This image encapsulates the history of technology and media. It started with the printing press. It offered a jump forward from people communicating with each other by letters scratched out with a goose quill pen. Printing led to the first newspapers in Europe in the 17th C. With the industrial revolution and the rise of urban society newspapers and magazines began to reach a mass audience. Every little town had a newspaper. Then along came the media barons who like their counterparts in manufacturing industries began to take over and dominate. This led to major newspaper chains that wielded power as advertisers and political clout. The decedents of the founding barons often maintained family controlled media empires for a long time. When broadcast media emerged as a challenge to print media, the major companies were quick to grab up the licenses for radio and later TV. A fairly small group of people were able to dominate the bulk of mass media.
Digital computers appeared on the scene shortly after WW II. For the next 30 years or so they were large expensive devices that were used by corporations, government and academic institutions. Beginning in the 60s they began to be linked together in an internet but you had to be an insider to have access. Then in the 80s the advent of the microcomputer which we now call a desktop brought on what can be accurately describes as a revolution. It became possible for ordinary people with a little disposable cash to have their own computer and to link it to the internet. This all led to the dotcom boom and bubble. It opened all sorts of possibilities for people connecting with each other and bypassing the hierarchical control structures of government and private industry. Billions a data bytes were written about the brave new world of democratic media and citizen journalists that was about to unfold.
It was in this atmosphere that a squalling infant named Daily Kos came into the world in 2002. You can go to the Internet Archive, put in http://www.dailykos.com, and pick various dates to get a retrospective of how it has developed over the past 12 years. In internet years that is quite a long time. This was a time when the word blog was new to the language. The site's initial purpose was to raise a voice of protest to the excesses of the Bush administration following 9/11. It managed to connect with a lot of like minded people and it turned from just another blog into something of a political movement with the participants calling themselves Kossaks. It grew from an all volunteer effort into a successful business venture that was able to dramatically expand its audience and to fund the development of technology that was tailored to its community oriented activities.
Daily Kos does not exist in some sort of splendid isolation. It is of necessity linked to the technology that brought it into existence. The world of that technology and the people who are using it and exploiting it change daily. Sites like Daily Kos are forced to change with it. One of the important things that made it possible for independent websites to prosper was the advent of Google and its advertisement based revenue model that made it possible for third party sites to benefit financially from ads placed by Google on their pages. That particular goose and its golden eggs have entered a state of decline with falling revenues to both Google and the participating third party sites. The linked article explores various issues that have led to this. One of them is the newest computer revolution, the rise of mobile.
Smartphones and tablets make it possible for people to be connected to the internet just about anywhere they go. They offer immense convenience but accessing a site and its content with them is fundamentally different from using a desktop with a good sized screen. Their widespread use has sent sites scrambling to develop formats and applications that are fully accessible to mobile users. This has resulted in numerous knock on impacts on internet technology, some of them anticipated and others not. The mobile revolution has coincided with the social media revolution and together they are creating something like a perfect storm for content sites like Daily Kos.
As Daily Kos evolved and developed it took on several functions. In addition to providing news and information content along with political campaigns it also provided a social network for the people who were regular participants. People developed interest groups around activities other than politics. Markos, I think wisely, encouraged this rather than seeing it as distracting from the site's basic mission. It was in essence social media. At the same time other sites were developing that had no interest in content media but were entirely focused of social connections. This was getting underway just as Daily Kos was beginning to take off. Initially there were several social media networks competing with each other. However, it wasn't long before, just as in the history of other forms of media, a new baron emerged. The internet was confronted with the appearance of:
With 1.3B users Facebook has become a dominant force in internet media. Initially it adopted a format of being content neutral. It provided a place for people to connect with each other and let them generate their own content. For a variety of reasons large numbers of people found it a hospitable environment. It was easy and it was free. People who had been networking on Daily Kos decamped for Facebook. Like most other new media pioneers Zuckerberg found himself with a hoard of followers who weren't paying him any money. He then had to come up with a business model for making money from all that traffic. Among other things he became a competitor of Google for the revenue generated by people wanting to advertise on the internet. So at the same time he was taking away traffic from other sites and was one of the forces cutting into their advertising revenue.
