Filler killers

“Reach is down for most publishers already (a cursory look at CrowdTangle will illustrate this clearly), and eventually, we’re all going to break up with Facebook — or at least cool things off a little bit.”

Let’s start with the obvious: Times are tough for media these days. Some of that is a course correction after a period of over-inflated valuations and flip-of-the-switch audience building. Some of that is about a shift in human behavior, away from wanting to read in solitude and instead being retrained to like and share and crave likes and shares. It’s unfair (and inaccurate) to say that this was something that was done “to” publishers “by” social media platforms, though, because most of us were complicit in the shift that happened as Facebook and Twitter because meaningful places to distribute content. Most publishers still standing today built (or rebuilt) their businesses through social media — and shifted what “good content” looked like in the process. “Is it sharable” replaced “is it memorable?” and “is it a new idea?” With immediate feedback, easy data capture, and an overabundance of signals to measure, digital media has always been inherently built to trend toward the formulaic. And realizing that people mostly shared just a few simple archetypes of content, we all started to make more content — through the lens of those formulas. Because scaling businesses is about finding cheaper, more efficient, repeatable solutions to the same problems.

But the world is shifting — in some terrifying and disheartening big-picture ways, and in other ways that are smaller and more limited in their impact. Some of those smaller shifts:

  1. Fewer investment dollars are being poured into media (this has been happening for a while now).
  2. As the cost of commanding nine-figure revenues increases, media companies are starting to consolidate.

So we can imagine a world in just a few more years where there are a lot fewer options by way of “publishers” and “media companies” filling the internet with a mix of highbrow, lowbrow, brilliance, and crap — and pumping out hundreds of different versions of the same stories in the process. There’s of course some danger here (the entire reason antitrust laws exist, really), but that’s another conversation altogether.

But that’s not the only shift on the horizon. The other thing that happens in tandem is that the social platforms are shifting their businesses away from driving eyeballs to the content they needed from publishers a handful of years back — whether that’s a link pointing back to a website from Facebook, a video of an exploding watermelon, or some other viewing experience meant for three seconds of consumption. Reach is down for most publishers already (a cursory look at CrowdTangle will illustrate this clearly), and eventually, we’re all going to break up with Facebook — or at least cool things off a little bit. And as that happens — because we’ll no longer be incentivized to optimize our content production to the 30 to 45 link posts a day plus 10 to 12 videos that might yield the largest number of aggregate visits and views from the News Feed — we’ll stop making lots of short, forgettable blips of filler content. We’ll still tell stories and grow audiences using social platforms, but we’ll do it in a way that puts the user first rather than existing to game the system.

If all of that happens, then suddenly, fewer media companies are left standing — and they’re making less stuff. Meaning there is less of the same mediocre stuff all over the internet.

And if those consolidated players can manage not to lay off too many writers, editors, and creatives in the race to make the next pivot, they’ll be left with a handful of talented, creative people making a handful of interesting, unique things.

In that world, maybe we stop thinking about three seconds of engagement with any piece of storytelling as a success. We start to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We stop spreading accidental half-truths because we don’t have time to fact-check our stories and clearly explain complicated ideas. We showcase the difference between real news and fake news — making fake news easier to spot and making it a little more difficult for loud voices to decry the real thing as fake. We retrain audiences to think critically about what they read and watch. We value the signals that really matter in the long-term rather than the short-term, and we raise the bar for all of the work we do — not just a small fraction of it that’s the “good stuff” or the “investment content.”

That’s definitely the world I want to live in — and the world we’re trying to build over at Girlboss, leaning on audio, experiential, carefully crafted deep dives and thoughtfully reported service pieces over quick hits and aggregation. (You can find a grand total of five new stories on the site on any given day.) So that’s the bet I’m placing for 2018: Less crap on the internet, please.

Neha Gandhi is editor-in-chief and chief operating officer at Girlboss.

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