The Establishment Would Like to Finally Win Now

We’re in the Endgame now.

If you’re someone who pays even a little attention to the world of media and media criticism, you’ve probably already read The Letter.

Titled “A Letter On Justice and Debate” and published in Harper’s, the letter is signed by scores of well-known creatives and writers, and essentially argues the world has become unfair. It’s too easy for an angry mob of politically correct individuals, the letter states, to “cancel” well-meaning writers, editors and others simply because they espouse a belief that runs contrary to current conventional wisdom.

Many others have pointed out the various problems with the points put forward in the letter, including that it is filled with straw man arguments, poorly-constructed logic and, most importantly, a desire by the signatories to no longer be subject to any sort of accountability by the public. It holds free speech as the ultimate positive, and sees any criticism as an attempt to stifle that, unaware that seeking to be free from critique or consequence is itself a stifling of others’ speech.

The Letter did not appear out of the blue. It comes after a number of editors and writers have resigned or been let go for allowing editorials that have implicitly or explicitly sanctioned or encouraged violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors, excused or approved of racist, anti-Semetic or anti-LGBTQ policies and ideologies and more, all of which have been roundly and rightly criticized. The targets of these critiques have mostly been employed at large, national publications or are internationally-famous brand names.

Even discounting these recent episodes, the push to keep legacy media free from the voices of the people is one that dates back at least 20 years and highlights one of the key issues dividing “mainstream” media and the “new” media that emerged at the beginning of the millennium.

Big newspapers and magazines were slow in the early days to adopt new online features such as comments that were native to and pervasive on blogs. When they did it was something they struggled with, unsure of who was responsible for moderation (the writer or a web manager?), what those moderation policies should be and how such a feature fit into their overall brand identity. People could always write letters to the editor, but those were filtered before publication where comments were often public immediately.

Some found sustainable ways to allow for public commenting in-house but many either shut down the comments feature completely, restricted usage to people who registered or, later on, outsourced it to Facebook. But the issue remained that being exposed to the public’s feedback was something those in charge were uncomfortable with and didn’t know how to react to.

That problem has only become more pervasive as on-domain comments gave way to off-site social media, a shift that decentralized the conversation and therefore control. Now people could say whatever they wanted on their own platforms and there was little the traditional gatekeepers could do about it.

Being subject to this kind of unfiltered response system is new and, quite frankly, disconcerting to many of these folks. They see themselves in the business of opinion-making and hold the unfortunate belief that any opinion is worth discussing because without it they would be unable to fill their column inches. “We’re just asking questions” is a common response when someone receives push back, a tactic used to free themselves from any responsibility for their actions.

Not all opinions are worth discussing, and saying that bringing fringe or dangerous beliefs to the forefront in the interest of public awareness belies the real damage that action can do to vulnerable populations.

Most importantly, being subject to feedback – even negative feedback – is not the same as being denied First Amendment rights. The same is true when someone loses their vaunted position as a professional editorialist at a major newspaper. Their speech is not being denied, they are simply being told their opinions have been found to be objectionable and are no longer welcome at Publication X. They are still free to found another outlet or create their own if they so choose.

There is little room for such nuance or reality in this conversation, though. Those who have made careers of sharing their opinions frequently command salaries well above the journalists and reporters who have been laid off in cost-cutting measures taken by private equity or other profit-minded owners, opinions that are tolerated because they bring in more attention and traffic than hard news, even with those opinions are counter to the public good. They have been free from any sort of repercussions for those opinions for so long that any move in that direction immediately feels like oppression.

It’s a journey we’ve been on for 20 years now. It started when online comments were too hard to manage. Now the tactic has shifted from “well remove comments from the site to” a struggle against “cancel culture” that benefits in many ways from being so hard to define it allows them to point to almost anything as an example of the problems they face.

Meanwhile important or relevant voices are actually silenced because they aren’t allowed to report on an issue they might be affected by. Or workers are punished by their employers for posting opinions on social media that run counter to that company’s interests. Or freelancers are rejected because they once dared to criticize the publication they are pitching.

Whatever the case, this feels like a move meant to finally bring the struggle between gatekeepers and gatebreakers to a conclusion. The new private equity and hedge fund owners of many media companies see this as a risk to their investment and will continue seeking ways to squash those risks. Free speech isn’t a goal but a threat.