That description sounds fairly simple, but the rise of Facebook and mobile traffic seems to be creating some fairly complex alterations in internet ecology. Tracking and managing the traffic for a website has become much more complex over the past few years. For a long time most internet sites that want to attract traffic have prominently displayed the like and share buttons for various social networks with Facebook and Twitter being at the head of the list. More recently they have been pushed into various means of more actively following and managing their relationship with Facebook.
This is a fairly techie article by a guy that has done tech management for some large internet content sites. I thought it would be useful to provide the link because it is useful for people interested in the details of what is happening. For those who aren't here are some of the more basic implications.
The second takeaway was historical: I said that social networks have only structured the experience of sharing on the web, not created it. Facebook was not only just a subset of sharing, but one that antedated many other forms. That is still true, but the social networks—by which I mostly mean Facebook—have begun to eat away at the roots of the old ways of sharing on non-commercial platforms. Mobile is becoming the dominant way people access the Internet. And true person-to-person dark social appears to be less prevalent on mobile devices. Because what people like to do with their phones, en masse, is open up the Facebook app and thumb through their news feeds.
Facebook drives up to 20% of traffic to news sites, and on mobile devices, the percentage is even greater — and still growing. As Somaiya puts it, Facebook is quickly becoming to the news business what Amazon now represents to the book publishing industry: an extremely powerful platform that gives publishers access hundreds of millions of customers — and a platform with which they don’t want to pick a fight.
A recent Shareaholic analysis found that Facebook drives four times as much traffic as Pinterest, and year over year, only three social networks — Facebook, Pinterest, and Google Plus — saw their share of traffic grow, with each increasing at least 50% over the past 13 months. Facebook drives 22.36% of overall traffic to sites.
And a study by the Pew Research Center found that about 30% of adults in the U.S. get their news on Facebook — a figure that neatly illustrates the changing reality of how the average consumer finds out about what’s going on in the world. Most users consume journalism not through print editions of newspapers or magazines, or even via their homepages online, but through social media and search engines.
This article goes on with a more in depth analysis of the ways in which Facebook is exerting influence over how a large number of people are exposed to content on the net. It is detailed but not tech challenging.
Daily Kos is making a proactive response to this changing environment. The staff activities have gone well beyond the level of share buttons. Daily Kos like many other businesses and organizations has its page on Facebook. The staff post selected articles that are published on Daily Kos on the Facebook page. They have been able to generate a good response from Facebook users. Many people read the selected articles and comment on them entirely on Facebook. That comment activity does not appear on Daily Kos. Some of them follow the links to the Daily Kos site and that has had a positive impact on the site's overall traffic statistics. This is a development that is happening on all major internet content oriented sites. It is by no means unique to Daily Kos. It is changing the character and environment of the sites. Instead of having a single audience/community composed of the people who are registered users they are now developing separate audiences.
The Zuckerpus is not sitting there quietly just watching all these developments taking place. It seems that he has decided to make internet content sites an offer that he hopes they can't refuse.
Facebook hopes it has a fix for all that. The company has been on something of a listening tour with publishers, discussing better ways to collaborate. The social network has been eager to help publishers do a better job of servicing readers in the News Feed, including improving their approach to mobile in a variety of ways. One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.
That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike. If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.
The New York Times has a page on Facebook now that appears to be a setup like Daily Kos has there. It sounds like this new proposal is a major step toward giving more control to Facebook. I can certainly think of a number of reasons why people operating independent websites would think long and hard about taking that step.
All of this seems like very important change for the internet in general and for the site on it where I spend most of my time. I have tried to put it is an historical context to demonstrate that this is a pattern being repeated. It is not simply a matter of a few particular personalities. New technology creates new possibilities. Enterprising entrepreneurs act to develop and exploit those possibilities.