Photo by Beck Diefenbach / Reuters
Here’s a little parable. A friend of mine was so enamored of Google Reader that he built a clone when it died. It was just like the original, except that you could add pictures to your posts, and you could Like comments. The original Reader was dominated by conversation, much of it thoughtful and earnest. The clone was dominated by GIFs and people trying to be funny.
I actually built my own Google Reader clone. (That’s part of the reason this friend and I became friends—we both loved Reader that much.) But my version was more conservative: I never added any Like buttons, and I made it difficult to add pictures to comments. In fact, it’s so hard that I don’t think there has ever been a GIF on the site.
I thought about building new social features into my clone until I heard my friend’s story. The first rule of social software design is that more engagement is better, and that the way you get engagement is by adding stuff like Like buttons and notifications. But the last thing I wanted was to somehow hurt the conversation that was happening, because the conversation was the whole reason for the thing.
Google Reader was engaging, but it had few of the features we associate with engagement. It did a bad job of giving you feedback. You could, eventually, Like articles that people shared, but the Likes went into an abyss; if you wanted to see new Likes come in, you had to scroll back through your share history, keeping track in your head of how many Likes each share had the last time you looked. The way you found out about new comments was similar: You navigated to reader.google.com and clicked the “Comments” link; the comments page was poorly designed and it was hard to know exactly how many new comments there had been. When you posted a comment it was never clear that anyone liked it, let alone that they read it.
When you are writing in the absence of feedback you have to rely on your own judgment. You want to please your audience, of course. But to do that you have to imagine what your audience will like, and since that’s hard, you end up leaning on what you like.
Once other people start telling you what they like via Like buttons, you inevitably start hewing to their idea of what’s good. And since “people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests,” the stuff you publish will start looking a lot like the stuff that everybody else publishes, because everybody sort of likes the same thing and everybody is fishing for Likes.
What I liked about Reader was that not knowing what people liked gave you a peculiar kind of freedom. Maybe it’s better described as plausible deniability: You couldn’t be sure that your friends didn’t like your latest post, so your next post wasn’t constrained by what had previously done well or poorly in terms of a metric like Likes or Views. Your only guide was taste and a rather coarse model of your audience.
Newspapers and magazines used to have a rather coarse model of their audience. It used to be that they couldn’t be sure how many people read each of their articles; they couldn’t see on a dashboard how much social traction one piece got as against the others. They were more free to experiment, because it was never clear ex-ante what kind of article was likely to fail. This could, of course, lead to deeply indulgent work that no one would read; but it could also lead to unexpected magic.
Is it any coincidence that the race to the bottom in media—toward clickbait headlines, toward the vulgar and prurient and dumb, toward provocative but often exaggerated takes—has accelerated in lock-step with the development of new technologies for measuring engagement?
You don’t have to spend more than 10 minutes talking to a purveyor of content on the web to realize that the question keeping them up at night is how to improve the performance of their stories against some engagement metric. And it’s easy enough to see the logical consequence of this incentive: At the bottom of article pages on nearly every major content site is an “Around the Web” widget powered either by Outbrain or Taboola. These widgets are aggressively optimized for clicks. (People do, in fact, click on that stuff. I click on that stuff.) And you can see that it’s mostly sexy, sexist, and sensationalist garbage. The more you let engagement metrics drive editorial, the more your site will look like a Taboola widget. That’s the drain it all circles toward.
And yet we keep designing software to give publishers better feedback about how their content is performing so that they can give people exactly what they want. This is true not just for regular media but for social media too—so that even an 11-year-old gets to develop a sophisticated sense of exactly what kind of post is going to net the most Likes.
In the Google Reader days, when RSS ruled the web, online publications—including blogs, which thrived because of it—kept an eye on how many subscribers they had. That was the key metric. They paid less attention to individual posts. In that sense their content was bundled: It was like a magazine, where a collection of articles is literally bound together and it’s the collection that you’re paying for, and that you’re consuming. But, as the journalist Alexis Madrigal pointed out to me, media on the web has come increasingly un-bundled—and we haven’t yet fully appreciated the consequences.
When content is bundled, the burden is taken off of any one piece to make a splash; the idea is for the bundle—in an accretive way—to make the splash. I think this has real consequences. I think creators of content bundles don’t have as much pressure on them to sex up individual stories. They can let stories be somewhat unattractive on their face, knowing that readers will find them anyway because they’re part of the bundle. There is room for narrative messiness, and for variety—for stuff, for instance, that’s not always of the moment. Like an essay about how oranges are made so long that it has to be serialized in two parts.
Conversely, when media is unbundled, which means each article has to justify its own existence in the content-o-sphere, more pressure than most individual stories can bear is put on those individual stories. That’s why so much of what you read today online has an irresistible claim or question in the title that the body never manages to cash in. Articles have to be their own advertisements—they can’t rely on the bundle to bring in readers—and the best advertising is salacious and exaggerated.
Madrigal suggested that the newest successful media bundle is the podcast. Perhaps that’s why podcasts have surged in popularity and why you find such a refreshing mixture of breadth and depth in that form: Individual episodes don’t matter; what matters is getting subscribers. You can occasionally whiff, or do something weird, and still be successful.
Imagine if podcasts were Twitterized in the sense that people cut up and reacted to individual segments, say a few minutes long. The content marketplace might shift away from the bundle—shows that you subscribe to—and toward individual fragments. The incentives would evolve toward producing fragments that get Likes. If that model came to dominate, such that the default was no longer to subscribe to any podcast in particular, it seems obvious that long-running shows devoted to niches would starve.
People aren’t using my Reader clone as much anymore. Part of it is that it’s just my friends on there, and my friends all have jobs now, and some of them have families, but part of it, I think, is that every other piece of software is so much more engaging, in the now-standard dopaminergic way. The loping pace of a Reader conversation—a few responses per day, from a few people, at the very best—isn’t much match for what happens on Twitter or Facebook, where you start getting likes in the first few minutes after you post.
But the conversations on Reader were very, very good.