Today’s internet is at an interesting crossroads. The web as we know it, the idea of an „anarchic“ web of independent platforms, has come under strong scrutiny. Over the past decade the emergence of „social“ content hosts like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Medium, or even WordPress.com has empowered anyone to quite easily build an audience. More and more those platforms become not only the place where users connect, share links and debate someone else’s content, but also the place where they produce it and where therefor users come to expect to consume them.
There are reasons to embrace that. First of all, it is convenient. Instead of managing bookmarks and investing hours of your time browsing the confusing web (or mostly rather the same pages over and over again) for interesting information, algorithms ideally (leaving the danger of the infamous „filter bubbles“ aside) keep spilling it into your consciousness and make it easy to follow the things you „like“. It is an almost effortless world, where Justin Bieber, ESPN, Lionel Messi, the Guardian, Barack Obama, and all of your friends alike can broadcast to or even engage with you directly, if you want it.
From a producer’s point of view there also are significant advantages. Content production and distribution becomes even easier and cheaper on those platforms. There is, among other things, no need to register an URL, design your website, build content and community management systems for it, or invest resources into technical maintenance- After all, while some of us enjoy doing those things, us bloggers and journalists really want to be storytellers instead of technicians, designers, illustrators, AND marketing experts. I don’t want to know, how many days of my live I have wasted with updating templates, plugins, and software, or deleting spam.
Even if you are good at those things, it is tough to keep up with the possibilities some platforms are already offering. WordPress has long been surpassed in convenience of content orchestration by Medium, which also makes texts more beautiful than most blog templates do. It should be only a matter of time until Facebook allows its users to use similar techniques.
The times they are a-changin
For all these advantages, quite a lot of content producers from common bloggers to big media corporations have moved to those platforms (while younger ones started their careers there altogether). And even for those of us who stayed loyal to the idea of independent publishing, maintaining those „social media channels“ now often consumes more time than a blog itself. It seems, it was significantly easier to build a community for a blog ten years ago, debating your content where it was posted, maybe even luring people on your bulletin board to keep them close. If you wanted, that allowed you to monetize your content on your own terms, by placing ads on it and thereby building an independent professional existence on it. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible for your site to become one of the nodes in the network of your users.
This has shifted to a point, where becoming a regular point of interest seems to be the privilege of only a few sites. The nodes, where you connect with your audience now are your social media channels. I suspect that is even more true for mobile traffic, where the dominance of apps endangers the art of browsing the „real“ web altogether. And so it comes that while I prefer to host my own content myself and the audiences for my brands grow, the share of people directly steering towards my sites is steadily declining. That is problematic for some reasons, I will elaborate immediately. But there is no use in bemoaning the change of the landscape, is there? It is simply more convenient for most users to have it that way and because of that there is not a lot you can do about it. The train is leaving the station, better board it before it is gone, right?
New game, new rules
If we go down that road and have no other choice but to accept that the way the game is played changes, we have to demand, that the basic rules should adapt too. When „social networks“ were mere personal sites and link aggregators, their intransparent algorithms that decided over the fate of our links were already highly problematic but not an existential threat to producers. But this cannot be said about the emerging web-world, as those networks morph into monopolistic content hosts, enablers and regulators of monetarization, and gods of distribution – in short: as they substitute the web’s very own infrastructure with their corporate pseudo-web.
Let’s imagine a sugarcandy world, where everyone is just intrinsically good and no faults are made. Just imagine building a business (or activist platform) on top of an ideal Facebook that just works and makes you happy. You’re producing content, you’re reaching a big audience beyond your wildest dreams, and you’re even making good money from its future partner program. And then, one day, for whatever reason Facebook defaults – and with it, so do you. You suddenly cannot reach your audience anymore, or export your content and the surrounding debates to another platform.
That might not even be the worst case though. As content producers become dependent on the goodwill of (other) companies, they are losing control over their product – how and to whom it gets displayed, distributed, monetized and in some cases even the ownership over it. This threatens the independence of content producers – be it big media companies or bloggers. On behalves of Facebook & Co. you could image some dystopian ideas (like controlling opinions or influencing elections), scrupulously self-serving motives (like basically hiding your content until you pay the gatekeeper or taking a bigger cut of the revenue you generate) or just negligent amateurism (like thoughtlessly removing a function that is essential to your site, experimenting with user emotions by prioritizing some content over the other, or accidentally deleting your page). All those things would be highly problematic, some of which would be even dangerous to a free society, and some of which have already happened at times.
Infrastructure is different
We might have to and want to accept such behaviour, if we have a choice to not be part of the game. But as corporations (not in theory but in practice) become the infrastructure of the web, this choice gradually becomes an illusion. If you are on the outside of any mainstream ecosystem, you are going to be in big trouble – you can observe such phenomena anywhere. Try selling your eBooks while boycotting Kindle, selling your music while boycotting iTunes and Spotify, or selling your computer games while boycotting Steam. While those examples are problematic enough, we cannot allow a similar system to exist for online content in general, as this contains not only funny cat-GIFs, porn, Let’s play-videos, or fashion-vlogs, but seemingly also the future of journalism – and while cat-GIFs might be essential to life itself, journalism (however you prefer yours) is an essential part of a free society.
Companies that control large parts of our online-life cannot be allowed to be run like they are run today. For example, we cannot allow them to arbitrarily change their algorithms (or that they are kept secret anyway). In the world those corporations are consciously trying to built, this will ruin business models on which lifes will depend. Those companies essentially become like the electricity grid – basic infrastructure to which access and fair participation has to be guaranteed for everyone. If those companies succeed in building this world – I’m not sure they really will, but let’s say they do – they need harsh regulation, far-reaching transparency and democratic control in every aspect of their business.
How that could be achieved? Well, there’s a riddle for all of us to solve …