“I ain’t gonna kill ya. Hell, I’m gonna grant you your greatest wish. I’m going to show you a world without sin.”
A trend I have been watching my entire career is achieving escape velocity right before my very eyes. That which was the Great Hope of my adolescence is not just getting shitter -we have already covered that- it is dying. Anansi has left the building. The web is ending:
In this future, what publications will have done individually is adapt to survive; what they will have helped do together is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry. Which sounds extremely lucrative! TV makes a lot of money, and there’s a lot of excellent TV. But TV is also a byzantine nightmare of conflict and compromise and trash and waste and legacy. The prospect of Facebook, for example, as a primary host for news organizations, not just an outsized source of traffic, is depressing even if you like Facebook. A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.
And so one more obvious theoretical question for this particular view of the future that seems to be quite popular right now, in which we have circled back to TV via the internet or apps or social media or even TV itself: Wasn’t the internet supposed to be BETTER, somehow, in all its broken decentralized chaos and glory? The TV industry, which is mediated at every possible point, is a brutal interface for culture and commerce.
The web is becoming television. That’s a quote from what may well be the last perfect website left in the wild, The Awl. I love it. Sometimes I want to unhinge my jaw and swallow it whole: Literary magazines for socialists funded by the CIA, ranked. That is wonderful. That is the internet I fell in love with. And it’s the site that the Great and the Good read:
Founded in 2009 by Choire Sicha, Alex Balk, and David Cho, The Awl stands counter to the prevailing trends in the media industry, commenting skeptically on the conventions of the wider web while running a mix of stories that are both wide-ranging and unabashedly specific: writerly reviews of the previous day’s weather, deconstructions of minion memes, tirades against negronis and the Moon, personal essays, deadpan lists, poetry. The site’s tone, knowingly smart and aloof from the news cycle, is especially popular among people who work in media, and it has become a farm team for larger publications. Lately, under the editorship of Herrman and Matt Buchanan, it also publishes some of the most incisive criticism about the ongoing collision of media and technology.
The Awl’s unique position is partly the result of its business practices and goals. The site has expanded into a network, with the comedy site Splitsider, the women-oriented site The Hairpin, and the personal finance site The Billfold. At a time when venture capital feels abundant, it’s entirely self funded and profitable, though with a very thin cushion. In an industry obsessed with rapid growth, the editors are wary of scaling up. When the company expands — as it plans to do soon with a new parenting site run by former Gizmodo editor Brian Barrett — it does so cautiously, by partnering with writers. A few months ago, The Awl gained a newsletter by bringing Laura Olin’s Everything Changes under the site’s banner, and now Buchanan and Herrman are launching a podcast, which they’ll host, record, and edit themselves.
The Awl has found a way to make being small work in an industry that favors scale and mass appeal, and it’s become the sort of place where writers like Herrman and Buchanan can stand back and watch the content dynamo churn. But the company is subject to the same forces they’ve been warning about, and the people who built it are thinking about how to navigate the weird new internet taking shape.
Herrman and Buchanan think the media industry is due for a reckoning. The transition from media hosted on websites to media built around social platforms is more profound than people realize, Herrman says. As more content is published directly onto Facebook, users will gradually lose a sense of who’s producing what. The most consequential journalism becomes just another unit of content in a single stream of music videos, movie trailers, updates from friends and relatives, advertisements, and viral tidbits from sites adept at gaming fast-changing algorithms and behaviors. Readerships that seem large now will turn out to be as ephemeral as Snapchats.
How did it come to this? Who can we blame? Blame yourselves. Blame your aversion to friction. Blame the apps that drive your life. What else are you going to do? Use the mobile web? That fucking piece of shit?
And that’s troubling. Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media. Earlier this year, I called Facebook the new AOL; Instant Articles comes from the same instinct as AOL trying to bring Time Warner’s media content into its app just before the web totally kicked its ass. Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the web to build replacements for the web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of web innovation it’s taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve.
[T]he web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.
