Publishers: Give In To Facebook (For Now)

And Remember What Happened 20 Years Ago

Christopher Balfe
Jul 20, 2015 · 4 min read
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Imagine a network with millions of daily users.

As usage surges, people discover that not only is the network a great way to communicate with family and friends, but all of the things that they used to do on the web, they can do faster and easier as part of this network.

Reading news? The network has a way to make it fast and easy. Instead of focusing on their own web sites, publishers start posting their stories directly to the network.

E-commerce? Why brave the vagaries of different e-commerce web sites when shopping can be done right inside the network? Merchants build custom storefronts for use on the network.

Advertising? The network knows what you read, and it knows what you like, so it can deliver the most relevant, targeted advertising experience available.

Suddenly it starts to become clear: why even bother going on the web when this private network can deliver a better user experience across every facet of internet usage?

Of course, the network I’m talking about was AOL, and the year was 1995.

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AOL’s online dominance was such that building sites for the traditional web became secondary for many publishers and commerce companies. What was their AOL strategy? Companies fought over who had the best relationship with AOL, thereby allowing them access to audiences that their competitors didn’t have.

If you’re starting to think that 1995 AOL sounds a lot like 2015 Facebook, you’d be right.

20 years later in the development of the internet, and we seem to have returned to a world where a single company controls success or failure on the Internet and has broad ambitions to bring more and more of it “in house” and away from the open web.

News publishers have been at the whim of Facebook for several years now, but “Instant Articles” are the next step in keeping users inside the network and not out on the wild web.

How about E-Commerce? The introduction of the buy button should leave no doubt as to Facebook’s intentions here.

So 20 years ago, companies that wanted to have a robust digital presence had to decide between investing time and resources into custom applications for AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy, or investing in the open web. And for a time it really felt like the “walled garden” approach of AOL was going to be the winner.

Of course, we all know how it played out. The web won huge. AOL is being purchased by a phone company. And the money invested in custom apps for Compuserve is not generating an ROI at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean that the investment was wasted.

Facebook is an incredible product, and a tremendously well-run business. At this moment in history, anyone looking to run a digital business would be wise to follow their lead. They are building great products that allow publishers to connect to their audiences in ways that are unlike anyone has ever imagined.

So, give in to Facebook! Resistance is futile! Take advantage of what they have built, and use it to the absolute best of your abilities. Study their news feed algorithm. Understand their ad sales products. Work with them closely on “Instant Articles” or online video. Implement their latest sharing functionality. And benefit from the amazing audience that they have aggregated.

But keep one eye on the future. Because countless companies that have looked, in their time, like they would always control the Internet are at best an afterthought and at worst a punch line.

Now excuse me while I go check MySpace.

Chris is the former President & COO of Mercury Radio Arts, Glenn Beck’s multi-platform production company. He is currently in stealth mode on a digital media startup.

[Autonomous is a free digital magazine. But you can donate to the mission, and receive a variety of added benefits (including extra content), by visiting our Patreon page.]

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Chris is at partner at @RedSeatVentures, which helps content creators connect directly with their audiences.

Autonomous Magazine

A new look at American culture today, and where we’re headed — specifically, where culture intersects with politics, media, technology, morality and political correctness.

Christopher Balfe

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Chris is at partner at @RedSeatVentures, which helps content creators connect directly with their audiences.

Autonomous Magazine

A new look at American culture today, and where we’re headed — specifically, where culture intersects with politics, media, technology, morality and political correctness.

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