Phone with social media icons next to a laptop.
Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

The Internet has been abuzz following a post by Kylie Jenner, an influencer famous for being the sake of being a famous person. On Instagram, where 360 million Instagram accounts follow her, she said Instagram must stop trying to copy TikTok and remain Instagram so she can see cute photos of her friends. First, to be precise – the original post was created by Tati Bruening, who has 315,000 followers. 

Kylie being Jenner that she is, added “Pleaseeee” and took the attention away from the original post. Soon, family doyen Kim Kardashian and others from the clan of famous Internet people joined in. It got the headline machines humming. And the melee has become a significant news story – I mean, it’s not like we are dealing with war, climate crisis, or inflation. 

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What has Instagram done that the Kardashians & the Jenners are so upset? Earlier in July 2022, the company decided any video under 15 minutes can and will be converted into a “Reel.” Reels, in case you were not following, are a clone of short-form TikTok videos. Recently, TikTok made it so that the videos on the service could be up to 15-minuteslong. So obviously, Facebook had to match them feature for feature. 

Instagram will take the video posted by any public account – someone like Kylie “The Crying” Jenner – and automatically push it into a recommendation algorithm, only to be shown to other accounts based on how people react to that video/reel. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you are Kylie, Kim, or Krayzie; your videos (aka Reels,) their popularity, and the engagement around them are no longer in your hand. The algorithm is the boss.  

And that is why I wasn’t surprised that the Jenners and Kardashians were upset about this move. This new development renders their hundreds of millions of followers less valuable than they once were. Kylie is rumored to make between $650,000 to $1 million per post from companies and brands who wanted her to promote their wares. They could point to 360 million followers as a proxy for their power and reach. 

What the clan is really complaining about is the harsh reality that changes limit their ability to monetize their hundreds of millions of followers. If they can’t get the reach, or the engagement, eventually, their hundreds of millions of followers aren’t as important.

In his book, Get Rich or Lie Trying, journalist Symeon Brown astutely noted that on “Twitter and TikTok, viral users require wit. On YouTube, personality pays. Yet on Instagram, the way we look is carefully self-curated for the consumption of others. In other words, the platform thrives on lustful thirst.” It is why any change to a TikTok-like platform threatens the likes of Jenner. 

To be relevant, they need to do something more than just look cute and sexy.

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As I pointed out earlier on Twitter, the reason Facebook is making these massive and radical changes to be more TikTok-like is that it fears that the Chinese-owned social network has become a clear-and-present-danger for the Metamachine. 

TikTok users spent 19.6 hours on average per month on the app, according to data.ai. Already average time spent on TikTok exceeds Facebook. More than 40% of Gen Z spends more than 3 hours a day on TikTok. No matter how you look at it, Facebook is in mortal combat with TikTok. 

The front-facing camera, the portrait mode, full-screen video, and algorithmically generated content have made “attention” a zero-sum game. Once you are locked in, you are not going anywhere else. And this is what has freaked Zuck out.  

“We’re sort of in this pretty intense period for the next 18, 24 months,” Mark Zuckerberg is said to have noted in a late June all-hands meeting. “It’s possible it’s even a little bit longer.” He is back at his ruthless best.

And it is pretty evident if you read this excellent report on The Verge. The article outlines a series of challenges the company is facing, both internal and external, and how Zuck is dealing with it. 

Copying TikTok as fast and as completely as possible, even at the risk of alienating its current very active and large user base, is the kind of move Zuckerberg makes when he feels his back is against the wall. I have watched Zuck for a long time – from the earliest days of Facebook – and know that once he digs in his heels, there is not much anyone can do. 

Everyone eventually finds out that there is only one king in the Zuckverse.

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As for Kylie, Kim, and millions of others hoping to go back to the old ways of doing things, it is not going to happen. Instagram’s chief Adam Mosseri said as much in a video message he shared on Twitter. He made three points — and in bold text, I am trying to decode them for you. 