If You’re Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast

With the passing of comedy legend Carl Reiner, it’s a good time to share this clip from several years ago. You can learn more about writing – in any medium – from this than any 10 books devoted to the subject. Namely: What you write has to work. You can’t throw something random out and hope it lands. It has to actually land.

Reiner’s credits are too numerous to count. From “The Show of Shows” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to The Jerk to scores of other shows and movies. It’s great that a new generation of filmgoers were able to see him glide in and out of scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, adding humor and presence to everything he did, just like always.

Of course you can’t overlook his many many collaborations with Mel Brooks, with whom he had the kind of chemistry you usually only find in research labs.

Whatever it is he was doing, it all came down to the writing.

Vertigo, MAD and the Power of Weird Brands

There needs to be a place for material outside the mainstream.

[Note: I wrote the below back in August but obviously never published it. In the wake of the news that Dan DiDio has seemingly been pushed out of DC Comics and that DC Collectibles is reclaiming the DC Direct name it was founded under I made a few updates and am sharing it now.]

vertigo comics logoIt’s been several months since news broke that DC Entertainment was effectively shutting down MAD Magazine, the humor and comedy magazine that has been published for decades, influencing generations of writers, artists and others. That came just a short while after the announcement another DC Entertainment imprint, Vertigo, was being jettisoned and its books and characters brought under the DC brand in various ways.

In an interview from that time, DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio spoke about the state of their company as well as the comics industry as a whole, addressing some of the challenges being faced and how DC is trying to meet and surmount them.

Unstated in that interview, but looming in the background of all of this, is that as part of TimeWarner DC is now owned by AT&T. That reality was on display at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, where DC no longer had a standalone booth but was folded into the WarnerMedia booth. Instead of being in the middle of the convention, DC was off in the corner. There were still plenty of promotions for the comics that form the crux of DC’s business, but the list of artists and writers doing signing was drastically reduced from years past, limited to just a few of the highest profile talent. Previously you could find all kinds of creators there who worked on all kinds of books. Much of the focus was on the off-site multimedia Batman Experience, celebrating the 80th anniversary of that character’s debut.

mad magazine logoDC’s parent company, as pointed out here, may view it more as a lifestyle brand than a comics publisher, hoping that monetizing nostalgia for the iconic characters and symbols it’s developed over the years is more lucrative than actually putting out new stories. That includes the so-far-successful line of YA books based on DC characters that have been released recently as well as other multimedia extensions.

The secondary brands that were Vertigo and MAD just didn’t have that kind of potential. Well…they do, but you have to work harder to get there.

Many projects based on Vertigo books and characters have been developed or announced over the years. But for every “iZombie,” The Kitchen or “Preacher” that makes it to the masses, there are things like Y: The Last Man that lingers and lingers in limbo.

In some cases, the inability to create bigger cultural moments out of Vertigo’s output is chalked up to the deals being complicated tangles of ownership that split control between creators and company in a way that makes development difficult. In others, it’s a testament to the lack of vision that comes from multinational corporations that are risk averse to the point of inaction.

An ambitious company could find decades of material in the list of books published by Vertigo over the years. Any title could be turned into a movie or TV show that may not turn out to be a blockbuster grossing $700 million worldwide but, with the right marketing, could be a decent hit. And if the future is indeed one where theatrical releases are only given to the biggest of the big, the DC Universe streaming outlet could house the rest, not to mention Netflix or the coming HBO Max OTT service.

Of course I have my own personal experiences with both Vertigo and MAD, having managed DC Entertainment’s social media marketing for the better part of five years, from July 2011 to December 2015.

dc directIn that time, I handled Vertigo just as I did DC’s main brand profiles. New books were promoted, announcements shared and so on. The five years I and my team went to Comic-Con, Vertigo was part of our portfolio for on-the-ground coverage. So too, DC Collectibles, the company’s product brand for high-end statues, action figures and other goods.

MAD, on the other hand, was almost completely off-limits. We were told early on that the website and social media profiles for MAD would continue to be managed by the team that was, at the time, still in New York City as opposed to Burbank, where the rest of DC Entertainment was headquartered. They had their own thing going and while we were asked from time to time to offer our thoughts and guidance, day to day we were uninvolved.

The reason was that the MAD team had a sense of their brand that couldn’t be communicated to or replicated by those outside. That’s understandable.

