Wolff: Why digital is the new wasteland

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Joshua Topolsky, one of the founders of The Verge, a former editor in chief of Engadget and, briefly a senior digital editor at Bloomberg (ousted by Michael Bloomberg himself, who questioned why Bloomberg, among the most successful electronic publishing companies, needed a website), recently wrote a vitriolic manifesto about…

Joshua Topolsky, one of the founders of The Verge, a former editor in chief of Engadget and, briefly a senior digital editor at Bloomberg (ousted by Michael Bloomberg himself, who questioned why Bloomberg, among the most successful electronic publishing companies, needed a website), recently wrote a vitriolic manifesto about web content. He says it stinks.

That’s an assessment with which many people would agree, citing banal news feeds, repetitive posts, listicles, ever-popular cat videos, and BuzzFeed’s recent video production of an exploding watermelon. Digital has achieved something of the wasteland status that FCC commissioner Newton Minow ascribed to television in its early days. An angry Topolsky says that if digital media has a future, content has to get better. “We can build new things," he says. "We can start over.”

That’s where the aspirations of earnest digital journalists might be at hopeless odds with the nature of digital media, which actually might favor inattention over attention, ephemeral content over the engaging stuff.

The vast amount of digital advertising wants you to do something right away. It’s an immediate call to action. It wants you to click on a link and be swept to another site. Or it wants you to download and install an app. Or launch a video. In effect, it wants you to stop what you’re doing and reengage with another activity or piece of content entirely. The effectiveness of these ads depends on their ability to distract you.

If you’re only half occupied or even hardly engaged, it might be easier to do that. If you’re deep into something—keenly caught up, say, in this article—you might be more likely to resist.

It has long been a curiosity of digital media that passing users, those quickly linking in and as quickly linking out—that mass of traffic—are often more profitable than dedicated users. Fleeting users click on more ads. This is possibly because they are confused about what’s an ad and what’s not, or because the wandering eye is more reliably caught by what’s pulsing or jumping or loudly interrupting.. Indeed, unlike in traditional media, where attention and engagement raise the value of the audience, in digital media it can often appear to lower it.

Most recently this counterintuitive media behavior has emerged around Facebook’s Instant Articles. This is a feature wherein publishers use Facebook to host their long form content, an initiative expressly designed to help increase attention and engagement at Facebook and, hopefully, increase the fees advertisers might pay. But, in fact, according to a high ranking executive speaking confidentially in a recent interview because he was discussing nonpublic data, there has been a notable drop in the click-through rate to ads, and hence in the CPMs—cost per thousand views—that advertisers are willing to pay.

This is perhaps less a problem for Facebook, which takes just 30% of the Instant article ad revenue, and whose business is built on mass traffic, and more worrisome for publishers who had hoped to realize a windfall with their 70%, and prove their digital worth by engaging Facebook’s huge audience with more compelling content.

But Facebook is concerned enough by the early results of the Instant Articles experiment—featuring publishers like The New York Times, the Guardian and The Atlantic—that, according to the executive quoted above, it has considered offering some publishers 100% of the ad revenue to keep them as participants, hoping that, in the long run, Facebook might come to better understand how to monetize—and distract—more engaged readers.

Another area of worry about what might be called too-much-attention syndrome has occurred at Instagram. The photo-sharing service, which was bought by Facebook in 2012, was once regarded as an ultimate premium ad play precisely because of its users’ intense engagement with this visual display. Ads would not only be seen in the midst of a compelling experience, but the ads would be closely related to the content at hand—product photos or videos placed seamlessly in the Instagram feed. But if you are engrossed in your Instagram scrawl you might not, it turns out, necessarily want to take the opportunity to “learn more” about a passing product or to “shop now.” Indeed, as Instagram photos get better—with posters taking more time and care with their photos—attention to ads appears to have declined even more, according to the concerned executive.

In contrast, at Snapchat, where photos are less poised and studied— indeed, because they will all shortly disappear, are rather slapdash—ad engagement, and CPMs, have increased. In other words, the more disposable and fleeting the content is, the more the ads can effectively compete for a user’s attention.

A counter argument, of course, is that the problem does not so much have to do with the nature of content but with the nature of digital advertising. Digital advertising is not just a sore thumb but a sore thumb you can easily choose to avoid—now even-more so with ad-blocking technology.

Still, this attention-deficit premium, if you will, might be an awkward turn of events, especially for the many people, like Joshua Topolsky, who have seen digital media as part of a renaissance for news and entertainment. Indeed, Topolsky is yet hopeful: “So what will matter in the next age of media?” he asks, answering, “Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience…”

But if how you monetize the medium is the real message, then the digital world might likely become not more compelling but instead an ever-greater, and more profitable, wasteland.


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