  • “New full-screen version of feed is a test for a few percentage of people out there. This full-screen experience, not only for videos, but for photos will be more fun, engaging experience.” (As I said above, full-screen video is a way to lock in the attention – the algorithm will keep recommending things to keep you logged in.)
  • “I know a lot of you out there love photos to that said I need to be honest, I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time we see this even if we change nothing.” (We got to do video, or else we would lose out to TikTok. It doesn’t matter, we will make you watch more videos.)
  • “The third thing I want to talk about the recommendations, recommendations are posts in your feed from accounts that you do not follow. The idea is to help you discover new and interesting things on Instagram that you might not know even exist.” (Social is dead, long live the algorithm.)  

To sum it up, Mosseri (whom I once cruelly compared to Tariq Aziz of Facebook) is saying that it doesn’t matter what you want. It is what Zuck wants. As a result, Instagram is now all about video, video, and video. And that isn’t going to change. Mosseri is saying that you might love photos, but Instagrammers, you can go pound sand. You and your photos are going to live with little or no attention. And while you are processing that bad news, let me tell you (on behalf of my boss) — your friends, social relationships, and your communities are dead – now you exist solely in the obeisance of the algorithms. 

Oh, by the way, thanks for doing an excellent job of helping train our algorithms and helping make our visual data more accurate. From now on you, what you will see when you will see, and who you will see are going to be determined by the algorithm.

In summary, even the illusion that social media is about social, friends, and connections is over. Peo le don’t define the platform; it is the platform that owns you. Not even Kylie or Kim.

July 26, 2022. San Francisco.

In an article about a new research paper about changing media consumption habits, Neiman Lab columnist Joshua Benton observed:

Before the internet, the consumption of news was profoundly driven by habit and ritual. The internet (and, especially, smartphones) exploded most of these habits and rituals. News suddenly existed everywhere and at all times, packaged into all formats, backed by all ideologies, and aimed at all audiences worth showing a banner ad. This was exhilarating, but it also opened doors to all sorts of bad actors. And when habits disappear, new ones grow to replace them. (Joshua Benton.)

After reading the piece, I wondered: isn’t the media establishment making the same mistake as it always has: reflecting on how we have changed, instead of wondering how we will change in years and decades to come. Instead of wondering about today’s audiences, media (and every industry) has to start imaging the world for tomorrow’s audiences.

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The pending change is why I jumped into dot-com writing long before it was fashionable. How always-on network would modify our behaviors was why something like blogging felt like an almost natural transition. Since then, the networks have gotten faster, and information has become omnipresent. As a result, we find ourselves living in the information equivalent of the cereals aisle in a local Safeway.

And it is not just news — it is the entire information ecosystem. Photography, videos, music, and even data-sets have become segmented to fit audiences’ desires that might seem like a niche but can add up to a massive opportunity on a global stage.

In other words, Internet has done what it does best — it always increases addressable markets and, more importantly, allows participation from those usually left out due to traditional gatekeepers. And this allows the good, the bad, and the ugly to compete on the same playing field. It is why a three-person gonzo operation, the New York Times, and some random disinformation group find themselves fighting for the same attention on the platforms.

With so much change, the question is how do we — the ones whose attention is to be monetized and fractionalized are going to change? The future generations are now being trained to default to video (TikTok, Reels, Snap, and YouTube) to get their media, and others are learning to grow up with more spatial spaces, like Roblox and Fortnite. All this means that what we think of media (and information) will transform itself into something new and novel.

What will that be? If you have an answer, get in touch — because that’s an opportunity waiting to be unlocked.

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With that said, I have made some crucial changes to my media consumption diet. I have started to put a premium on my attention, how I spend it, and with whom I spend it. As a result, I have stopped visiting the cereal aisles for information, and daily newspapers have become less critical, and so has the daily news itself. Instead, I find myself reading reported books (about topics of interest) and long in-depth pieces saved to my Safari Reading List or in my Pocket app.

