The Media vs Tech Battle That Nobody can Win
Every week I come across articles about how Facebook and Google should act more like media companies. But this is not really possible because there is no real way for a tech platform to become a media company, just as there is no way for a media company to become a platform.
Let me illustrate why.
In the media we choose what to publish
The thing that defines a media company is that everything we do is based on a choice of what to publish. We specifically choose what to write and why.
In fact, publishers often choose what to choose, meaning we first decide what we want to focus on, and then we choose what specific articles to write and publish for that topic.
This is usually a good thing. By choosing what to publish, we have a higher level of quality overall, and obviously we have much greater control, which (usually) means we don’t publish bad things.
The problem with this model is that it also severely limits your scope. So there are a lot of things that we don’t cover.
Let me give you a simple example.
‘Redline restorations’ is a niche hobby for toy car enthusiasts, where people buy old Hot Wheels cars and restore or modify them. Like this:
But if you were to go to The New York Times to learn about this, you will find nothing. Or rather, what you do find has no relevance to what you actually searched for.
Obviously, this is a very specific example, so let’s take something a bit more mainstream.
LEGO is something that millions of people around the world enjoy and the LEGO community is massive. And last year, LEGO launched the LEGO NASA Apollo Saturn V, which became an instant hit.
Thousands have bought it, including me, and here is a picture from when I finished building mine.
So let’s turn to The New York Times and see what they have written about this.
Again, we get nothing (or rather, we get 7 completely unrelated articles).
In fact, even if you just search for ‘LEGO’, you have to go back to February 9, 2018 to find the last time The New York Times wrote about this. And it’s kind of a depressing article about a sick kid.
You see the problem?
Because we are in the business of choosing what to publish, we have better stories for things that we do pick, but we also have terrible coverage overall.
Newspapers are often very good at covering politics, which is chosen as a focus every day, but everything else isn’t really covered that well. And when it comes to a specific interest (like LEGO, running, travelling, knitting, fashion design, solar panels, etc) the newspapers don’t cover it well.
In fact, when you actually start to look into it, you realize how incredibly niche newspapers really are, even big newspapers like The New York Times.
We can try to fix this by adding more resources, like hiring more journalists, but it very quickly reaches a point where it’s uneconomical to do so.
In other words, the media is defined like this:
If you are in the industry of ‘choosing what to publish’, you can’t become a platform for everything. And there is no way to take the editorial approach of a newspaper and turn that into something like Facebook.
So what about the tech companies?
The tech companies choose what NOT to publish
What’s really interesting about the tech companies is that they approach this from the opposite direction. By default, they define themselves as a platform for everything, and they place no limit to what can be published.
This gives them a massive advantage, because suddenly they can create these platforms where people from everywhere can publish anything. And most of the time, the outcome of this is really good.
For instance, if I were to search for "hot wheels redline restoration" on YouTube, I can find 26,000 videos about it, including videos like these with millions of views.
It’s the same with LEGO. If I search for the LEGO Apollo rocket, I also get almost 30,000 results, of people building the set, reviewing it, or even just creating stop motion movies with it.
It’s astonishing what is suddenly available, and the quality of it is often really good.
Another very interesting thing about the tech platforms is that, because they allow everything by default, there is a much wider space available to try out new things and to experiment with new formats.
When you look at traditional media companies, like newspapers, magazines, or TV channels, you will find that every one of them is doing the same thing and in the same way. But in the digital world we see a much more varied approach.
So, having a platform that enables everything is powerful, and adds a layer to society that is incredibly valuable. In fact, this is the key reason why the internet has become so big and why traditional publications (especially newspapers) have been struggling so much.
We (the newspapers) thought we were the platforms, but in comparison to the internet, we represent an extremely tiny part of the real world.
But not everything is great with these open-ended tech platforms. The problem with allowing everything is that you also get all the bad things. You get the scammers, the white supremacists, the hate-mongers, the nazis, as well as all the people doing other seriously bad things (like someone uploading a video about being cruel to animals).
This is obviously a big problem, so the tech companies are investing their resources in filtering out the bad things. They do this in two ways. One is by hiring more developers to write more code that can automatically detect and remove bad content, and the other is to hire a small army of ‘reviewers’ who can respond to reports about bad content. And the more people they hire, the more bad things they can block.
Take something like YouTube. YouTube’s current system was able to block "4.5 million videos before anyone ever saw them. But another 1.5 million got through, at least briefly", as Peter Kafka recently reported.
And this is just for the last quarter. So, in an effort to stop the rest, YouTube has hired 10,000 people just to review content.
It’s the same story over at Facebook, in the first quarter of 2018, they blocked 1.9 million pieces of content from terror organizations, of which 99% was discovered by Facebook itself.
In other words, the tech world works like this:
I find this to be really interesting, we are basically trying to solve the same problem, using the same approach (add more resources), but from completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
And while both the media and the tech companies try to do better every day, we also know that we will never be able to do this perfectly. And more important, the public knows it too.
In other words, we accept the limitations in exchange for the value of each approach.
