Before the centralization of information to social media platforms people created content inside a wide array flourishing, nuanced communities on websites and blogs across the Internet. Social media was an important but not primary method for creating or even surfacing content.
Today, however the landscape is much different. A small number of social monoliths have centralized access to much of the world’s information. This centralization has had disastrous results on a global scale with previously unimaginable network effects. These include flat earth conspiracies, anti-vaccination crusades and their subsequent deadly measles outbreaks, ubiquitous hacking and online harassment campaigns, and ethnic cleansing to name a few.
The most noticeable difference in the Internet is the shift in discovery of content from decentralized, self-contained, and self-moderated systems controlled by technology creators owned and maintained to a reliance on placement and space rented from social media companies. As a result of this centralization, once vibrant and diverse Internet communities have been forced into precut molds to grow at a phenomenal scale.
While this brings innumerable benefits for investors, their outsized expectations for 10X returns also affect and create problems only possible with a growth at all costs approach.
For a social platform the primary measure of growth are the business metrics that track engagement. Engagement includes all of the views, likes, replies, and other interaction around content on the platform. To optimize for engagement and strengthen its network effects, social media companies develop interfaces that lock users inside walled gardens by making it difficult to easily visit outside applications or websites.
The potential benefits of network effects are so strong that creators on platforms such as Medium even trade intellectual property rights for exposure to them. As network effects continue to strengthen, users or organizations who use the network to distribute advertising or content are able to use the growth to their direct benefit through exposure and potential interest in their products, services, or professional career through content.
Social media businesses then re-package and sell this content and all engagement around it to advertising customers. As engagement grows and the success or returns on an advertising campaign continue to grow, advertising customers are incentivized to buy more advertising again. This cycle also positively affects social media investors with better and better returns and even more pressure to optimize for growth through engagement at all costs as short term profits grow.
The loop restarts when social media companies go back to their interface to add further platform lock in and optimization for engagement in search of even greater short term gains. This cycle truly focuses on the short term rather than the long term success of the network via the health of its participants. It also has a fatal flow.
Social media companies rely on advertising for their primary revenue.
But the reality is that not only are droves of regular users leaving social networks, businesses and powerful content creators that make up the profits realized on these networks are too. When the constant exponential engagement rate that advertising relies on slows down, the cycles around advertising and growth that deliver profit to investors cease to function.
The exodus of users and content creators includes many different causes. For one, regular people are now constantly and “accidentally” forced to watch horrific, live social media video streams of mass murder and other atrocities when their feeds are inundated with viral coverage of the event in real time. There is also little success at active moderation or effort for postmortem resolution publicly known by companies at the front lines of these tragedies including Facebook and Reddit. Businesses are also often caught in the cross-fire as their placement near an event affects trust and overall perception.
In addition to real time tragedies and viral campaigns that affect life and death, regular users also face exposure to major security concerns, hacking by foreign governments and others, and other significant threats to consumer safety.
What was once a renewable and constantly growing source of profitability in advertising products is now a major cause for the loss.
But while investors face slowed growth at social media companies, the businesses and users that made up much of the previous value and engaging content on these networks stand to gain better autonomy, ownership, and control as the blogging revival discovered in January 2019 has demonstrated. The results of this migration is phenomenal as it also empowers businesses and individuals to focus on long-term profitability and growth for themselves rather than diverting all of that profit to social platforms.
Those who make the switch off rented platforms and onto websites and app they control continue to enjoy incredible benefits described further in the history and evidence included below.
I’ll finish with a glimpse into a future type of Internet that focuses less on engagement at all costs and more on an environment where incentives exist that make sustainable and profitable business models possible for anyone regardless of their financing.
Back to the future (of content)
Huge parts of the Internet were vanishing and their rate of disappearance was quickening from 2010-2016. Healthy, thriving communities that had once contributed to macro trends around business, culture and even history dried up almost overnight.
Although many factors contributed to this trend the alluring monetization and traffic promises made by social media companies to content creators were a primary motivator.
For example, the social media startup Medium has long advertised traffic and exposure benefits to publishers regardless of the number of followers. This has attracted huge portions of the Internet to move exclusively into Medium’s closed platform, give up their intellectual property rights, and close down their former publication or content marketing sources.
However, these types of promises ultimately dried up as quickly the venture financing that was keeping Medium afloat. In 2018 Medium and many other social media companies began implementing series of pivots that have left creators in a difficult position over whether to stay or leave as they facing dwindling traffic or any hope for meaningful monetization of their content.
Before this time, extensive and deeply personal sites were the norm on the web. They were for everyone from professionals to enthusiasts and acted as a great equalizer among new market entrants or beginners who were able to enjoy the same network effects as incumbent giants.
Social platform centralization & engagement as a business model
It’s extremely important for regular users to understand that large social media companies such as Facebook, Medium and others have typically worked only in their best interest and those of their investors.
