Friday Roast: the death of the web is the Evil Empire's big lie

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 7, 2016
If the network players have their way, your understanding of the web will fade away. Don't buy the Big Lie.

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Two on the bounce - Friday Roast's that is and we're only two weeks into the New Year. This time my target is the insidious and dangerous idea being hawked around that the web is dying and that hyperlinks are worthless. For me, this is about the Evil Empire setting the stage for an epic battle that will see many casualties but which will ultimately fail. What's going on?

Just prior. during and after the holiday period, there was a small but steady stream of op-ed pieces and prognostications that basically say two things: the independent web is dying (or dead already in some texts) and that hyperlinks have no value. The argument is predicated on the fact that the large networks aka Facebook today but possibly others like Medium tomorrow, ARE the internet. They don't say that explicitly, but that's the battleground with first Google and then you and me in the firing line.

Do Not Believe The Bullshit on this one. It is neither remotely true nor defensible. Here is a selection of some of the reporting around this topic:

The hegemonic lie

This from Politico on Medium:

The Knight Foundation earlier this month awarded a $140,000 grant to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website run by the Tampa Bay Times, to fact check the growing number of claims politicians are making on Medium.

But the pushback only captures some of what makes Medium so appealing in the first-place – it’s an end-run around the media.

That is only one arena and some sections of the political class are far from happy. Again, from Politico:

The company [Medium] — which raised $57 million in new funding last fall from venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Google's venture arm — is aiming to make money off sponsored content, which looks nearly identical to unpaid stories. It's already partnered with BMW on a collection of posts called "Re:form," aimed at amplifying the car brand through stories.

Medium cannot decide what it wants to be but it does want to become a network magnet for many types of content. CEO Ev Williams has learned about business model problems from his background as co-founder of Twitter. He is publicly musing about a variety of possible business models that include paid for content, subscriptions and advertising supported. I can't see how that model works unless carefully finessed. Even so, Medium is very attractive to a certain type of commentator that wants to play the vanity card off the back of Medium's high media profile.

Then there is Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the clearest statement yet of his distaste for anyone who doesn't 'get' his view of the world in a whiny assed piece published in India over the holiday period. Here is The Guardian's take:

In an opinion piece published by the Indian newspaper the Times of India, Zuckerberg equates internet access to education and health provision, claiming it could help relieve the poverty of one billion people in India who are not currently online.

“Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim – falsely – that this will give people less choice,” he wrote. “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite.”

The Times of India was blunt in its assessment:

Perhaps the answer behind why Zuckerberg is ignoring these options lies in how Professor Vishal Misra of Columbia University, one of the foremost researchers on Net Neutrality, defines it: Net Neutrality is about the ISPs (and telecom operators) not giving a competitive advantage to any particular website or application.

Today, Facebook, in partnership with Reliance Communications, reserves the right to reject applications from websites and apps for Free Basics, and forces them to conform to its technical guidelines. Services which compete with telecom operator services will not be allowed on Free Basics.

We have seen Facebook, along with Twitter and LinkedIn, progressively shut down open aspects of their services so as to force content onto their properties in a classic re-imagination of the walled garden or, as I prefer to think about it, roach motel.

The crappy business model

It all comes down to one thing - the business model. In each case, the land grab for ad dollars is a huge motivating factor. I get that. I get that in a commoditized world where distribution that used to be in the hands of powerful media outlets has become free. In that world, winner takes all and to be perfectly frank, I don't care if Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn divvy up the world between them that way. While it is a battle for your and my hearts and minds today, it is based upon a monopolistic falsehood that requires one or other of these players to be the dominatrix.

The bigger problem today is that a good number of the media outlets are playing along, either wittingly or unwittingly. When you see for instance, a panel of selected articles from say Taboola and click through then you are almost always faced with a minefield of pop-ups, pop-overs and interstitial ads that make any possibility of reading an article nigh on impossible. Is it therefore any wonder that people like Ben Thompson at Stratechery declare that hyperlinks are so over?

The 'dead' hyperlink

But it is when Thompson uses his authority status to persuade the rest of us that linking is a waste that he strays into dangerous territory. This from one of this week's missives to paid subscribers (I am one as I enjoy what he has to say, even if I think it is wrong at times.)