The overall state of the mobile web is so bad that tech companies have convinced media companies to publish on alternative platforms designed for better performance on phones. Apple doesn’t allow anyone else to build a new browser engine for the iPhone, so Facebook’s Instant Articles is really just Facebook’s attempt to sidestep that restriction by building an entirely new content rendering system — Facebook’s major stated motivation for Instant Articles is an attempt to bring down the 8-second average loading time for mobile web pages. You will note that Facebook hasn’t built an app for desktops, or tried to roll out Instant Articles for the desktop; the web works just fine when the browsers actually work.
Apps have become nearly irrelevant on desktops because the web experience is close to perfect, while apps are vitally important on phones because the web experience is dismal.
So inevitably, it is what River’s teacher tried to explain to her: why resist when the user/life experience is so much better? You can have the frictionless app experience of the central planets, or you can take your chances in the Reaver-infested outer ones. River, as she is wont to do, responds appropriately.
Where does this end? What does the end of the web look like? It looks like China. It looks like WeChat:
Known in Chinese as Weixin — “micro letter” — WeChat is first and foremost a messaging app for sending text, voice, and photos to friends and family. It was launched just 4 years ago by Chinese investment holding company Tencent, one of the largest internet companies in the world. As of earlier this year, WeChat had 549 million monthly active users (MAUs) among over one billion registered users, almost all of them in Asia. To put that in context: That’s only 150M MAUs fewer than Facebook Messenger… [Gordon: That’s Facebook Messenger’s GLOBAL numbers.]
Downloading the app is free, and WeChat has only just begun to experiment with advertising revenue, so where then does its ARPU magic lie? (Especially when one remembers the difficulty of monetizing other universal, utilitarian services like email.) The short answer is that it offers more functionality. Along with its basic communication features, WeChat users in China can access services to hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, recognize music, search for a book at the local library, meet strangers around you, follow celebrity news, read magazine articles, and even donate to charity … all in a single, integrated app.
Much has been written about WeChat in the context of messaging app trends, but few outside of China really understand how it works — and how it can pull off what for many companies (and countries) is still a far-off vision of a world managed entirely through our smartphones. Many of WeChat’s most interesting features — such as access to city services — are not even visible to users outside China. So why should people outside of China even care about WeChat? The first and most obvious reason is that it points to where Facebook and other messaging apps could head. Second, WeChat indicates where the future of mobile commerce may lie. Third, WeChat shows what it’s like to be both a platform and a mobile portal (what Yahoo could have been).
Ultimately, however, WeChat should matter to all of us because it shows what’s possible when an entire country — which currently has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 2/3 of its population) — “leapfrogs” over the PC era directly to mobile. WeChat was not a product that started as a website and then was adapted for mobile, it was (to paraphrase a certain movie) born into it, molded by it.
What I secretly love about sharing these posts that better belong in my work world, rather than my blog world, is how quickly cognitive dissonance sets in. The last time I bemoaned the end of blogs and RSS, a number of commenters and emailers entirely missed the point, thinking it was about them… a very ‘world without sin’/app answer. It’s not. The creation of magical culture -to summon an amusingly relevant metaphor from magic’s own history- is a grand Venetian building… with Venetian foundations. And the cruise ships filled with American retirees are a comin’.
While we are all upstairs selfie-sticking images of ourselves with the Piazza San Marco as a blurry background, some kind of James Bond nonsense is going on with our foundations. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s have one more lengthy quote, from an Iranian blogger who went to gaol for blogging, about our foundations, our hyperlinks. And it’s a lengthy quote because, in a world without
sin friction, nobody clicks on links. That’s actually his point.
Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.
Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.
Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object -the same as a photo, or a piece of text- instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.
At the same time, these social networks tend to treat native text and pictures -things that are directly posted to them- with a lot more respect than those that reside on outside web pages. One photographer friend explained to me how the images he uploads directly to Facebook receive a large number of likes, which in turn means they appear more on other people’s news feeds. On the other hand, when he posts a link to the same picture somewhere outside Facebook -his now-dusty blog, for instance- the images are much less visible to Facebook itself, and therefore get far fewer likes. The cycle reinforces itself.
Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram -owned by Facebook- doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.
But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage -and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.
More or less, all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: It is more empowering. When a powerful website -say Google or Facebook- gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it -it brings it into existence; gives it life. Metaphorically, without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe. No matter how many links you have placed in a webpage, unless somebody is looking at it, it is actually both dead and blind; and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page.
On the other hand, the most powerful web pages are those that have many eyes upon them. Just like celebrities who draw a kind of power from the millions of human eyes gazing at them any given time, web pages can capture and distribute their power through hyperlinks.
But apps like Instagram are blind -or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.
The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex -and secretive- algorithms.
The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.
Burning analogue platforms
I appreciate this is a really rather long and roundabout way of making a couple of personal book announcements, but that’s because I wanted to contextualise them in terms of what I see over the medium term for magical discourse. Firstly, there was this little announcement last Friday from the good people at Scarlet Imprint:
The response on various social platforms, in the comments, via email, Gtalk (one mad fucker even rang me) was just absolutely lovely… it gave me a benign, loving semi for you all. Thank you very much. There is a further update on all things book-shaped, however, and it is this:
For the love of god, pre-order them both! In the case of Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits, head over to Scarlet Imprint and sign up to their mailing list. (If you’re not already on it, you need to have a long look at how you are living your life, anyway.)
As for The Chaos Protocols, Amazon algorithms treat pre-orders as probably their most important signal in determining where a title ranks for a particular category… if a book gets more than average preorders for said category, it indexes higher on launch, shows up in your inbox, that sort of thing. So do it as a favour to me, even if you are intending to buy it from a physical book shop (assuming there are any left in April 2016)… you can always cancel it next year if you’re still angry about the fact a big, giant corporation is run by an asshole who expects people to work really late. (This surprises you? Your smart phone was made by slaves.)
There is an additional project that orbits around these other two that I’ll bring up at a later stage. But they are all interrelated insofar as they speak to something we all feel, which is that culture creation is being simultaneously de-platformed, re-platformed, de-indexed and just generally phase transitioning.
[M]y guess is that within three years, it will be normal for news organizations of even modest scale to be publishing to some combination of their own websites, a separate mobile app, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Snapchat, RSS, Facebook Video, Twitter Video, YouTube, Flipboard, and at least one or two major players yet to be named. The biggest publishers will be publishing to all of these simultaneously.
This sounds stranger than it will feel: Publishing to these other platforms will be automated. Reporters will write their articles, and their content management system will smoothly hand them to Facebook, Snapchat, or Apple News. There’s nothing new here, really — this is already how RSS feeds work.
But there will be more of them, and they will matter much more. The RSS audience is small. The off-platform audience will be huge. The publishers of tomorrow will become like the wire services of today, pushing their content across a large number of platforms they don’t control and didn’t design.
The upside of being a wire service is the potential audience: It is vast, and it is diverse. The possible downside is innovation. Wire services have to provide a product all of their subscribers can use — no matter how they publish or design their paper. So wire copy needs to be simple. Stories the Associated Press sends to its customers can’t be as innovative in their form as stories the New York Times or the Washington Post lovingly design for their front pages. [More.]
Let’s look at some of the changes to the digital components of magical discourse over the last couple of years that have either happened or are about to:
- I bemoan it regularly -and still half-think I will one day build a replacement- but the end of Google Reader signified the death of RSS.
- As of February of this year, Google also announced that it will no longer be supporting Feedburner; which is this blog’s RSS platform. I would say around half of my posts now show up about twenty hours late, especially for the sizeable number of you that have subscribed via email.
- Google is ‘shaping’ its ad exchange so that the greatest bid depth is found over ‘quality publisher’ websites and not the wider internet. (I was in the room when they said this, by the way. Don’t look for it.) They have also allocated a few hundred million to assist ‘quality publishers’ make the transition to successful digital publishing. Ie, Google spending Google’s money to make sure CNBC ranks higher than, say, Zero Hedge.
