Playing by somebody else’s rules

In my last post, I argued that authenticity needs to be considered in the light of digital mediation. That while it’s always been important to speak with an authentic voice, algorithmic targeting and data-driven personalisation change the rules for writers, designers, and everyone involved in product development and marketing.

Another big digital disruption with equally profound effects on voice, is the increased availability of metrics to measure the ‘success’ of different pieces of content. Where ‘success’ could mean: number of views, shares, visit length or depth, and so on.

Clumsy measurement gives rise to perverse incentives that skew individual behaviour. (1) Aggregated over an entire media organisation, that can put strain on the core business of that organisation. Hence the fall of newspapers, and the rise of BuzzFeed, Huffington Post et al.

This piece on Pando Daily: Facebook is finally doing something about its “clickbait problem” is worth a read, but I’ve pulled out the relevant bits here:

As publishers know all too well, the stories that perform best on Facebook tend to be listicles, quizzes, and irresistibly clickable headlines that often lead to stories with little substance.

Today, however, Facebook announced a tweak to its News Feed algorithm designed to reduce the amount of clickbait users see in their News Feeds. Going forward, Facebook will measure the amount of time a user spends on a story after clicking on it and prioritize posts that attract the most reader attention. So for example, a post that reads, “You’ll NEVER believe who Katy Perry had on her arm at the VMAs,” which users only click on to find the answer before navigating away, will show up less often in News Feeds.

Not only is the switch good for readers, it’s good for publishers who want to produce more substantial reporting and analysis, and who will now feel less pressure to write quick, disposable content that loses its flavor faster that a piece of Bazooka gum.

As an individual writer, there’s not much you can do if your salary depends on the number of Facebook shares you get, or even how long those visitors spend ‘on’ your content. But from the point of view of business strategy, I’d say it’s now very clear that building your business model around user behaviours on someone else’s platform puts you in very choppy waters. One tweak of the algorithm, and suddenly you have to shift your tone, your content, or your editorial policy to maintain traffic and revenue (2). Maintaining authenticity (or even just sticking to your vision) in these circumstances is hard.

Two nuances worth noting:

  1. Editorial success has always been measured of course, but I’d argue that its inefficiency in the pre-digital age created a buffer of vagueness that insulated writers from those perverse incentives, and let quality journalism flourish in old-style advertising-funded media.

  2. There’s a third level to this problem (beyond individual content creators, and the organisations that employ them), and that’s the unavoidability of many of these platforms. If you sell widgets online, and you want to reach people looking for widgets, Google (and a few other big platforms) occupy a critical space in your business model, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Hence the inevitable stories of woe from media and ecommerce sites every time Google rolls out an algorithm update. How we collectively deal with these kinds of power imbalances is a much bigger social problem.