Nascent ideals of the internet saw its potential as the “Great Leveller of Democracy”. To the Californian hippies that built Silicon Valley as the home of the digital revolution, the unheard, ignored and undiscovered would displace the mainstream.
Chris Anderson’s long tail theory stated that digital would open up niche markets. Record label bosses, press-baron media moguls, film studio chiefs or any “people in power” who mediate access to talent or information would be swept aside: the internet as a force for egalitarianism.
But instead, a handful of giant companies dominate.
As Henry Ford famously said of the Model T: “you buy it in any colour, as long as it’s black”.
Ours is a Model T mobile world with access to anything as long as it’s through a tech giant’s app.
Companies have been able to create and monopolise new categories. Use any search engine as long as it’s Google. Rent a room from anywhere as long as it’s Airbnb. Shop anywhere as long as it’s Amazon. And so on.
The numbers suggest that this dominance will increase. Just seven per cent of our mobile time is spent on the mobile web – the rest of it in apps. Google and Facebook account for 99 per cent of growth in digital advertising. By 2020, we’ll spend 80 per cent of our online time on mobile. Because that’s where our attention is. Digital consolidates power rather than distributes it.
If you’re not a platform owner with scale and market power, you’re a niche player reliant on platforms to reach your audience or market. Media brands, institutions and content creatives are left vulnerable to the whims of platform giants who control their distribution and interface with the mobile world.
Facebook’s algorithm will prioritise “meaningful social interactions” over “relevant content” in a bid to control fake news. Media businesses will now have to pay even more to reach their audience: content is now seen as advertising in Zuckland.
Celebrities, communities, institutions and politicians took to social media as a refuge from old media: an environment they believed they could trust, control and use to reach people direct.
But Big Social simply replaced human gatekeepers with algorithms whose only interest is our continued attention.
The mood has changed, and we are all waking up.
There have been sustained reputational attacks on Google by The Times, among others. Lord Bew highlighted an unacceptably poor response to anonymous and unchecked trolling and abuse on social media, particularly against MPs and public figures.
And there was this visceral attack on social media’s fundamental DNA from one of Facebook’s longest-serving executives: “the short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”. It can’t get more damning than that.
There is another way: shared interest communities where the platform (and not the user) is the product.
Witness The Information, a community rooted in trust, shared interest and bold independence, built around the “big niche” of tech business news. Founder Jessica E Lessin’s contract with her subscribing community is to serve only them, free of outside investment or advertising. Highly profitable, it’s thriving and in total control of its destiny.
If mobile has become our window on the world, do we really want faceless algorithms to decide the view?
My guess is no, and we’ll look at this point in time as “peak platform”, when the public mood shifted, and an appetite for change began.