My ideal news environment would be an international mix of both small and large papers and individual reporters doing paid work in ways that rewarded those with a dedication to facts and deep analysis over spin, clickbait, and press release stenography. We’d probably get part of the way there if we could figure out a reliable financial model to replace ad-based revenue on the net.
I think a more likely result of the past year’s Hindenburg excursion, however, is that a major corporation tries to go head-to-head with Facebook in the fight for the 30-minute Morning Scroll. Others have pointed to Google or some new startup as the likely challenger, but it’s clear to me that the corporation that will have the best shot at that is Amazon.
Why? Partially because I’m not sure that people are looking for a social network. Many are looking for what a social network does, which is to fill x minutes of a weekday or weekend morning with news at least partially fed to them from peers, which they can then comment and socialize around.
And for something like that, Amazon already has all the pieces of a news environment in place. It has hardware (Alexa, the Kindle Fire). It has publisher relationships. It has Audible. It even has a national/international newspaper of record, sort of — Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Most of all, Amazon knows how to do something Facebook does not: Amazon knows how to get people to pay for things. A case in point is Amazon Prime’s new “Channels” platform where people can manage month by month subscriptions to anything from HBO to the small film geek site Fandor. It’s advancing similar efforts in spoken word content with its new Audible channels.
Keep in mind I am not promoting the vision below, merely thinking through where it might lead.
With an infrastructure like Amazon’s, you can imagine a world where sharing and infrastructure mix — where something shared from a subscription service is truly *shared* with others, i.e., made available free of charge. The Washington Post article or Audible show episode my friends rate up becomes available to me free of charge. Maybe it works its way into Alexa’s morning “Flash Updates” — three to five minute radio-like news updates that Alexa gives you on command. The Kindle Fire could show recently shared articles in a tab of the Fire.
Sharing could become a bit more meaningful as well — if you’re the one in your group of friends who bought the New York Times subscription, sharing a recent article might be something only you can provide. This in turn might make subscription more valuable to you, as it has the social benefit of building relationships with friends. Sharing becomes less “You must respect my opinion” and more “I’m excited to offer this to you.” This becomes even more useful with niche subscriptions — if you have a subscription to New Scientist and I don’t, I get a benefit from your support of them, assuming you share the most interesting articles with me. That’s the sort of generosity (“I buy this because my friends depend on it”) that can be very addictive, in good ways.
Social reading could be promoted, in some of the ways they have done with Kindle — sharing annotations and comments on text, for example. Amazon could provide what Facebook has never desired to provide: a deep reading environment that balances social features with a need for the focus reading requires. Text-to-speech could be utilized to provide a podcast for the morning drive of all the articles your friends had found interesting, spliced in with real audio selections from Audible.
Reading circles would be smaller than Facebook friend groups, and chosen not by who you knew or most liked to socialize, but by who you most liked to read with. (And maybe by who had the New Scientist subscription you wanted to leech off of).
The downsides are different from those of Facebook, but numerous. Ad-based surveillance and clickbait would be replaced by oppressive DRM and Amazon’s internal tracking. Information would not flow as freely across the network, and be invisible to outsiders. Amazon would have incentives to promote its own brands over other publishers. And even if Amazon tries to make sharing fluid, publishers have a way of making sharing clauses bureaucratic in their negotiations — “You get three shares a week to a circle of no more than thirteen friends and they disappear after fourteen and a half hours” would send people scurrying back to Facebook.
And ultimately our taste and inclinations bring everything down — what we imagine as a neatly interwoven experience of science updates, NPR, and independent media quickly becomes a distribution system for OW, My Balls when done at scale.
The implications for openness in such a world are worth a whole other article.
On the positive side you see a world not driven by ad revenue and clicks — one that feels more restful and productive. One that gets creators the money (and health insurance and security) they need to continue to do high quality work, to check things for accuracy and investigate issues rather than republishing corporate press releases.
Again, this is just a thought experiment, but it’s interesting, right? It’s a recognition that the battle is over the hour people spend in the morning reading Facebook provided stories and clickbait, and maybe the hour in the evening or at lunch they do. Amazon has a well-developed infrastructure to go head to head with Facebook there. No one else — not even Google — comes close.