The End of Scale

2016 is a seminal moment in media business history. The year where digital scale finally got exposed as a false proxy to actually building a real business.

The promise of trillion device universe, the promise of infinite distribution.

The promise of infinite user time. What were we thinking?

The tyranny of scale.

Time, attention, value, real tangible utility value to the daily lives of people. We all got fooled into thinking those could be replaced by tonnage of shares/views/interactions, forgetting there were humans on the other end, who at some point would get tired of the distraction and deception. We all got fooled by the startup ecosystem, by the investors drunk of dreams of unicorns (in media, of all places!), by the media who were covering all of this, desperate to look relevant and cool.

If you are the type that sees analogies everywhere — I am one of them — then you can see a lot of parallels among this the rise and crash of media scale chasing era with the bundling and rebundling of crappy mortgages and passing them onwards to be rebundled and sold to the gullible, only to come crashing down only seven years ago. Chasing scale in finance, at any cost, same as chasing scale in media businesses, at any cost.

Only this time it is happening when the American economy is having its best run in a long time.

The cracks could be seen coming from years away, if only you would care to look for them. You could see it when Upworthy lost its worth back in 2014. You could see it when readers caught up to the scam that “Recommended Stories” on story pages weren’t really recommended, but payola. You could see it in the crapola churned out on Forbes.com “platform” since, well, forever, and when everyone else started copying it a few years ago.

You could see it when media companies started being called tech companies. When building and owning your CMS was the reason you were being valued as unicorns. When we started confusing building for valuation for building for value.

You could see it coming when even Hearst started calling itself a distributed media company last year, when it was really just becoming a drive-by media company.

You could see it in the crash of ad-tech stocks and valuations in 2015.

You could see it coming in the troubles with Twitter user growth. You could see it when Facebook pulled the rug from underneath every media company on organic distribution, two years ago (as it will again with video, soon).

You could see it when “social media” got replaced by “platforms”.

You could see it when email newsletters became “fashionable” couple of years ago, instead of what they always were: central nervous system of publishing, the boring workhorse that never went away for those building direct daily relationships with users, that promise of value that arrives in your inbox every day.

You could see it when media became about turning up in a feed, hoping they would show up in the first place and then hoping against hope they would be able to extract any recurring value out of it.

You could see it when native advertising went from an organic way to tell brands’ stories with the right editorial sensibility to “native ad creation and distribution platforms.”

You could certainly see it writ large with adblocking becoming a reality all through 2015.

You could sense it when ebooks and ereaders peaked in 2015. You could even sense it when we all found out no one was using millions of dedicated apps beyond the handful that they really use on a daily basis. Hell, you could sense it when iPad didn’t turn out to be the savior of media, which now feels like eons ago.

Who were we trying to fool?

Therein comes the biggest lie in all this, now exposed: There is no secret sauce in media.

There is no outside savior coming to rescue.

It is all you. The value you build with your editorial. The value you can create by being focused on doing a few things very very well.

The relationship you build with your dedicated users, direct, tangible and non-disposable. Creating and holding to your own core while everyone else run themselves to exhaustion. By stepping away from the churn.

By creating unique residents, not unique visitors. By creating something people want to come to, deliberately, again and again, and stay. Now that’s a freakin’ novel idea, isn’t it?


Originally published at rafat.org.

Like what you read? Give Rafat Ali a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.