Notes on Constraints and Distribution

I’m still trying to figure out some theories around content distribution and discovery. Notes on… is a collection of some of my work towards that.

There’s only so much room on the rack at the newsagent’s. This is a literal constraint on the number of publications that can physically exist.

Not only is the rack space constrained, but so is the size of the newspaper or magazine: too big and it’s impractical for the consumer, too heavy to transport, too big to package. Also, the bigger it is, the more it costs. There is a variable cost to distribution of physical media.

I’m reminded of distribution constraints by Bloomberg Business’s great insight into Snapchat’s content distribution model:

The number of Discover slots is limited — right now it’s just the 20 that fit on one Snapchat screen — and competition among media brands is fierce. In July, Snapchat dropped Yahoo! even though Spiegel had personally recruited Katie Couric, Yahoo’s lead news anchor. BuzzFeed got that slot. Snapchat declines to explain why it bounced Yahoo, but traffic to the channel was reportedly poor.

So, just twenty slots. And if a new one gets added, an existing one must make way.

Snapchat is picking winners, and in doing so promotes quality in two ways:

  1. Your media brand must have good, well-performing content, or Snapchat will ditch you (note that cookie-based news apparently outperformed Couric).
  2. The competition is clear and transparent: there’s no algorithmic race to stay on the first page; clickbait isn’t required to perform well; the $$ are spread between a limited number of users, thus avoiding the never-ending dilution and price deflation caused by the infinitely-extending long-tail that we see in web content.

The counterpoint, seen and heard from other tech platforms, is that allowing an open competition is the best way to promote quality and innovation (see also, Capitalism). It doesn’t matter how original, different, or transformative Snapchat’s publisher #21 might be, if it can never get a chance to reach an audience.

What happened to the old constraints

As Blogger and WordPress got up and running over ten years ago, they promised to democratize publishing. The central theory: anybody may write and spread their message; not just those in the employ, or the rolodex, of established media companies.

The constraints were gone. Techies felt this was a triumph. Journalists mourned the loss of editorial standards. Could algorithms be better editors? (Not yet.)

At the same time, web-only publications started to take root. Portals like Yahoo and AOL made them relatively easy to discover (and re-discover). There was some early constraint. But social media blew that away as the old homepage/portal-style destinations gave way to feeds.

Today, not content with having vast ever-increasing quantities of content, publishers are encouraged to reproduce the same pieces on multiple platforms in the hope of reaching new audiences. More content, in more places. But without any additional money. Doesn’t take a degree in micro-economics to figure out what this means for prices 📉.

Infinite scroll presents similar problems. Scrolling through lists of articles becomes more interesting than actually committing to any single one of them. It’s the equivalent of that friend who couldn’t content themselves with one TV channel but had to flick to a dozen others every few minutes just to check there wasn’t something else more interesting. Constraint enforces commitment.