As a publishing platform, the web is on hard times. Paywalls and subscription plans are rarely successful. That makes ads and trackers the primary source of revenue. Yet ad tech is usually poorly designed, intrusive and inefficient. It slows down pages and pisses off users. That’s been underlined in recent articles highlighting the performance of The Verge , iMore and others. An otherwise simple news post bloats into megabytes of data, with ads and trackers taking the overwhelming share of that weight.
In the face of web bloat, users are opting out. Many strip out ad and tracker content with tools like AdBlock and Ghostery. Or they abandon the web for faster native publishing platforms like Facebook’s Instant News and Snapchat. Along these lines, Vox’s Ezra Klein predicts publishers morphing into a wire service, where the web becomes just one of many content platforms to publish on. Large publishers like Buzzfeed and The New York Times have already moved in this direction.
This is concerning. In reality, the web can be performant with ads, a subject matter for another post. A weakened web presence makes for an ugly future for publishing. It hurts the publishers themselves, and us, as readers.
Publishing to these growing native platforms is, at least on a technical level, straightforward. Facebook Instant News and Apple News can take an existing web post and convert it to their native formats with little effort. Yet, as noted in The Awl, publishing to each platform requires heavy customization:
The next thing you learn is that the best way to succeed on a given platform is to write/film/record/aggregate with that platform explicitly in mind. The next thing you learn is that doing so makes that content extremely weird when taken out of context, which makes it incompatible with other venues.
That level of customization and targeting requires serious resources. Big media companies will be fine. Vox, for instance, has a full time team for just Snapchat. Yet what about smaller publishers? Or individual writers? Without enough time to craft to each platform’s voice and algorithm, I see smaller teams at a huge disadvantage.
As publishers transition onto native platforms, their leverage in the long run will diminish. Klein’s piece has merit, but this isn’t a traditional wire service relationship. As noted in MIT Technology Review, publishers aren’t getting licensing payments for hosted content. Instead it’s an ad payment share deal, one heavily dependent on views and engagement. Yet the platform, through internal editorial staff and private algorithms, controls both levers directly.
It’s fair to argue Facebook referrals and Google SEO have similar effects today. Yet publishers have ways to adjust through internal analytics, A/B testing and design changes. With content handed over wholesale to native platforms, that control diminishes.
And consider the potential endgame here. The platforms themselves are taking on publisher-like duties like editorial, algorithms, and PR. Cutting out publisher middlemen entirely is a logical long term step. It’s not crazy to imagine Facebook, Snapchat, and others with its own reporting staff.
Facebook, Apple, and other native platforms generally have prudish, strict community and editorial standards. These are standards that reach far beyond expected targets like hate speech or pornography. For example, Google blocked The Awl from showing “nudity” in an ad with a Vanity Fair cover. Apple pulled a sweeping removal of App Store content with Confederate flags. Deleting racist, hateful content is understandable. Yet Apple went beyond and pruned out historical Civil War history apps and games. And Facebook’s News Feed algorithm regularly weeded out the Ferguson protests last year.
How do we ensure controversial news and opinions won’t be expunged for fluffy entertainment news and viral videos? And what about content that criticizes the platform holders themselves, or partner advertisers? The traditional church/state journalistic divide between editorial and business is already weakening. Most likely, native platforms will only accelerate its destruction.
The web’s very nature supports deep linking. One published article connects to another under a universal HTTP and URL format. Anyone from a simple WordPress blog to Buzzfeed can use it. It’s a huge plus for users; related content, regardless of source, is a click or tap away. It’s also trivially easy to share and repackage.
We’re a long way from this with native platforms, where standards are primitive. Apple is getting closer with deep linking in iOS 9’s Spotlight search. Yet a future where I can jump from a Facebook Instant Article to Apple News article to Vine video feels far away. And it’s more than technical issues; each native platform has a vested interest to keep users from leaving their walled garden.
These concerns aren’t obstacles to the march of technology. I’m a big fan of native apps. From games to video to many other areas, they’re often a smarter, more performant choice than purely web-based platforms.
However, a transition from web to native publishing is different from print to the web. From a publishing point of view, there are too many concerns for me to be onboard. We’re attacking the problem from the wrong side. We’re already accessing the mobile web heavily inside other native apps. Instead of throwing out an existing solution, let’s improve it for the realities of today.