuing race to the bottom. Winer goes on:

Because I cross-post my stories to Medium through RSS, you will be able to read this there. I guess they won’t recommend it. It probably won’t appear on the front page of Medium. See there’s the other problem with ceding a whole content type to a single company. Since you’re counting on them not just to store your writing, but also build flow for it, the inclination is to praise them, to withhold criticism. To try to guess what they like, and parrot it. If Medium becomes much stronger, this will be what SEO becomes. We saw that happen before on Twitter, when they gave huge flow to people they liked, and not to people they don’t. Now they’re being more open about it. Why not? It didn’t appear to cost them anything the last time around.

This is perhaps the greatest risk of all and one which I see as typical of the Silicon Valley mindset. If you’re not part of the socially accepted SV crowd then you don’t exist. At least in that community’s eyes. Until the time comes when the brands are expected to pay for your attention and then it no longer matters. You see what’s going on here?

Create a platform that attracts creators, curate and surface for the stuff that is consensually interesting so as to attract more creators in the expectation of a fly wheel effect. Then monetize the crap out of the content on the basis that the creators have had a free ride anyway but that there is now a critical mass of readers so that advertisers (or someone) will pay to support the venture.

Some colleagues will argue that none of this matters because the platforms always win. That’s not true. Look at the troubles Twitter is experiencing? It was all so avoidable but that’s a story for another day. While Winer is not exactly hopeful, he concludes with a challenge to us all:

Is it necessary that a Silicon Valley tech company own every media type? Can we reserve competition in the middle of the web, so we get a chance for some of the power of an open platform for the most basic type of creativity — writing?

When you give in to the default, and just go ahead and post to Medium, you’re stifling the open web. Not giving it a chance to work its magic, which depends on diversity, not monoculture.

What should this mean for enterprise and brands? That depends. If you only see content as a route to market then you may as well take advantage of big platform distribution in the hope that an increased number of shares will help feed the sales pipeline beast for your latest campaign. In that case, Reed’s continuing advice around B2B strategies makes a lot of sense. I think there’s a higher purpose which delivers more value.

If you want to establish a position of genuine leadership then it is a different story. In that scenario, it doesn’t make sense to simply scatter content to the platform winds and hope for the best. Instead, it makes much more sense to build a body of work that speaks to your mastery of a topic. That takes time. That takes effort. That takes the absorption of external ideas and synthesizing them into something greater, something bigger.

That takes a platform of your choosing, not a general purpose platform where you have no idea what’s going on or whether the ideas will ever see the light of day beyond a handful of devoted fans.

Does that mean you should ignore the big platforms? Of course not. At diginomica, we love the fact that content gets shared, exposed and discussed on other platforms. Heck, we encourage it! But in the end, you need to understand what distribution means in the context of the platforms you are using.

Of one thing I am sure. If you want to bring genuine change for the better in any setting and have a story to tell, then the big platforms are not going to help so much. At least not in the long run.

Originally published at diginomica.com on January 24, 2016.

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