Shutting down the two imprints and brands makes the culture as a whole a little less weird and exciting. These were houses of experimentation, where someone with an odd idea could do their thing and try to find an audience. Many will fall short of that, standing as lone testaments to whatever it is their creators were trying to do.

Even those that did catch on would likely never achieve the kind of scale demanded by the massive companies that now control much of the cultural landscape. That’s why, as the merger was still in the works, niche streaming services like FilmStruck and others were shut down. Meanwhile DC has cut the number of titles it publishes while finding more success with its Facsimile Editions – reprints of classic books that include vintage ads and other details – than it has with many current, ongoing books.

DiDio’s frustration with that reality should prompt the question of who it is that has put him in the position of engaging in a program he disapproves of and would seemingly like to see smothered. It makes me wonder who was calling the shots on Vertigo and MAD being shuttered.

About DiDio: In the years I was working with DC I’m not sure Dan ever actually remembered who I was without someone reminding him. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel the social media work I and the team did was important, it’s just that he was a busy guy with a lot going on at all times. Once his memory was jogged he was always imminently helpful and accommodating, willing to go along with most any of our hair brained ideas. There are few people I encountered who are as passionate about comics, the characters in them, the stories being told and the fans reading them than Dan.

DC was a great company to work with all those years ago and many of the people I dealt with are still there and doing their best. Others have either left of their own volition or been shown the door during one merger-related restructuring or another. Similar situations have happened at other media companies as the tolerance for risk and experimentation among accountants concerned about private equity debt financing falls lower and lower. We need these weirdo fringe brands to keep doing their thing for countless reasons, including that they employ more people than big, streamlined operations that just want to churn out endless variations on the same 12 super hero stories we’ve already seen.

Repeat It Enough and It Happens

As the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump enters the “defense” phase, a thought occurred to me about how the proceedings are playing to the American people.

Right now the main issue seems to be whether or not enough Republicans, who have so far been steadfast in their quest to become the new Know Nothing Party, will cross party lines and seek to hear new evidence that has come to light since the House sent over the articles of impeachment. That would require only four such party defections, while conviction of the president would require 20 some senators to go against the president and their own leadership.

Such defections, even in light of revelations like last night’s report that former Ambassador John Bolton was admitting all of it in an upcoming book (ironically *not* titled I’m A Big Coward Man), have seemed unlikely given the iron grip Trump and others have on rank and file Republicans.

That situation has lead countless commentators across media to couch all of their analysis and predictions about the impeachment trial with some variation on the qualifier “…but it’s a virtual lock the Senate won’t vote to convict Trump.” It’s to the point where the only question is where such a caveat will be placed in their responses.

Such constant repetition of conventional wisdom has, I suspect, had two consequences:

First, it’s impacted public perception of the trial and how it should proceed. While support for conviction and removal from office of Trump remains split along ideological lines, one reason more people aren’t coming around might be that they don’t see a point in it all if it’s not going to happen. Why get worked up about it and hope for justice to be served when every pundit on radio and TV is saying it won’t?

Second, for the same reason the reinforcing of removal being nie impossible to achieve has given cover to those senators who weren’t inclined to break with their marching orders to begin with. Keeping public opinion divided means they don’t have to make a moral stand based on the evidence or any sense of justice but can keep playing partisan politics with little fear of retribution come election time.

While various polls have shown falling trust among the public in mainstream media, situations like this show how much power it still has. Under the guise of both objectivity and the desire to appear well informed, members of the media have repeated the same line over and over again. That has to have had some influence on the public and its view of how the impeachment trial is proceeding, just as it would in any other case. Here, though, the results may be damaging not only to their own industry but to democracy and society as a whole.

We’re Only Immortal For a Limited Time

Neil Peart has passed.

Many people have written about his incredible ability behind a drumset. Many have written about his lyrics that were both sci-fi tinged and undeniably personal and moving.

I can’t add to that. So I will simply say the following:

He made me feel being weird was acceptable.

He made me feel that hearing the world differently was acceptable.

He made me feel that feeling an unusual beat in my life was acceptable.

He made me feel that changing metaphorical time signatures in the middle of the metaphorical song was acceptable.

He made me feel that dropping obscure references to things I loved and enjoyed in my writing – and conversations – was acceptable.

He made me feel being precise wasn’t incompatible with being passionate.

