How do you take over the Internet of today? What’s the best way to become a major player in an environment where millions, even billions, of engagements is increasingly becoming the norm? The answer isn’t creating content for an audience. You won’t reach the top by blogging on Medium or by amassing a following on social media.
The answer is building a box.
In what seems like an uncharacteristically minimal development for the content-spewing web, the most lucrative online platform has become an empty one. Traditionally, web companies have been concerned with creating things for users to consume. They’re worried about what’s contained in the platform (the box), following the model of established publishers. For the most successful online entities, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, the focus has shifted to the box itself. And with this change in focus has come a change in website structure and function so commonly used by top sites that it could be called a template.
This template starts with a standard layered model. To demonstrate, I’m going to use one of my favorite sites, BuzzFeed. At its most basic level, a site is what makes it run: the platform. This is the architecture and structure of a site. For BuzzFeed, it includes the roadmap of how content gets published from the author to users (content management), a sketch of where this content will go spatially and what it will look like (design), and all the technologies that make everything run (the actual coding). These tools, the scalable, general capabilities designed to make a site fulfill its purpose, compose the site’s bottom layer. At this point, the site is just an empty container.
With the next step, the container starts to fill up. On top of the bottom layer — or more accurately, inside it — is primary content population. BuzzFeed pays people to produce listicles, quizzes, and videos that live inside its platform. Posts run through the content management pipeline, show up where they’re supposed to, and look like the designers intended. That second layer is most of what you see: content that is clearly published by BuzzFeed on BuzzFeed’s site.
But for the sites I’m interested in, there’s still a third layer, and it’s the most important one. By this time in a site’s life, its purpose, style, and mechanics have been established. It’s clear from looking at BuzzFeed that it is BuzzFeed; nobody’s confused as to what it looks like or what type of content to expect from it. At this stage, a site can fully implement the third layer: user-generated content published on its platform.
This layer lives in BuzzFeed’s ecosystem as BuzzFeed Community, a section of the site in which any user is able to post whatever she wants, using the same publishing system that BuzzFeed uses internally. By giving users the power to make content that fully lives as part of its site, BuzzFeed reaps important benefits: more engaged users, more social exposure, and crucially, free content. These are advantages that they wouldn’t have access to with a closed publishing model, and they’re what ensure a major site’s runaway success. By building the platform and filling it with content you create, you’ve made something that is nice to look at. By opening that platform to outside creators, you’ve made something that can now make itself.
All the biggest players on the Internet predicate their dominance on this technique of opening an empty platform for users to occupy. Facebook gives you the tools to create a profile and post what you will within your network of friends. The platform this story is hosted on, Medium, lets you write, format and publish stories. And more indirectly, Google uses what everyone else has created on the Internet to fill its search results.
Looking at sites through this model reveals a tendency to shave down the layer of primary content creation as much as possible. This reduction is less pronounced in BuzzFeed’s case, because their professionally produced content has a purpose beyond just showing users how they should make their own listicles. The content BuzzFeed produces forms the core of their site, driving the majority of their traffic, and user-generated contributions live on top of it. BuzzFeed is, loosely borrowing from Lawrence Lessig, a hybrid, wherein paid and free content coexist.
For many of the other sites that use this model, though, the goal is to reduce paid content as much as possible. Facebook clearly doesn’t need to pay people to show us how to use its platform; instead, it saves its resources to improve the platform itself. Google doesn’t pay its employees to create websites to then add to its index; it pays them to build a better indexer. Even Medium, a writing platform, only employs a handful of writers, just enough to make it clear to the rest of us how writing on Medium works.
These cases illustrate that the surest way to success on the Internet is building an empty thing so cool that people can’t help but want to fill it. You might have to pay a few employees to show users how to do this, but make sure it’s not too many. And if you can integrate the instructions into the platform itself, you’re even better off. But an important question remains: what brings all this freely-provided content to platforms in the first place?
The empty platform approach works because platforms deal in numbers. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about Arianna Huffington and her prolific news site, The Huffington Post, David Segal wrote, “One of Huffington’s most important insights early on was that if you provide bloggers with a big enough stage, you don’t have to pay them.” In other words, there is a surplus of people who are willing to produce content at a small enough scale that a massive increase in readership stands in sufficiently for monetary compensation. Of course, they’re also keeping in mind the possibility that increased exposure could eventually lead to real payment.
Consider the case of YouTube. A lot of what’s uploaded to YouTube (the total of which has reached 300 hours of video per minute, according to the site’s own statistics) is shared in an attempt to gain exposure. It’s the modern equivalent of making it big in show business: starting a YouTube channel, gaining a rabid following, and amassing millions of views (along with a small fortune).
The dream proliferates in spite of the realities of the platform. Most of the videos uploaded to YouTube don’t even reach the 1000 view mark, but we keep trying because we (literally) don’t see these failed cases. We see the successes, and we see no reason why we can’t be one of them. The same thing happens when we see a top post on Medium or a Facebook status that gets thousands of likes. These viral, valuable pieces of content are the Horatio Alger myths of our time, showing us what’s possible and entreating us to never stop contributing to the platform. After all, your next post could be the one that reaches the front page.
Simply put, if you want your box to be filled, you need to give people a reason to fill it. Facebook’s purpose as a business is to collect information about you. It could have tried to do this by building a website that was composed of nothing more than a comprehensive survey about users’ preferences and habits, but nobody would have participated. Instead, Facebook gave people a reason to give away their information — social approval and connection — and their business has flourished. Facebook is practicing intelligent database design, the kind that computer scientist Dan Bricklin notes in his study of Napster in “The Cornucopia of the Commons” (emphasis in original):
What we see here is that increasing the value of the database by adding more information is a natural by-product of using the tool for your own benefit. No altruistic sharing motives need be present, especially since sharing is the default… I would add that in using that simple, desirable UI, you also are adding to the value of the database without any extra work. I believe that you can help predict the success of a particular UI used to build a shared database based on how much normal, selfish use adds to the database.
It doesn’t matter what it is — photos, videos, original research, people will supply it if there is some sort of reward. On the Internet, people largely aren’t driven by altruism, and they definitely don’t want to feel like they’re working. Consequently, platforms are designed around selfish motivation. You are uploading your hilarious home videos because you will collect millions of views and a healthy supplement to your paycheck, not because you want to contribute to the massive archive of recorded human activity that is YouTube. You want people to click, to read, to watch, to like because it benefits you, and that incentivizes you to give up the content that the platform craves. Services pay users in the digital Monopoly money of follower counts, views, and upvotes. We carefully amass these numbers, and while they may never actually amount to anything for the majority of us, they keep the content flowing in an endlessly optimistic climb for the top.
And with this component in place, the model is finished.
So, how do you take over the Internet of today? What’s the secret to building a user base larger than an entire continent? Start with an empty box, a really cool one that practically screams “Fill me!” Show people what type of content is supposed to go in the box, then give them every tool they could possibly need to fill it with their own creations. Finally, make their labor worth their while. Establish a system of points, votes, pats on the back, whatever. Elevate a handful of users into the stratosphere so that everyone else has something to work for. Now, step aside, perform maintenance on the platform, and watch as the content comes pouring in.
Congratulations! You’ve just built the next Facebook, the next Google, the next site engineered to succeed on the large-scale web.
You’ve just built the next box.
If you liked what you read, please hit ‘Recommend’ so other people can find it as well. You can reach me at @NickHagar or firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to chat.