The Pull of Speed and the Push of Eventual Sameness

Facebook Instant Articles load fast.

SO FAST!!!!

So do Medium articles.

Are you on the phone? Then you probably love how fast this page loads.

I’m sure Google AMP articles will load fast as well.

All of these distribution platforms are also limited. All content on these platforms look roughly the same.

We forget that part of the reason why articles began to load so slowly is because of all the javascript in the background. These things weren’t stuffed in for shits and giggles. They did things. They made a website experience unique. They powered specific features, editorial expressions and more (some of them not for readers but for advertisers — admitted).

In Facebook Instant Articles you are playing by certain rules. I’m not talking in terms of making money or owning the audience (we already acknowledge that). I’m saying that the choices they make impact editorial.

What you gain in speed and access to audience, you lose in branding and differentiation.

It’s fun to try and push the limits of these constraints. Indeed constraints can be the inspiration for creativity. But they are constraints that are dictated to you, let’s not get that confused. I simply can’t upload some javascript here that would make this Medium article one of a kind. Hell, I can’t even put text over a title image anymore like the glory days of Medium.

Maybe you’re like me. When you read a Medium post you can never find the date it was published. For Medium that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. And while the author of a post isn’t as obscure, that bit of information is definitely de-emphasized. It’s in Medium’s interest for the reader to associate the content with Medium, not the author. This is Medium’s content, in Medium’s style, with Medium’s fonts and Medium’s features. Get in line and you’ll be allowed to publish.

There’s a bigger catch

Think about Facebook video, a platform well embraced by now. It auto-plays and starts on silent. Video makers in-turn have jumped on the trend of creating silent videos. This is “platform intelligence.” Changing your editorial product to better fit the constraints dictated to you by a platform your don’t control.

And the reason for those constraints are the priorities those organizations have. Facebook and Medium as organizations, value speed and sameness over distinctive editorial content.

What you gain in speed, you lose in unique content.

What you gain in a templated video style you lose in distinctiveness.

“How Defensible is Viral Content.”

tl’dr for the link above:

The video below by the LAT looks like it could have been made by NowThis, AJ+ or others. I expect by the end of 2016 most major news orgs will have their own version of these videos. It’s a playbook. Open the playbook, follow the instructions, turn out a video.

I’m sure it made lots of people happy when they came across it on Facebook.

But they didn’t think to themselves “Thanks LA Times!” They thought: “Facebook always gives me the BEST stuff!”

Viral content in general is becoming indistinguishable. To the point of mockery.

“People try Heroin for the first time!”

This is what happened to Upworthy-esque headlines. If it’s easy to copy, the market becomes flooded. The value will drop on any commodity that oversaturates a market.

These examples are not “technical” per-say. The L.A. times example is related to technical constraints, since it’s the result of Facebook’s video player. The “silent” videos don’t do as well on YouTube and certainly didn’t bubble up naturally on YouTube, because YouTube never made the technical requirement of speed (auto-play) and sameness (no audio). YouTube had different priorities.

There is a pendulum swinging

We’ve seen a few different pendulum’s swing over the last 10–15 years. Journalism is dying. Journalism can breed “unicorn” startups. Citizen journalism will save us. Citizen journalism is dead (or becomes the Twitter-verse) after traditional journalism adopts the best practices and principles. Google is the enemy. Google is our savior. SEO is the shit. SEO is useless compared to social sharing. Everything swings back and forth.

There is a draw to speed. But all technical features that at first “delight” eventually become expected. And once that happens, the goal post is pushed further. At that point Apple, Facebook, SnapChat, Google will need real editorial vision in order to differentiate. Will they try to do that at scale or allow editorial actors to play within their space, perhaps even at the price of speed, readability, etc. Who knows. I certainly don’t. But I do see the “eventual sameness” that is beginning to bubble up on these platforms as a feature at first, but they could eventually be a drawback (if only for the content creator).

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