The ethics of publishing platforms
A couple of weeks back, Greg Albers put out a tweet that touched on something that’s similarly troubled me for a while but that I hadn’t really put into the front of my brain until he said it:
As a publisher concerned with the independent and enduring flow of ideas, it makes me very nervous just how many people and organizations use Medium as their primary/only publishing platform for blog- and article-length content.— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 14, 2018
This tweet kicked off a really interesting conversation that I’m going to attempt to recap here for posterity, because there’s stuff here I’d like to be able to refer to later. Since Storify’s gone, I’m recapping this conversation by hand (which actually is sort of the point of the following discussion). If you were part of this conversation and I missed your tweets, let me know!
I have the same worry. It’s really putting all our eggs in one basket (and a particularly rickety one at that, given how many times Medium’s business model has changed in the last few years).— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 14, 2018
Yes! And I think in some corners we’re seeing a move away from social media and walled platforms and back to individual home-spun publishing, which is exciting but I wonder how far this trend will go. Is it too late for the mainstream web to turn back and try again?— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 14, 2018
I think of Steve Albini’s prediction over a decade ago that vinyl would outlast CDs. It seemed an absurd comment to make then, but now seems prophetic. I think the homespun, distributed web might remain a boutique phenomenon, but it will probably outlast all of these platforms.— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 14, 2018
This is probably a good place to mention a great piece from Dan Cohen, Vice Provost at Northeastern that gets at a lot of these issues in a really eloquent way. In “Back to the Blog”, Dan discusses the difficulties as well as the benefits of “re-decentralizing” the web. This article, and some similar thoughts from fellow Austinite Austin Kleon got me thinking about re-focusing on my own blog (12 years old now!) again.
Self-managed spaces are valuable. And we see an increase in desire for creative control to be about more than words. But community is more than central spaces for expression - they also promote. Re-decentralized web, while overcoming algorithmic filters, are often less visible.— Duane Degler (@ddegler) July 15, 2018
Agree totally, there is a need for community. But having community that’s essentially just the product of a company (to be monetized, optimized, etc) is problematic. And in the decentralized space, I think the bemoaning of the Google Reader shut down is about this tension— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 15, 2018
Yes & how Google et al. now clearly Big Capital surveillance corporations rather than innocent-appearing helping-economy (to twist a twisted phrase/idea) actors shows unforeseen consequences of thinking open-seeming but capitalist platform wd stay "good." Own it. @jwsamuel— JosephQED (@josephQED) July 14, 2018
I find myself less concerned about the monetization of communities (though that’s certainly a big issue) as much as I am about their governance. A distributed community can have lots of governance models vs. a global community being beholden to “what Ev decided today."— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 15, 2018
This issue of governance has been concerning me more and more over the last couple of years. As Matt Popke says later in this conversation, you’d think that non-profits would be more sensitive to this than we are, but this is rarely the case. I just read a great quote from Marina Gorbis, the director of the Institute of the Future, in an article on AI failures, that gets at what I think is the core of the problem:
“We need technologists who understand history, who understand economics, who are in conversations with philosophers…We need to have this conversation because our technologists are no longer just developing apps, they’re developing political and economic systems.”
But governance is totally a “quality of life” issue. It’s weird to think about software from a “does this make a better life for everyone” standpoint when most still evaluate it from a “does it have features” I like” standpoint.— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 15, 2018
It's only weird if accept the conceit that the logic of the market is even remotely logical.— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) July 15, 2018
As non-profit organizations, it shouldn't be this hard for us to question such conceits.
You’d think, right? And yet it’s amazing how often “but it formats captions the way I like!” drowns out other concerns. #musetech— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 15, 2018
Matt really gets at something critical here. I understand the need to work with interfaces that are “intuitive” or “easy to use” instead of the alternative, but it remains fascinating to me how often this need overwhelms other priorities. I accept a certain invasion of privacy and a nebulous sense of “ownership” over content in return for convenience, but only when I’m working with my own stuff. Non-profits have a higher calling, and the content we produce is to a certain extent owned by the public that supports us. It’s on us to prioritize issues of governance, ownership, and ethics over those of convenience.
You're getting to the heart of it. Where to create in an autonomous, persistent way? Then where to make sure that the ideas you are expressing - social-fabric and broad encompassing ideas (at whatever scope) - have forums and visibility at that scale? And not exploited?— Duane Degler (@ddegler) July 16, 2018
I wonder if we need to take both scale and visibility as givens? Or at least, for non-profits, that we think of those as things we value *less* than standards-based, good governance, etc. cc @nikhiltri— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) July 16, 2018
Visibility and reach are important, for sure, but I think those things need to exist on a continuum of other values. As mentioned above, “ease of use” is also a value on the continuum, but giving it primacy over other values leads us to make decisions that might not necessarily be in the public’s interest.