He made me feel being unusual could be a positive, not a detriment.

He made me feel that being true to yourself and not doing things you were uncomfortable with was acceptable.

All of that said, his influence remains. His drumming, his writing and other contributions are all still here. In addition to the music, highly recommended are his books, especially Masked Rider, Ghost Rider and Traveling Music. Each tells a different aspect of Peart’s life and experiences, showing how he dealt with grief or just how he moved through the world.

But Neil Peart has passed. And the world is a little poorer for it.

[picture via Rush.com]

Did…Did People Forget How Podcasts Worked?

The term “Netflix for podcasts” or “YouTube for podcasts” has been thrown around in a number of recent articles about the future of the format. Specifically, a handful of companies are trying to position themselves as the leading portal for anyone interested in listening to podcasts and therefore bring in the lion’s share of advertising that’s forecasted to double this year.

Spotify is betting on exclusive shows, as are both Pandora as part of its expanded push into podcast hosting and the newly-launched Luminary subscription service and . That approach is certainly akin to the Netflix model, which is increasingly reliant on exclusive material to draw in subscribers.

It’s also antithetical to the approach that podcasts have taken since their introduction over 15 years ago.

In a recent interview, Anchor CEO Michael Mignano summed up the open nature of podcasts perfectly.

My point is that the distribution of podcasts, unlike these other platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram, is that the distribution of podcasts is fragmented, and it’s because of RSS. So the way podcasts work now is you have an RSS feed, and then the RSS feed can be consumed by a number of different players or consumption platforms.

As he explains, that RSS feed is platform agnostic, working on any service that acts as a reader. To date that’s included iTunes, Overcast, Spotify and other services, all of which have made podcasts available for free (unless specified by the publisher) and available for listening on any of a variety of devices. That Podcast app on your iPhone? It’s an RSS reader, as is any other software that catches the feed of the shows you subscribe to.

When someone talks about creating “the Netflix of podcasts” what they’re talking about is restricting access to only those who are paying for it. That payment is necessary for the platform company because the ad revenue isn’t going to be sufficient to cover the cost of licensing (or even producing) the shows being offered.

What results is the same sort of fragmented podcast landscape that can currently be found in the streaming video industry Netflix operates in. If you want to watch “Russian Doll,” “Homecoming, “Star Trek Discovery” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” you need subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access and Hulu. There’s no one clearinghouse for all those shows as well as any others you might be interested in.

Spotify, Audible, Pandora and other players want to do likewise for podcasts. But the user experience for audio is much different than it is for video, and having to actively switch between apps to listen to all the shows you’re interested in may not be something the audience will do when all they want is to listen to a bunch of recent episodes while in the car, on the train, while working or in some other situation where the ideal is to hit “Play” and just work through a reverse-chronological feed.

Such fragmentation is likely to only get worse. There’s a substantial disconnect between podcast audience interest and ad revenue and some of that revenue may be cut further as companies like those in the direct to consumer market produce their own instead of advertising on other shows.

Ironically, almost all the companies seeking to carve out a piece of the podcasting territory emphasize “discovery” as one way to help surface more shows to the audience. While there are a few massive hits, most shows have audiences under 200 listeners, something that’s attributable to the outsized promotion of the biggest producers at the expense of the long tail of niche shows. While there are certainly problems with single sources like iTunes, none of them are solved in a situation where 10 different services all have completely different show lineups because of exclusive deals and other restrictions.

The first couple waves of podcast popularity were fueled in large part by the fact you could listen to whatever show you wanted on whatever platform you preferred. Not only could you choose from iTunes, TuneIn and others but you could listen directly on a show’s website. Google Reader, before it was unceremoniously shut down, even supported podcast listening, which could be done right within the feed.

Efforts to become the “Netflix of podcasts” are about gaining control over the industry and format, as podcast/RSS/blogging pioneer Dave Winer points out. That’s the opposite of what’s good for the future of the format, which will become a collection of conflicting interests and proprietary approaches, as a whole or the audience.

There’s a Massive Untapped Market for Subscription Video Games

The last couple years have brought several conversations around the potential of video game streaming services. Not Twitch-like streaming, which is about broadcasts and sharing game play but having subscription-based access to video games you yourself are playing. As Sara Fischer at Axios recently summarized, all the major tech companies are in some phase of working or experimenting with the idea, seeing it as a major new revenue stream and a way to capitalize on the popularity of video games with young people in particular.