- Google has announced they will de-index or manually reduce the search ranking of content they consider spurious: ‘conspiracy theories’ and the such. Ie information other than what you may find on CNBC or spewing from the psy op morons masquerading as scientists on television. This is going to be a big one for magic, obviously, because magic is self-evidently nonsense.
- Oh, and you just watch as they rig the next election in favour of whichever candidate promises to do whatever they say.
What all of this amounts to in my globally-recognised-expert-opinion-for-which-I-am-very-well-paid is… I don’t know. I don’t actually know what the trajectory is over the next three years for finding the others. The best I can suggest is that we all hold hands and go skydiving above this world without sin.
Here are a few slides from a presentation I gave at a big data/future of audiences conference in London earlier in the year:
Online-to-offline is the biggest trend nobody is talking about, because most digital talking heads are over the age of 35, thus their lived experience of the internet is something that you escape to, not escape from…the digital is pre-eminent and ubiquitous for under 35s, scarcity and thus value is located in the real or the time-based (ie real).
And in the shower this morning, it occurs to me there is another way of describing -or at least expanding upon- my regular admonitions to decentralise All The Things. The web as originally conceived built redundancy by network effect: there was nowhere you could go to ‘switch off’ the internet… re-routing was the rule of the road. You and I are now required to replicate this redundancy in an analogue fashion as long as it touches the earth or the ‘real’ somewhere in the network: that means a you-specific network of tweets, emails, brunches, Facebook shares, books, skype calls, smoke signals, string-can phones and P2P financing.
So, without very much more ado, I have some new things to share:
- You should already have my Twitter and YouTube pages from this blog. But they’re top right if not. Also, I know some of you use Slack, so if you want to be part of the Rune Soup Slack then email, female.
There is also a newsletter sign-up on the Facebook page which at the moment does nothing but if you have subscribed to the blog via email you will eventually be moved over to it as I am moving away from Feedburner now that it is massively shit. (Note: You won’t have to do anything, this will just happen. And if you decide you want to unsubscribe or whatever, there is a full preference centre.) Sign up now though, even if you are an RSS subscriber, as it will be a completely separate platform. In my head, it’s going to be a slightly bitchier platform, but that could just be the hanger talking as I skipped lunch.
I grumbled a bit over all of this for the last couple of months, and it took literally all my actual work-related content strategy skills (plus one of those meeting rooms where the walls are all whiteboard) to map a me-specific network that is manageable from a single place for a single individual. My reasons for doing so are this:
- Now that the books are out the door, there are more AV pieces which actually fit better in a platform world that I’ll be turning to.
- Also I now have books to promote. So there’s that.
- This sounds like a commercial for a shampoo, but “many people ask me” where I get my content, where they should get their content, and so on. This is another thing I don’t have an answer for and the conditions of our reality are now too intense to say “get good at twitter, follow me on twitter, and get it from there.” Now I should be able to share and respond in a cross-platform way that will also ‘remove some of the friction’ from your own onward sharing experience. Ie – I just lubed up your butts. You’re welcome.
- ‘Analogue’ network redundancy. The various algorithms in play here -Twitter, Facebook, Google- mean that we should all strive to maintain connectivity around their capricious response to all our ‘woo’ content.
Obviously, the blog is my first love. It will always be here and it will always be at the heart and soul of Rune Soup the platform as it sprawls out into books, dance pieces, arena spectaculars, poorly-attended pet fairs and whatever else comes our way. But there are content types that are no longer ‘blog shaped’, such as updates from long-running series; archonology, etc; that require something like cross-platform immediacy.
I don’t know where this leads -because no one does- and there will likely be kinks to iron out along the way, but let’s see if we can’t work out what a chaos magic blog looks like in a world without sin. Hopefully it looks like two books on your bookshelf.
That we can talk about in person when we meet. Which we will.