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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Beyond 140: Will another walled garden bloom? 

January 14, 2016 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

The latest report on Twitter’s efforts to reinvigorate its platform included the long-rumored project to break loose from the 140 character limit. Like all newsfeed changes, this triggered a polarizing debate about people’s preferred experience of the almighty feed. Lost in the fray was a more important development, that Slate’s Will Oremus astutely captured: “Twitter isn’t raising the character limit, it’s building a wall.”

So while the fundamental user experience of seeing 140 characters is likely to remain the same, a story can be expanded and be read in full, without linking back to (and delivering traffic to) the site of origin. This comes as we just wrapped up a year in our industry that saw the “platformization of content” with Facebook, Snapchat, Apple and Google rolling out proprietary experiences to seduce content creators.  (Yes, AMP is proprietary until proven otherwise.)

I’m on record as a fan of these platforms.  I think any new distribution channel that meets consumer demands is fertile ground for the trusted content of our membership. Some of the greatest innovation in content creation has come as a result of these platforms. Consider the power of the social graph (Facebook), real-time (Twitter), user-created video (Google), anytime/anywhere (Apple). As long as the open web and competition remain in force then it’s a win-win for consumers. It’s why we made this the first point in our DCN Trust Principles.

Yes, a virtual elimination of the character limit in Tweets allows content to be embedded on Twitter. It will enable text to travel in a way that is more native to the Twitter experience, similar to what Twitter has done with images and video. A better in-Tweet text experience will mean less text screen grabs, which will serve all parties better by opening up improvements to search, discovery and sharing. But most importantly—if properly executed—it creates an opportunity to improve the consumer experience by making it faster and easier to read interesting content. I have no doubt that, with Jack Dorsey at the helm, Twitter will do this the right way so that it first delivers consumer value and then creates business value.

So given Twitter’s plans to go “Beyond 140” and speculation on what this will mean in terms of content delivery and consumption, what are the big issues we should be thinking about? First off, we need to remember that this is nothing new. As each of these closed distribution points emerge, people suggest we are facing something radically new. But, before there was the open web, there were proprietary platforms (Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy). They ultimately lost because of the open web and the innovation it enables.

However we also passed through a phase dominated by portals, which were essentially platforms that allowed for content to be natively distributed on them. I recall fierce debates in the late 90s when I argued to embed Times Mirror content directly on Yahoo! as they rolled out channels. Right or wrong, it’s where the eyeballs were seeking the content.

So if we accept that content is going to live on platforms,  there are some basic requirements: Trusted content creators need to be able to maintain brand identity, measure audience and make the financials work.  What this means is that…

  • Yes, GroupM’s fight to have market-maker Facebook play by the same rules and measure their ad impressions like the rest of the Web were important. The fox can’t guard the hen house.
  • Yes, the WSJ report that Apple News has no idea how large your audience is should be concerning. Actually, it’s even worse than not knowing: They were miscounting. It’s good to see the transparency on the problem and I hope it gets fixed if the platform is going to be meaningful.
  • No, Google can’t develop its own controlling markup language and be the arbiter of which companies can play ball. Well, they actually can, as long as competition exists. But again, please don’t try to pass this off as “open.”
  • Finally: Snapchat. Dear Snapchat. The world is moving towards a measurement based on time.  Your video views are a nice press release but as Nielsen recently pointed out, they will soon rightly be a measurement of the past.

Here at DCN, we’re focused on advancing the future of trusted content. The positives and negatives of these new platforms are top of mind for us. We’re keeping a close eye on both the competition they do (or don’t) foster and—most importantly—how they continue to bring back value to the vital information, entertainment and news that our members plant in their gardens.

I encourage our members to continue to experiment on emerging platforms as it makes business sense for each of them. And I look forward to the many ways they will continue to share the insights and lessons among our trusted forums. The future of content will flourish on the open web and in carefully tended gardens, as long as we all remain focused on the customer.

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