How sharing disrupts media
I’m at DLD in Munich, where David Karp of Tumblr and Samir Arora of Glam Media helped me understand the way that media and publishing are evolving these days, and the way in which creating, editing, and publishing are increasingly separate things which interact with each other in fertile and unpredictable ways.
There are lots of ways of publishing content onto the web, and if you look at the relative popularity of, say, WordPress vs Tumblr vs Twitter, then it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the easier you make it to publish, the more popular you’re going to be. But at Tumblr, at least, there’s something else very interesting going on: according to Karp, there are 9 curators for every creator on his site.
Reblogging, on Tumblr, is so easy that the vast majority of Tumblr sites actually create little or no original content: they just republish content from other people. That’s a wonderful thing, for two reasons. Firstly, it takes people who are shy about (or just not very good at) creating their own content, and gives them a great way to express themselves online. (As Arianna Huffington says, “self-expression is the new entertainment”.) And secondly, it acts as a natural amplifier for the people who do create original content — the average post on Tumblr gets reblogged nine times, and therefore reaches vastly more people than if it just sat on its original site waiting to be discovered by people visiting it directly.
Indeed, you don’t even need original content at all to become a reblogging monster. Pinterest is in many ways Tumblr without the original creators, just the curators, finding stuff online and reblogging it at incredibly high velocity. And it’s huge. Meanwhile, a lot of the impetus behind the way that Twitter is pushing its proprietary retweet functionality is the idea that it too might be able to build a community of retweeters, in much the way that Tumblr and Pinterest have built communities of rebloggers.
Journalists, I find, tend to come quite late to sites like Tumblr and Pinterest. For one thing, those sites are overwhelmingly visual: images nearly always do much better than words. And more generally, journalists are much better at writing than they are at reading — which means that they’re really bad at seeing the value added by curating and reblogging.
Technologists, on the other hand, intuitively understand the idea of “the stack”, which is the nerd version of “the platform” that all entrepreneurs and media gurus love to talk about incessantly. Essentially, they have spent their entire careers building things on other things. That happens in legacy media, too, sometimes: cable channels, for instance, live on a distribution platform owned by someone else. But print media in the US has historically been highly vertically integrated: the same company would create the content, edit it, print it, and distribute it directly to its customers’ front doors. Far from building things on other things, it owns everything from the copyright on the original content to the printing plants and even newspaper carriers.
Facebook and Google have become two of the biggest media companies in the world in extremely short amounts of time, precisely because they don’t have much interest in owning any content. Rupert Murdoch looks at Google and sees a pirate because he does everything: he both creates content (think 20th Century Fox), and also distributes it (think Sky TV). It’s a world of iron-clad contracts and tight control. While the social, digital world is one where the biggest media companies have a much lighter touch, and where the content creators with the broadest reach will be the ones who care the least about protecting their copyrights.
I suspect that we’re only in the very early days of seeing how this is going to disrupt just about every media organization built on the idea of hosting a website and selling ads, including highly socially-attuned ones like the Huffington Post. HuffPo is built on the idea that when stories are shared on Twitter or Facebook, that will drive traffic back to huffingtonpost.com, where it can then monetize that traffic by selling it to advertisers. But in future, the most viral stories are going to have a life of their own, being shared across many different platforms and being read by people who will never visit the original site on which they were published.
That was actually the original idea behind Buzzfeed — it would help brands create viral content which would then spread across the web. And then, somehow, buzzfeed.com became a destination site in its own right, which can and will make a lot of money by hosting and selling advertising. The old models still work. But the new, more distributed models are I think much more powerful. They’re great for brands, which just want to reach consumers directly, whatever the best way of doing that might be. But for content creators like Rupert Murdoch, they’re much scarier. Because when something goes viral, you don’t own it any more — it belongs to everyone, and no one.