Any publisher with a Google Analytics account knows that people simply don't click links. I certainly do: one reason I always include the important parts of a story in the excerpts I put in the Daily Update is because I know 95% of you are not going to click a single link (and I suspect that's being generous; I actually stopped tracking link clicks quite a while ago because it wasn't worth the effort or intrusiveness).

And why should you? Clicking a link, particularly on mobile, entails a full-stop interruption of what you were doing; it is expensive, not just in terms of measurable things like bandwidth and time, but also in terms of the cognitive load of navigating an unfamiliar site that is probably cluttered with ads and an interstitial just for fun. From a user experience perspective, particularly when it comes to online media, links suck. And, from the perspective of the person providing the link, there is no guarantee that you will come back from your crappy experience excursion.

In other words, from the perspective of those wishing to convey information, those wishing to consume information, and those controlling the means by which that information is distributed, links are a bad thing: they are a barrier between creators and consumers.

It is hard to know where to start with this particular piece of fetid crap but I'll do the easy bit first.

Thompson is right to say that people don't click links. I qualify that by 'mostly.' We see that in our analysis. That has always been the case. In the very early days of blogging, content creators were worried about linking, afraid it would take people away from whatever they are reading. Large media publishers were even more afraid and didn't link to anything. Those of us who were linking like crazy knew this was folly.

The hyperlink grew out of an academic need to provide an easy way to reference other people's thinking. The hyperlink performs that task brilliantly. Those of us who were early in the game also knew that the hyperlink is an exceptionally efficient way to both share and propagate ideas.

The notion of the 'riffed' piece, where one person states a case and another counters was born out of that idea. WE LOVE IT because the hyperlink provides the conversational context for many topics for which there are rarely cut and dried answers. It is one of the main ways in which Google assesses 'authority,' an incredibly important part of its neutral stance on information discovery.

In my terms, my payment for a fresh piece of context from elsewhere is that I will send you, the reader, away, so that you will (at some point) come back. Anything else becomes a problem of the kind that others are finding in the sense that easy fact checking, or contextual understanding becomes almost impossible.

The fact Thompson believes the cost of clicking a link is too high for the mobile reader has nothing to do with the link itself but everything to do with the mobile experience and design and an artifact of the already failed ad-model. There are other ways to solve this problem.

I for example love Dave Pell's Next Draft. (Go find it in the iOS/Android store.) It is a masterful example of how you deliver bites sized pieces of information that include clean and relevant links to the topic in hand. I click on many of the links he provides - and then click back. Today Pell's content is free but I would willingly pay. If you have tried Espresso from the Economist then you understand the model.

Hossein Dharkhshan tells us of the consequences of falling for the Big Lie. In 2008, he was imprisoned in Iran. He was released in 2014. He saw the transformation that has occurred during that time.

For me, as the 2015 equivalent of Rip Van Winkle, this entertaining, passive, linear and centralized space is not the Web I used to know. It is more like television.

The consequences are grave.

More and more readers of digital media are migrating to Facebook, and fewer people visit Web pages directly any more. So digital media and independent authors have lost a lot of advertising income, yet they are now coaxed into paying money to “boost” their Facebook posts to reach their very own audience.

Digital media have been forced into generating “viral” and often silly stories to survive, causing a blow to serious journalism.

Ironically, his commentary appears on Medium.

My take

We do not believe that many audience segments want 'television' Facebook style. There is a reason that popular though it may be, Fox News can't trump Netflix. Quality wins, not gobs of pap. For those that want a drive by Internet, knock yourselves out on Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn, Twitter - whatever.

Our 'feet of clay' view is a large part of why we see diginomica's position as an advert free content provider as crucially important in an otherwise ad-driven world where winner takes all.

We believe the freedom to provide unfiltered and sometimes harsh commentary and analysis is vitally important to the interests of everyone in the enterprise space. If it is any other way then media becomes another point of reference that buyers cannot trust.

The hyperlink is the basis upon which information can be meaningfully and useful shared and expanded upon. It doesn't have to be an 'academic' web but if that was the only choice then I'd much prefer it. Put in other terms, my children and grandchildren have experienced a world they could never dream about that has been facilitated by the humble hyperlink. Anyone who thinks that's 'bad' is on the cusp of denying a future that should not represent the rolling back of information sources but the copious expansion. It is as much the future for all of us as it is the future of education and work.

In short - don't buy The Big Lie.

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