The decisions these companies make to optimization for engagement and increase platform lock-in have collectively created the centralization of much of the world’s information to access through just a few conglomerates.
As discussed, there is little to break the cycle beyond advertising as a way to offer growing returns to investors. Conversely, advertising is also a terrible and unrealistic revenue source for all websites and apps without the reach and network effects of social media. While optimizing engagement to increase advertising revenue is a great option for social media companies it’s a nearly impossible and unprofitable business model for most websites and applications.
As a result the decentralization of social media requires significant effort and broad participation by communities across the Internet. Luckily that’s exactly what we’re finding out in 2019.
Thanks to an almost unbelievable offer by Medium for free migrations off any CMS to its platform from approximately 2012-2015 the social media company was able to attract publishers in droves and keep them there thanks to formerly attractive network effects.
Many who moved their content exclusively to Medium most notably shut down their former blogs, websites and content sources. However, businesses had also almost unknowing traded their intellectual property rights for almost nothing as Medium ensure the process was quick and effortless.
While Medium’s terms of service state that you also retain ownership over the rights to content, it also says:
By posting content to Medium, you give us a nonexclusive license to publish it on Medium Services, including anything reasonably related to publishing it (like storing, displaying, reformatting, and distributing it). In consideration for Medium granting you access to and use of the Services, you agree that Medium may enable advertising on the Services, including in connection with the display of your content or other information. We may also use your content to promote Medium, including its products and content. We will never sell your content to third parties without your explicit permission.
This means that Medium can do whatever they want with any intellectual property you save to the site, including selling access to it or transferring the rights to it to someone else for a profit. This agreement is automatic and also doesn’t acknowledge the value of the content it acquires everyday either.
This is not a new approach for Medium, which has supported this type of re-licensing and re-distribution since its earliest days. The company also regularly exercises this right over publishers and users.
In 2017 Medium announced a major pivot for premium content creators. Instead of the former, attractive promises for monetization and traffic that had incentivized so many of the company’s original premium publishers to make the migration of their websites and entire businesses to the platform, Medium abruptly ended individual subscriptions in 2018 to replace them with just a single, unified subscription offer exclusively by Medium.
Those content creators who signed on for the new Medium premium subscription offering from 2018 didn’t experience great results either. In fact, many of those premium publishers are today earn just $3 per 1,000 page views.
The effects of the 2018 Medium pivot didn’t only affect those publishers with premium content, however. Instead, all users and publications, regardless of their decision to earn money from the new, unified subscription offering faced a disruptive modal and other major changes to the interface and the platform’s entire user experience.
Although a subscription isn’t required to view a majority of the content on Medium, the new modal advertises the paywall as if it is, which causes confusion among potential readers and an ultimate loss in traffic.
The changes provide vital advertising and marketing for Medium’s new offerings and allow Medium to leverage the value of any piece of content or engagement on the platform regardless of creator’s ability to earn revenue from Medium.
However, they also set off an immediate and significant loss in views and overall traffic in 2018 that continues to affect all creators regardless of their premium publisher status. Publishers who don’t opt-in to the paywall have also quickly realized their content is unreachable outside of its own feeds, further affecting creator’s ability to grow on platforms such as Medium as well.
The paywall announcement in 2018 was quickly followed by an update announcing removal of support for custom domains on Medium removing the last possible chance for creators to return any of the value they build on Medium, whether through organic SEO or other long-term benefits.
Medium’s goal in keeping both users and publishers locked into its platform is its primary strategy currently. Unfortunately, Medium has gone so far as to bully and legally intimidate publishers that merely suggest a migration off Medium through civil suit threats.
However, this updated business model still doesn’t even appear to be profitable as of April 2019. While many startups, even those such as Uber, fail to achieve profitability and still find some success, the lack of success from Medium’s pivots also mean the platform could eventually face a number of historical fates for a media startup of its type. It could disappear and be deleted forever, or worse, be sold to a high-bidder who chooses to aggressively re-license or widely redistribute content in a way creators never fully realized or intended.
Facebook took a similar yet uniquely distinct approach to profitability and content creation by 3rd parties, too. The social media giant recently announced it is pursuing a new content creation platform where Facebook will actually paypublishers for placement of high-quality content in a new in news section to ensure higher-quality news in the long-term on Facebook.
Apple has also shared a new Netflix-for-magazines service, but defines their business model by charging customers $10/month and paying just 50% of this revenue to publishers.
Due to a loss of both users and advertising customers, platforms such as Medium are actually losing a lot of their former network effect benefits for content creators of all types. The days of organic discovery and surfacing of all content regardless of partnership with Medium have passed. The traffic comparisons before and after the move off Medium for some businesses demonstrates this.
A significant number of those who have migrated experience a significant return to expected traffic levels on websites and blogs they control instead. Migrations with semantic and optimized code will also experience formerly lost SEO and organic link building benefits for their entire domain, too.