We accept that newspapers can’t cover everything in exchange for a demand for higher quality reporting for the things they do pick. And we accept that, on channels such as YouTube, we will always be able to find the occasional piece of bad content, in exchange for the flexibility and the wealth of things that we can see.
This is an important thing to understand because it explains why the tech companies aren’t losing their market share. Many people in the media don’t seem to understand this. For instance, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I saw several journalists and editors tweet things like this:
It’s the same with YouTube. Just recently we saw this ‘exclusive story’ on CNN, and again, people in the media found it incredible that it isn’t actually hurting YouTube.
The problem is that we are looking at it all wrong. The goal is not to make the tech platforms perfect, any more than the goal is to have every newspaper cover every single issue.
As long as, overall, things are ‘good enough’, the value that you get in return far outranks the relatively minor problem with bad content.
Let me give you an example of this:
Every time journalists discover a bad video that has ads on it on YouTube, YouTube has a very simple way to prove to brands that it isn’t really a problem.
What they do is they look at the views for a specific ad campaign from an advertiser. With this they can show the advertiser that their campaign had 20 million views in total, and they then compare this to how many of those views ended up on the specific channel mentioned in the press. And the result is often something like 135 views out of the 20 million.
In other words, for this brand campaign, only 0.005% were linked to this ‘big thing’ the journalists were talking about. Think about how foolish this makes you sound as a journalist. When you reach out to this brand and you ask them "why are you advertising on this extremist video on YouTube?", you think you have a big story but, from a brand perspective, you are just talking nonsense.
Obviously, the brands are not going to argue with you, instead they just do a bit of PR and quietly wish you would go away.
The CNN article is a perfect example of this. Here they completely failed to quantify any actual damage or impact.
One of the only examples they bring is this video from a North Korean propaganda channel that had an ad from US Customs and Border Protection.
First of all, look at the view numbers. This video has 3,295 views (globally) on a channel with only 5,000 subscribers. In the world of YouTube, this would be considered practically zero impact, and in terms of ad revenue it’s something like $3 in total revenue.
This means that this video has zero impact. There is nothing to talk about. Advertisers aren’t risking their brands because of this. They aren’t helping North Korea in any way.
You might call out YouTube for hosting this video, and when you do YouTube obviously deletes it. But in reality, this video didn’t really exist to begin with, because overall, nobody would ever watch it.
What I find even more amusing is how CNN is trying to say that US taxpayers are funding propaganda:
Advertisements potentially funded by US tax dollars also appeared on the channels promoting North Korean propaganda.
That’s not what is happening here. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, the total revenue for all views is most likely $3, but the ad from the US Government would only account for a small fraction of that. So maybe their ‘contribution’ would be something like $0.02.
I would hardly call that ‘funding North Korean propaganda’. There is no funding happening here.
But it’s more interesting to think about what the ad is for. If you were the US Government wouldn’t you want to place your ads in front of any video by foreign countries?
Think about how brilliant this is. By placing this ad on this channel, the US Government is able to influence (in theory) anyone watching this video from North Korea.
If I was working in US intelligence, I would consider this a pretty smart move.
You see the problem here?
In the media we think we have uncovered some big problem, a massive scandal, but we haven’t. I’m not trying to defend this. Like you, I wish these videos didn’t exist. But, on the whole, CNN has completely failed to demonstrate any real effect.
This brings us back to this:
No matter how much we would like the world to be perfect, there is no way to actually achieve that. So, we need to think about this in a different way. This battle that currently exists (mostly from the media world’s perspective) is counterproductive because it solves nothing.
Advertisers are not going to stop advertising on YouTube just because a journalist is able to find some bad videos.
Instead, we need to realize that these two worlds exist and each have their advantages and problems, and we need to focus on making each better instead of trying to fight them.
For newspapers, for instance, a key element of future success is to realize that you are no longer the platforms that you used to be (before the internet), and that the reason for this is because you are in the market of ‘choosing what to publish’.
Instead, you need to accept that you are a niche, working within a limited scope, and you need to find ways to be the best niche product possible.
Newspapers also need to start getting a lot better at thinking about their limited scope when covering stories. All too often we see stories where it’s painfully obvious that we are missing vital information. And the result of this is that the public is becoming increasingly misinformed. We are not really doing our job the way we are supposed to.
Tech companies, similarly, have their own problems. For a very long time, tech companies have focused exclusively on scale to the point where they ignored the detrimental effect that this had.
The real problem isn’t about the extremist content, because most of that has very little real-world effect. It sounds big when we point it out in the press, but almost all normal people have never seen a terrorism video on Facebook.
Instead, the problem is with the overall focus and ‘tone of voice’. Look at Twitter and the many problems it faces with harassment. Or look at Facebook and how the low-intent micro-moment focus has caused people to merely react to low-value content.
YouTube has similar problems, where for many years they optimized for the ‘stupid but fun’ (which is not really unique to YouTube), like when they partnered with PewDiePie or Logan Paul. Those choices had a far bigger impact because it defined what YouTube was about.
Overall though, we all need to get much better at focusing on things that have a real impact, instead of filling our time with things that don’t.