Most of these mind-nourishing pieces come from independent publications (such as The New Atlantis, Logic Mag, the Lapham’s Quarterly) or established magazines such as The Atlantic, The Economist, Harpers, and The New Yorker. The daily web output of these esteemed publications is of little interest — after all like I said: news is of marginal value at present.

Other articles from around the web come to my attention via specialist curation services such as Longreads and a handful of specialized newsletters from folks who have excellent taste. I find myself spending time on documentaries. All of this has given me a kernel of a new business idea — though I am not sure I am ready to commit to it.

February 27, 2022. San Francisco

WORTH READING:

  • Why Moore’s law is not enough? Four other laws that are important to learn and understand for our increasingly complex today and tomorrow. IEEE Spectrum
  • Old Music dominates streaming music? Why? And what is the long term impact of this over-dependence on catalog music. SynchTank
  • Jobfished: the con that tricked dozens into working for a fake design agency. BBC

Two folks, I follow on Twitter got into an exchange about media coverage of startup funding. The conversation caught my attention to the (somewhat rare) extent that I felt compelled to weigh in — mainly to offer some historical perspective from what I learned during my days as a professional blogger and journalist. 

The biggest change blogging brought to the media landscape was that it atomized news. What would previously have been a long news story got broken up into constantly updating components. One of these components was “funding news.” Other than acquisition, a possible public offering, or a new product launch, this was pretty much the only news that came out of startups. And no one covered pure funding news better than the folks at TechCrunch — quick, concise, and usually exclusive. That was what made them the first read for everyone.  

I told my tweeting colleagues that my approach back in the day was to think of funding news not just as a one-off event, but instead as an opportunity to dive deeper. I should admit that this was not necessarily a novel idea — I had learned it on the job. As I previously recounted in a many years-old post, when I was a young reporter, “my then editor would often chastise me for focusing too much of my time on investors. While investors & investment dollars are a good barometer when measuring the story worthiness of a startup, they aren’t the story, because what really matters is the company: its product, its technology, its founders, and the business they are trying to build.”

News flash: investors are never the story. (Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have ranted about this topic.) 

Think of funding news as a notification on your iPhone: a chance to bring more attention to the startup. As a writer, you could dig into a company, what it does, why it matters, and how it redefines the competitive landscape. Money is just a means to an end. That end goal is what’s important.  Of course, this approach means that a writer has to really understand their coverage area — be it cloud, climate, online video, connected devices, the emergent web, or mobile ecosystems. 

Even today, whenever I see a news story about an event, I hope the story will inform and educate me about the company and its potential. Instead, I often get some meaningless drivel about the investors. The sad truth is that the “funding news” story as we know it has largely become a PR event. It’s just theater. In most cases, it isn’t even news — the funding likely happened many months ago. Furthermore, these days, media attention is more or less reserved for big funding rounds, focusing on how much cash some megafund puts into a company, how much the company is valued, and whether or not it is now a unicorn.  

To some extent, this is understandable. The sheer amount of money pumping into the ecosystem, and the gigantic scale of the startup ecosystem, means that the media folks have to use rough filters to focus their attention. Still, I will stand by my earlier argument: funding should be a trigger to tell a bigger story about the role of the company and the opportunity this event is likely to unlock. Additionally, by stepping back and paying attention to a range of funding news releases, a reporter can see common themes emerge, revealing shifts in the landscape and interesting market trends. This is fertile ground for finding optimism and excitement in the vast expanding technology landscape. 

The world as we know it stands on the precipice of massive change. We are transforming from an industrial society to a digitally enabled planet. How we live, work, consume, and create is changing. This shift has corporate and cultural implications. For instance, the workplace and the very definition of work is changing. Simultaneously, we are facing a planet-wide existential climate crisis. Against this backdrop of this change, we need to have optimism and enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and startups. To do so, we must go beyond the press release and the headline to determine the relevance of a startup to these pressing challenges.