One big problem Fischer calls out is that video games tend to be something players consume quickly and just once, working through the story of the latest release and then waiting for the next chapter or installment, which may be a year or more out. They don’t do a lot of replaying, with the stickiest titles being open world games, especially those that feature multiplayer interaction. Here’s how she puts it:

One key difference between video games and entertainment programming is that with gaming, there isn’t as big a market for catalog content —material that people want to consume over and over even when it’s old (think “Friends” or “Seinfeld”).

It’s a good point, but it seems to overlook that there likely *is* a market for older games that can be played time and again. In fact I’d say a focusing on catalog titles – especially those from the first two or three console eras – is exactly what a subscription video game service should do.

Players who want to be part of the zeitgeist and live on the cutting edge of hot titles will probably always want to rush out and get the latest release, the one that has the most buzz and which is going to be a topic of conversation with friends and others online. They might always want to buy or download. A streaming game service would have to have *all* the computing power to handle the demand of so many people trying to play the same game in the first 48 hours it’s available. *All* the power.

On the other end, a more casual player who just wants to unwind with a game at the end of the day might be more willing to pay $9.99/month for access to a collection of older games that can chipped away at for an hour here and there. There’s even more potential appeal if that service is specifically built around older titles since it brings with it the nostalgia factor.

Someone (like myself) who has fond memories of playing “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” on N64 or “Dark Forces” on PC might be very interested in revisiting those games, but buying them outright on Steam seems like an extravagance. Spending $10 for one game is a lot and there are better uses for that if it’s something I’m going to then own outright.

Subscribing to a streaming platform that lets me jump in and play any game I like and bounce between games as my interest or mood dictates, though, is much more attractive. I can do a little bit of a racing game one afternoon, play a “Rebel Assault” mission another night and revisit a classic Spider-Man game some other time. There’s no pressure to finish one or the other in a set time period and, indeed, something like an older racing or adventure game doesn’t really have an ending, it’s just a question of what tracks and cars I choose to select in the moment.

That’s similar to how Netflix has become so popular, by just letting people choose what they want to watch at any given time. If you want to binge all of “Mad Men” in a month, go for it. If it takes you three days to watch Velvet Buzzsaw because life keeps interrupting you, it doesn’t matter.

For the tech companies competing to be first (or best) to market with a streaming video game platform, this kind of long-tail catalog approach doesn’t sound very sexy since it’s not going to be the launching pad for the next “Red Dead Redemption” or “Fortnite.” But there’s a lot of potential for appealing to the player who’s never going to be able to invest the 60-70 hours it takes to finish some of these games, at least not without spreading that time over four or five months because they have jobs to go to, school concerts to attend, significant others to spend time with and so on. A service geared toward them that lets them once more play some of their favorites from when they had free time, though, could be very attractive.

The Cubs Go Exclusive

It’s a rough time to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs, which is an odd sentence to write less than three years after the team famously won their first World Series title in over a century.

Back in the 1980s, before lights were added to Wrigley Field, all Cubs home games were broadcast on WGN-TV at a time that was great for a young fan growing up as a fan of the team. Games began at either 1:20 or 3:05, meaning by the time I got home from school I could catch at least the last couple innings. It was easy to go to the Wrigley ticket window and get tickets an hour before the game started. WGN Radio broadcast every game, home and away. There was always a free or relatively inexpensive way to enjoy the Cubs.

The barriers have been steadily going up since the mid-90s. When WGN-TV became an affiliate of The WB the network shunted about half of the Cubs games it carried over to UPN, a basic cable station. Since then things have become even more scattered around different channels, making it difficult for fans to find games on TV. On radio, broadcasts are now on WSCR.

The TV landscape will change further as Cubs ownership partners with Sinclair Media in a regional sports network named “Marquee.” That deal will effectively spell the end of free Cubs broadcasts, as the RSN will require an additional fee for cable subscribers. That will present a significant hurdle for some people who can’t afford access to the station, meaning a whole group of potential fans will never enjoy games on TV, an easy way to become attached to a team and a sport.

Narrowing the field further is the fact that cable subscriber numbers overall are declining, driven in part by cost and in part by streaming services becoming more attractive with original and licensed content. And the cost of tickets to see the game at Wrigley spiked in the wake of the World Series victory to the most expensive in the major leagues.

