Liquid Content: the new concept where the platform is a detail
Jan 7, 2016
Liquid Content: The Shift from Cover to Multiplatform Publication in the Digital Era Threatens the Role of Editors and Advertising Agencies, Consolidating Power in the Hands of Tech Giants.
Cover and Homepage are the bread and butter of the prioritization system in journalism. Since the publication of Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, supposedly the first newspaper in the West, the most relevant stories (in the editor's opinion) went to the prime space - the cover. Digital inherited the model, with the homepage inheriting the same function.
However, technology is slowly burying this process. Curation is ceasing to be an editorial prerogative to become an algorithmic feature. You no longer search for the content - it finds you wherever you are and, for that, it is becoming liquid - adaptable to any support. Escaping from this relentless search will be impossible in a short time.
The less attentive reader may find this a madman's talk. The consumption process (whatever it may be) is, theoretically, a decision based on free will. I decide whether or not I want to use, buy, wear, build, adapt, rent or consume in any other way something placed in front of me, right?
No, that's not right. You were already forced to make certain choices well before digital (just think of any cartel or the phrase "competition is for losers", motto of one of the biggest VCs in Silicon Valley, Peter Thiel). However, let's take a poetic license and forget this for a moment and let's categorize the average user as having the option to choose.
The power of choice has always been with the consumer (even when that freedom was very distorted, as we have seen), but it is changing homes. The new house is an amorphous space at the intersection between algorithms, *big data, *opt-ins, and other foreignisms of pathetic translation (yes, more pathetic even than the foreignisms).
For cultural and historical reasons, people, institutions, and countries tend to centralize systems. In many ways: it's easier, it sets clearer criteria and, for a good portion of the stakeholders, it's simpler and more comfortable. The cover of the newspaper has always been the space where readers and journalists agreed that the most relevant stories would be. It is the most expensive space for advertisers and around which the rest of the product orbits. In the digital world, the homepage replaces the cover in an almost-copy of the newspaper's reasoning. Virtually everything was imported from the cover logic and the convenience made this model acceptable.
This model is being dismantled by technological advances. Initially, the homepage was the main attention retainer of a website. Then, things started to change. Assured of the lack of choice they left for users, publishers, advertisers and agencies began to increase the intrusiveness of advertising. They became larger, more central, more inevitable, reaching an incredible 80% of a page's weight. Damage done, other technological changes changed the course of things.
First, came social networks. Then, the advance of mobile device usage, apps, content notifications, multiplatform and cross-platform ad positioning mechanisms such as AdNetworks and Brightroll. Later, almost unnoticed, came the adblockers, mechanisms that do not load the ads from pages for the content itself to be served more quickly. And the cover practically died.
The logic of forcing the user/reader to visit an exclusive platform like a website was the rule. Apps, operating systems, and social networks have made this luxury almost theirs alone. Publications now, at most, can guarantee direct visitation through iOS or Android apps and, in the future, these visits should be increasingly embedded in platforms (such as Instant Articles, Medium, Google and others).
Thinking about the cover no longer makes sense because if it was a showcase, the street was abandoned. According to Comscore, in June mobile traffic is already greater than computer traffic in a 3:2 ratio, and this ratio will only increase for mobiles.
Even on the home screen of your cell phone, one of the few customizations that was still your prerogative, the idea of 'Home' is being melted. The average number of app downloads in the US for an average user is stagnant. More than half of them download zero apps per month. Content consumption is increasingly through an equation that involves operating systems, notifications, and preferences that the average user usually doesn't know. Over this mantle, there is still the empire of social networks, the great traffic stable of the Web today.
The bottleneck of the cover (or covers, if we consider smartphones) was shattered into a fragmentation that few participants - Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter - command. The acceleration of the shift to mobile devices only consolidates even more the power of these players in the game.
As in any industry, the dominance of a few means problems (of course, not if you're Peter Thiel, for whom feudalism is a good thing as long as he's the lord). Advertisers will be in the hands of 4-5 companies instead of thousands. Advertising agencies will become unnecessary intermediaries and it is not necessary to say who will pay most of the bill.
Editorially, the death of Homes pushes publications down a single path - multiplatform publication. Facebook, Google, and more recently Medium (a blog platform that would like to be the only platform) have created mechanisms to host or facilitate access to this replication of content that becomes liquid, multiplying across various addresses and systems, where the exclusivity of a "pure" visit like accessing a URL will become scarce. Instead, it's the DNA of the product that will have contact with the audience.
It no longer matters if your reader goes to your site - desktop or mobile, to a search engine, social network, newsletter or notification (yours or their operating system's). It matters that it is seen and that the audience knows it is yours.
To say that this creates problems is an understatement. If monetizing a proprietary platform is difficult, imagine several. Then imagine if these several have bargaining power over you and they want to pay what they think is fair, without negotiation. A new cartelization should form, with power migrating from media corporations to technology ones. And technology is who should intervene soon to break the imbalance because all systems in the universe tend to balance. When this balance is violated, the weight falls on a specific point that sooner or later, gives in (even if it is for the convergence point to migrate to another imbalance). Written another way: everyone breaks one day, but not necessarily who takes over comes to solve whatever it is.
The history of copyright law gives suggestions about the new form of intellectual product organization, whether it is written, narrated, sung, filmed, or photographed. In the West, the forces that shaped the legislation were divided, broadly speaking, between moral or creative rights and economic rights. The content in this new form flows between platforms and should seek the reader wherever he is. Authors will need to find ways to tie intellectual rights to economic ones in a way that doesn't put a knife to the audience's neck (like the MPAA and other Al-Qaedas of copyright do).
Giving a "genetic" code strong to content making it recognizable to the audience is the first step, whatever it is. Your audience is no longer in one place and they need to distinguish you in the crowd. When this happens, although it is still not clear or safe, everything suggests that ways to obtain financial rewards for it should appear. #letuspray