I think visibility and scale is important (aren’t they the point of publishing, ie., making public and making a public) but yes!, we could def readjust our expectations of their magnitude and re-prioritize other factors like governance and standards— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 16, 2018
I think we’ve handed the responsibility for visibility off to the big platforms at some point, so I wonder how that factors into our expectations. I don’t think I ever expected geocities to help get my site in front of people the way I expect News Feed and google search results.— nikhil trivedi (@nikhiltri) July 16, 2018
Does the publishing platform have to be the promotional platform? I'm thinking of like automatic cross-posting to twitter and similar things. Control the publishing platform and let the the promotion move to whatever is hot at the moment (which we can't control anyway).— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) July 16, 2018
They don’t have to be the same, but that’s sort of where we’ve ended up! In my rose-colored view of the mid-90s, I feel like we used to write and design in whatever way made sense to us. Now we have to write and design in ways that make sense to their algorithms.— nikhil trivedi (@nikhiltri) July 16, 2018
I think that's true if we rely on the algorithms to do the work for us (which is the value proposition of algorithms). But if we're doing the promotion ourselves (through social channels), can we circumvent the algorithms? I feel like our audience is targeted enough to work.— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) July 16, 2018
This is a great point. Except for the very few of them that are truly competing with big online publishers for eyeballs, museums are mostly finding their online audiences through more traditional means. If this is the case, why not return to the Dream of the 90s and make things the way we want? I don’t think those glasses are as rose-colored as we think they are.
True for now at least. The algorithms are coming for us all eventually. All the more reason to start carving out a corner for ourselves now while we still can.— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) July 16, 2018
Algorithms influence our efforts now. "We" can be attentive, but the active "we" becomes much smaller, as fewer people can/will make the effort to do what is needed for algorithms to pick us up. Platforms build the algorithm-bait in. Re-decentralization still needs platforms.— Duane Degler (@ddegler) July 16, 2018
I don’t think homespinning has to stack up to the big platforms. They’ve created a set of UX expectations, for sure, but we don’t have to be beholden to them. Let’s reclaim our space on the web, https://t.co/K5zpp6mkEz, validate our cute websites, and uncolonize the Internet.— nikhil trivedi (@nikhiltri) July 16, 2018
Yes. Very yes. Here the conversation took an interesting turn, looking at the idea of the persistence of archives and content.
I need interrogate this idea of persistence. I know as museums it's hard to let go, but maybe the process of communication/sharing is more important than the artifacts of that process. Maybe it's okay for some of the web (our web) to disappear after five to ten years. #NotTheFace— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) July 16, 2018
For me as a publisher (in the formal sense of the word) persistence is very important. But yes, certainly not *all* content needs to last as is. I think it’s a matter of being explicit though, with readers and ourselves, about what is and isn’t meant to last.— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 16, 2018
And not let the platform choose for us.— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 16, 2018
Blog posts aren’t meant to live to eternity— ✨Heidi Quicksilver✨ (@MissHQ) July 14, 2018
But your platform should live as long as you need it. It's more than individual posts.— Jim Samuel (@jwsamuel) July 14, 2018
Computers are poor at temporal management, also flagging value for archival significance. "Importance of forgetting" and "societal forgetting" are necessary - for some things, but not scholarship/discourse. Born-digital content, and proliferation, changed the value equation.— Duane Degler (@ddegler) July 16, 2018
Both Heidi and Duane make great points here. Many publishers are comfortable with the ephemerality of blog posts, but I must say that I’m often surprised how much traffic goes to certain “ancient” posts on this blog and others I’ve managed. Posts that I didn’t necessarily intend to live on have ended up being incorporated into class syllabi and the like.
But again, I think the issue is that as institutions, we should be the ones deciding what posts live on and which don’t. It would be sad to have to tell our constituents that all those posts we put up on Medium for those five years are gone forever not because we decided to, but because Medium changed its business model. However…
If you are posting for an institution the archivist will love to archive every medium post. If you are posting for yourself I would look into an auto archive utility. And if one does not exist I just gave you all a million dollar opportunity 😄— ✨Heidi Quicksilver✨ (@MissHQ) July 14, 2018
And while @MissHQ and others may rightly be okay with the ephemerality of blog-like, I’m not sure most using Medium as publishers or readers are really thinking about that explicitly.— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 14, 2018
And what does archiving do to your traffic, audience and platform if Medium or any other platform like it changes their terms or shuts down?— Jim Samuel (@jwsamuel) July 14, 2018
Archiving simply makes sure it doesn’t vanish into the internet ether— ✨Heidi Quicksilver✨ (@MissHQ) July 14, 2018
Yes, there should be a long term strategy, whether it’s archiving, or maintaining live, or whatever. The strategy for posting on Medium is, oooh, this is cool now.— Greg Albers (@geealbers) July 14, 2018
And so this conversation wrapped up in an interesting place. What I see happening here is that we’re struggling with how tied up with one another convenience, distribution, and stability are. As soon as we favor convenience, we take risks with stability. As soon as distribution becomes paramount, convenience takes a hit. For me, I suppose, the ethics of stability should be paramount for a non-profit institution, but I recognize that that might not be true for some (or even many). More to think about here.