All of that makes becoming a fan more difficult logistically. People have less disposable income because while their wages may have risen, those increases have been outpaced by inflation, decreasing the buying power of each dollar earned.

Adding to that are other, more subjective issues. The Chicago Tribune, a corporate cousin of the Cubs when both were owned by The Tribune Company, has long been understood to have a politically conservative editorial stance. But Sinclair Media is even more of a right wing advocacy group, recently making headlines for requiring TV anchors read an inflammatory statement on-air regarding “false news,” meaning any news not found on its own stations. It lost in its bid last year to merge with Tribune Media, with regulators finding its proposed arrangement for station ownership was essentially a sham.

Additionally, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts recently had to address racist statements made by his father Joe in leaked emails, underscoring the family’s long-standing status as supporters of Pres. Donald Trump and other far right-wing figures. The elder Ricketts is no friend to the media in recent years, blaming those outlets for jumping on the email comments while the wounds from his abrupt and questionable shut down of the DNAinfo and Gothamist network of sites despite their popularity and potential were still fresh.

What has happened to the Cubs is indicative of how the media landscape has changed so dramatically so many times in the last decade. Free TV becomes Basic Cable becomes Premium Cable, all as the audience dwindles but revenues are maintained because the remaining subscribers are more wealthy and therefore more attractive to audiences.

At the same time, choices in what media to consume are being made increasingly on ideological affiliation. People are choosing what to watch, read and listen to only after determining that an outlet presents their preferred version of truth.

So the Cubs, once the epitome of how wholesome baseball was and could be, find themselves in the middle of a number of societal crosshairs. Watching the game on TV or in person is, because of the lack of free broadcast options, an expensive proposition not everyone can afford. And supporting the team – something that used to be an easy decision because in Chicago it was either that or the White Sox, which no one should be allowed to do – now implicitly indicates support for a hard right-wing agenda.

There’s a lot going on there that can’t easily be sorted out. As is often the case, it’s those who just want to enjoy the National Pastime free of such weighty concerns that are impacted the most.

Video Lures More Media Companies

Publishing company Complex has become the latest media outlet to license original programming to a streaming service, in this case both Netflix and Hulu. The first will get six shows while the second gets 10.

Complex’s situation is a bit different, as the article points out, than efforts by publishers like Vox Media and others in that it’s licensing programs already being produced as opposed to original shows like “Follow This” that Buzzfeed created (briefly) for Netflix.

That so many companies see deals with subscription services as a good business decision (many of these shows have already been cancelled in some manner or another) says a good deal about the state of the media landscape on a number of fronts.

Podcasts Are Great But Not Everything

There’s been a lot of buzz about the podcast market lately, especially in the wake of Spotify’s acquisition of both producer Gimlet Media and do it yourself recording and publication app Anchor. Spotify clearly wants to get in on some of the growing ad dollars coming into the category, the same thing driving other publishers, though some have opted out after seeing initial efforts failing to gain traction.

Podcasts are opt-in media, though, and serendipity in discovery is sometimes missing, meaning the barriers to people finding your podcast are high and often determined by the hosting company. That’s why some (including myself) found the Spotify deal for Gimlet so worrisome, because the company is likely to make these platform exclusive, undermining the free and open feeds that initially formed the foundation of podcasting.

For all the buzz around podcasts, the audience is still relatively small compared to the subscriber bases for services like Netflix and Hulu. These shows have the potential to achieve much wider reach by using streaming as a new distribution outlet than they could if they were just going through a podcast provider or being offered on the brand’s own distribution channels.

Note That These Aren’t Social-Based

There was a time not too long ago when existing and new media brands were making a big deal around going “social only,” eschewing a hub website in favor of distributing all text, video and audio content on other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, YouTube and others.

But Facebook Watch, that company’s much-hyped video destination, is sucking wind having failed to connect with audiences or advertisers. Twitter has fared slightly better but has done so largely by not trying to create a single point of engagement, instead working with companies like Bloomberg, Cheddar and others to create original programming that isn’t quite so reliant on the algorithm to aid discovery.

