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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.
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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.

BigTech’s influence on media products

Published May 27, 2021
Updated Mar 20, 2022

Today, BigTech’s influence on media products is vast and when digital media product leaders mimic them, they end up ignoring the biggest competitive advantage they have over BigTech.

BigTech’s System

BigTech platforms are marketplaces

Infinite Supply. BigTech like Google News, Google Search, Apple News, Spotify, SoundCloud, Substack, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube presents content published by creators to audiences. Hence, they have endless content compared to the volume of content that an individual media product can produce.

Editorial algorithms. BigTech relies on recommendation and personalization algorithms to decide what to show to who and when.

Producer experience. BigTech cannot control who produces what content, when, and quality. Hence, they provide cookie-cutter storytelling templates in which any writer can fill up whatever content they have. Thus, all Medium articles look the same.

User experience. Given the infinite supply, BigTech tend to have two fixed user experiences. Search experiences allow users with clear intent to pull content relevant to them. Newsfeed or timeline experiences push new content to the user’s feed every few minutes.

Can the user experience of ESPNCricInfo, TED Talks, Masterclass, and Shark Tank be the same? Yet, the videos of all of them in YouTube are served in the same user experience.

What if the supply runs out. Imagine searching for something in Google and not getting a result. And now this is happening 30 times in a month. Similarly, imagine going to your Facebook Feed and finding no updates for three straight days. Both of these would have a disastrous impact on their user retention.

Need for suppliers. BigTech needs original content produced by media products. However, the human-readable content is not necessarily machine-readable. For example, people can read the content within an elegantly designed infographic. However, machines will see it as an image file. Similarly, suppose an editor writes a 50-word short story. In that case, people will understand it, but the Google Bot might miss its context entirely. 

How to get algorithms to read content produced for people

Flashback. In the early 2000s, the Internet saw the first blogging software come up like WordPress. They popularized the concept of writing (or blogging) as posts, also called article pages. Each article page would have a headline, byline, published date, a cover image, and tags.

BigTech doubled down on articles. BigTech invested in technologies to programmatically read articles. They even promoted and actively incentivized media products to adopt these technologies. Hence:

  • Articles have a cover image and at least 300 words, irrespective of whether the story needs it or not.
  • Editors take the extra pain of writing ALT tags for their images.
  • Google invested in the semantic web, i.e., schema.org, and incentivized content management systems to bring the article as structured content. Facebook, too asked sites to expose the meta-data as OG tags.
  • Google and Facebook launched their article formats — AMP, Web Stories, and Instant Articles — that took the entire article off the media product’s website. 

Incentivizing sites to adopt algorithms

Attention economy. Over time, the article page got intertwined with the advertisement economy and the page-views metric. This resulted in “shopping experience” UX for homepages on news products. Instead of serving audience needs and charging for it, newsrooms became article production factories copy-pasting wire copies or print articles online.

What’s the value of your research? If page views are the metric, then what is the difference between a cat video and a well-reported news article? There is no valuation (financial or otherwise) of the information component or reportage in the news piece.

De-facto standard. So complete is the prevalence of articles that I complain about the article post page in an article post page. For journalists and writers, too, it represented continuity. The article is a legacy continuation of the two-dimensional format in which we published stories in print (on paper).


Impact

It does not serve user needs.

BigTech needs infinite supply. Hence, media products started creating many articles with at least 300 words irrespective of whether audiences required it or not. Even Google knows that the quality of such articles will be limited. Hence, these articles lose their entire SEO juice after two days.

Audiences lack a coherent big-picture. From a user perspective, the user experience of 50 articles across 100 days on an ever-evolving story topic resembles non-intersecting parallel planes (geometry). As a result, these articles do not necessarily stitch together into a coherent narrative that progresses across days.

It’s harmful to democracy.

Expired content promotes misinformation. The article format was an acceptable format for the print newspaper. Every day, the reader would trash today’s newspaper and start afresh. However, online articles stay around forever. When we write stories on unfolding events, the information published in the article might not be accurate after a day or two. Yet, this is archived forever and can drive misinformation.

Editorial algorithms promote echo chambers. Algorithms are optimized to increase page views instead of serving a balanced media diet. 

It is killing the media product business.

BigTech has your content. Media products give their content to BigTech.

BigTech enforces consistent storytelling formats. Today, web technology provides many more ways to drive empathy, explain nuance, and inform, yet we rarely use interactives and immersive. A significant reason is that Google and Facebook won’t send traffic to formats their algorithms do not understand.

What is the difference between reading news on your website versus on Apple News or Medium? 


Owned media products are different from BigTech Platforms.

You are closer to Marvel than Google News. You create your content. Unlike BigTech, you control what gets produced, when, and at what production quality.

Omakase, not Timeline/Search. In contrast, historically, media products like the newspaper had an Omakase experience. The editor decided every day what stories to print, wherein the newspaper, and how much depth. The audience could not customize the experience, and they left it up to the editor to decide what was right for them.


Media products play a losing battle when they mimic BigTech

Algorithms

No single media product will have the content inventory that Google and Facebook will have access to.

Given that, the search interface in media products can surface no results, and timelines in media products might not update throughout the day.

User experience

Media products have a competitive advantage over BigTech. They produce their content and thus can control the storytelling and user experience. BigTech cannot.

Spotify shows all audio files in the same look and feel irrespective of what the content demands. However, owned media products can have completely different user experiences based on what the audio content.

So how do you change UX based on content type? In his book, “Show and Tell,” Dan Roam speaks about how presentations are of four different categories.

  • The first is a “report” conveying the facts—for example, status meetings, financial updates, quarterly earning calls, etc. In media, these could also be Harsha Bhogle’s cricket commentary or a news broadcaster’s daily 9 pm run down of what happened today.
  • The second is an “explanation” where you teach the audience new abilities. Examples of this category are academic papers, cooking shows, or class lectures.
  • The third category of presentations is a “pitch”, where you take the audience through a story and convince them to take an action e.g. vote for them, buy a product, give a job, etc.
  • Finally, a TED talk inspires people to change their beliefs.
From “Show and Tell” by Dan Roam

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