Sometimes, funding news is not just funding news. 

PS: How to write a good blog post

July 12, 2021. San Francisco

Twitter is going the way of subscriptions in 2021 — after buying Revue, the company today snapped up Scroll for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition is a smart move — it allows Twitter to play to its strengths — media and media distribution. 

Scroll is a prix fixe media buffet –for $5 a month, readers can view articles, ad-free, from about 300 odd media outlets. The $5 a month subscription is then shared with the publishers. Good idea, but as Scroll founder Tony Haile points out in his blog post announcing the deal, “we’re not moving fast enough.” 

A lot has to do with the media industry and its bureaucratic disfunction. The fact remains that destination viewing of media is becoming a habit only reserved for a fading generation of readers. Discovery, distribution, and consumption of media have taken on a different meaning. And believe it or not — Twitter is smack in the middle of this Venn diagram. 

Twitter, just by incorporating Scroll, can increase its footprint and impact on the media business.

Last year, I wrote a piece — What Twitter could learn from Spotify. In my piece, I outlined a strategy that would help Twitter reinvent itself but also help provide a vital lifeline for not only establishment media but also independent creators. But in doing so, I reasoned that 

Twitter has to be “willing to rethink its entire core application, jettison the past,” and only then can it “create a more relevant, robust, and financially rewarding future.” (I don’t want to repeat myself, so you are better off reading the earlier piece at your leisure.

With Spaces, Revue, and now Scroll, Twitter has started to think different — though if it will be enough for the company to regain its mojo, remains to be seen. It seems the newest recruit, Scroll CEO Tony Haile, does see the bigger picture.

“When you see Spaces, Revue or Scroll, you see Twitter focused on expanding, not encroaching on the value it helps others to create,” he writes on the Scroll blog. “Twitter is marching to the beat of a different drum and knows success will come from a bigger pie not a larger slice.”

In his post announcing the deal, he points out what makes Twitter unique compared to every other big platform — read Facebook. 

“For every other platform, journalism is dispensable. If journalism were to disappear tomorrow their business would carry on much as before,” Haile writes. “Twitter is the only large platform whose success is deeply intertwined with a sustainable journalism ecosystem.” 

And he is right — it is not just journalism in the classic sense. Journalism, as we have known, is changing. Twitter can’t fall into the trap of the media’s past and almost always lean into the future. Whether it is live conversations, podcasts, video streams, photos, newsletters, everything that is media can benefit from Twitter’s taking a cue from that other content company, Spotify. 


PS: Being very self-referential today, I dug up this little piece from 2012:

Over the past few years we have started to see the transformation of media by new technologies, new methods of distribution and newer ways to consume information I have always believed that we’ve got to stop thinking of media as what it was and focus on more of what it could be. In the world of plenty, the only currency is attention and attention is what defines “media.” Zynga is fighting Hollywood for attention (and winning). Instagram is taking moments away from other media. They have attention. There are old companies that are dying and new ones that are being invented. 

Paul Kedrosky’s Charts Newsletter had this wonderful graphic highlighting the increasing woes of traditional media formats, thanks to millennials and GenZ. However, things don’t look bad for one category: books.

Kids (and older kids) are still reading books at a decent clip, and perhaps will continue to do so, mostly it is a good antidote to the fractionalized and noisy media environment. This is such a huge opportunity for innovation around the “book” format.

With digital book formats and the rise of audiobooks, there is an opportunity to make books more in sync with the new audience. For start, books could be leaner — most books are about 50 percent overweight. They could be published faster — the current cycle takes somewhere between 18-to-24 months before a book is available to the readers. My ideal book — given my millennial like attention span — is one that takes an equivalent of a flight across the country.

The old fashioned paper books have one problem — they take up too much space. I grapple with that issue all the time — I have too many books and need to give some away!

November 13, 2020, San Francisco