Buzzfeed and others certainly do produce a fair amount of social-exclusive material, but they have also seen that doing so isn’t the only way forward. Deals like the one Complex made show that Netflix, Hulu, Apple and others really are, to borrow a phrase, the new TV while Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – which has also seen its IGTV platform fail to launch – are minor distribution points and are more valuable as promotional outlets than viewing destinations.

There are two lessons to learn from these examples, then:

First, go where people are. Innovation and experimentation is great, but you can’t force drastic, sudden shifts in audience behavior and preferences.

Second, know how people act. Facebook and Instagram aren’t used as long-form consumption platforms, something exemplified by how Facebook Instant Articles is a thing you heard a lot about for a while but which was quickly abandoned and is now largely forgotten. They are for quick hits and casual touch content.

We’re seeing a lot of experimentation and pivoting happening right now, both on the production and distribution ends of the game. It’s likely there will be even more as services begin to shake out, strategies become solidified and audience preferences become more entrenched.

Google Wants to Manage the Open Web

One of the key revelations in the last week or so has been that technology companies are not necessarily our friends when it comes to the best interests of society as a whole. As someone pointed out, the oligarchy of Google, Facebook and Apple have taken on the roles of gatekeeper for each other, occasionally deplatforming apps and other tools or revoking some level of access to data when one of their number crosses some line that results in a wave of negative press.

That’s a problematic situation for the rest of us considering this is all happening in an inconsistent manner, is often accompanied by instances of hypocritical double standards and is utterly opaque, free from scrutiny by the larger public, including governmental agencies and regulators. We don’t know *why* a decision has been made, a process that may be driven less by altruistic impulses and more by a desire to defend one’s own products and property.

Allowing a handful of private companies to have unrestricted control of how information is shared through the web is a situation custom designed for abuse in a way that, because it’s all happening without oversight, we’ll never know about until it’s too late. If you don’t believe that, remember how much of the public has no idea Facebook is collecting data specifically to store for use by advertisers.

No less dangerous are efforts by Google to diminish the role of the URL in the web experience.

That initiative is, of course, presented as being in the best interests of the average online user. A Google exec points out that URLs can be used by malicious actors to distribute spyware, spread disinformation and inflict other damage. Those are all legitimate concerns, of course, even if it conveniently ignores the role Google itself has played in the latter through YouTube recommendations that often descend quickly into Alt-Right propaganda.

Reducing the amount of visibility people have into what they’re consuming and experiencing is never the answer, even if it’s completely in-line with the kind of control these technology companies want to have over people’s online lives. Google, in this case, wants to put itself in the position of labeling what is or isn’t safe and trustworthy, seemingly with no recourse for someone who disagrees or whose site has been labeled as dangerous, if it’s not blocked completely.

The paternalistic mindset required to see basic URL literacy as “advanced knowledge of how the internet works” is astounding. URLs are the foundation of the web and largely have been, though they have admittedly changed and evolved over the years. Still, they allow the average user to see where they are on the web and made decisions for themselves.

Reigning in bad actors is a laudable goal and people too often fall for fake sites made to look like CNN.com or something. But just like street signs allow you to see where you are in a city, URLs allow you to get a sense of location and make decisions based on unbiased information.

The danger here is that much like corporations and private donors have relabeled building addresses as “One [Corporation Name] Plaza” and renamed streets after influential individuals, the web will actually become harder to navigate if URLs are removed from the equation.

As usual, this campaign by Google can’t be fully evaluated or considered in and of itself. Instead it has to be viewed in the context of both corporate consolidation and the recent rollback of net neutrality safeguards. Both of those combine to create an environment where fewer companies have more control over our media diets and other aspects of our daily lives while allowing fewer independent voices to break through the filter. That effort, funded largely by groups with a vested interest in its removal, has had to date none of the benefits the FCC and its patrons promised it would but will likely have many of the downsides, including creating tiered online experiences controlled by wireless providers and other companies.

So imagine running a Google search in Chrome, which currently has 71 percent of the browser market, and finding that certain sites are placed in a “trusted sources” section. That’s not bad, right? Except how did they get there? Are they the result of a paid relationship like what powers retail recommendations? Or are they actually based on some kind of objective truth and deliberation?

Without some transparency into the process we’ll never know, instead finding ourselves in an environment where the big are becoming bigger because they can afford the kind of deals smaller startups and challengers can’t. But because we’re being told to keep quiet, the adults are here to protect us we have no way to challenge the decisions being made, supposedly, on our behalf.