The benefit of creating content on a website or blog you control is one of the primary reasons to make the switch, too. In fact, the decision is similar to people who choose to rent vs. buy their homes. Luckily the costs of migrating from renting to ownership for a website are not nearly as great as housing, especially in the United States. The incentive to move your site or blog to a domain you control is strong thanks to the relatively small upfront costs of a migration compared to the enormous benefits and returns from better controlling your UX, content marketing, and ability to convert visitors into paying customers.
Content marketing is the most valuable marketing investments an individual or company can build for the long-term. One reason is that it provides long-term organic SEO growth with the potential to add new monetization, products, or services within content anytime. This type of long-term value is only achievable on owner-controlled applications, websites and blogs.
Content creators on Medium rent rather than own their work because of the lack of control they have over who gets to profit from it, including themselves. For example, the organic SEO benefits for your content are siphoned off to Medium, not your brand. While you may be able to direct inbound links from your Medium content to another point of action or conversion, the effect is outweighed by the initial SEO benefits that have an especially positive long-term impact for Medium.
Another long-term benefit that renters lose out on is ownership and control over the entire interface and user experience around your content. Control over your UX and functionality is essential for converting visitors into potential customers in a wide variety of different iterations you might decide to change over time. Platforms like Facebook and Medium, however, only allow content to be published in a few, limited formats.
By losing control over UX and the control of ownership by renting social media space on Facebook or Medium you also lose all present and future growth that only a website or blog you own completely can provide.
Until you migrate your blog or site to your own domain you’re giving away a lot of the value that your content is able to naturally build.
When you own and control your website or blog you get to keep 100% ownership and equity over the value you add to it. As a result, you aren’t losing any value or possible future growth thanks to ownership over your UX and organic SEO ensuring a long-term ability to promote, integrate, or monetize your own products and services rather than a social network like Medium’s.
There’s also lot you can do to continue to syndicate parts of your content to Medium while moving the majority of your original content to a system where you actually retain value and ownership. For example, canonical links back to the original source on your website to platforms like Medium (and for technology professionals: Dev.to) are great options for keeping some of the benefits of social networks without all of the loss to intellectual property, control over UX, and other essential details. I’ll provide instructions and a closer look at this soon.
How personal sites and blogs are rebuilding the Internet
We’re now seeing a fascinating trend towards a blogging revival truly start to take hold of large online communities as of January 2019 as brands and creators move back off Medium and onto websites and applications they own and control from end-to-end.
The erosion of trust around social networks among businesses and individuals alike has heightened since 2016 and doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
However, there are promising changes and trends happening now allowing many to migrate their most valuable intellectual property off the networks and onto formats they control and own completely. There is a significant upside facing those who choose to make the move. For example, one publisher experience a double in average daily traffic in less than a week after moving to an owner controlled domain or location.
Similar benefits were recently described by SaaS leader Basecamp after their move off Medium back to their widely popular blog Signal vs. Noise. The Basecamp team had initially heralded the traffic and exposure promises made by Medium but then recently made a dramatic and fast transition back to their original, owner-controlled blogging format. They also noted the greater trend as a whole:
We’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.Signal vs. Noise Exits Medium
The decisions of Basecamp and other Internet businesses focused on long-term rather than short-term sustainability and profitability help others not only realize how centralized power over their intellectual property affects them but what they can do to reverse any losses.
These examples show that one of the major solutions to decentralizing access to information off social media are owner controlled websites, blogs and apps where the full value of content can be leveraged for UX, organic SEO, and other growth for creators themselves rather than platforms such as Medium.
The trend in migrations back to websites and blogs is also notably a lot like the information landscape on the Internet prior to 2012. By looking at this type of history we can also make better decisions about investing in the future.
The trend in migrations in 2019 remains as social networks continue to face huge implications around the remaining value of their network effects. Regardless, users and businesses alike are continuing to move away, disengage and take their business to formats they can control and monetize for the long-term.
Medium, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many others will always make decisions in their best interest, not yours. Personal sites and blogs provide an opportunity for control and ownership over content that builds equity for you rather than for social media investors.
The Internet isn’t free
Moving off of rented space into a location you own requires both up-front investment of time plus ongoing investment for hosting and maintenance costs or new features and functionality. This means that offering products or services for free isn’t a sustainable business model.
To ensure your new online home can last for the long-term as a way to grow sales, build a career, or many other reasons, it’s essential to strike a balance between the value you offer for free in your content marketing vs. the value you delivery only to paying customers.
This is an easier concept to apply for a business who is familiar with investing in content marketing to build returns in the form of new revenue. But, it’s less obvious and still an essential point for less experienced creators who are looking to monetize their content for the first time and use their new blog or website as a publishing business.
For example, think of content marketing as the perfect snack for people who want to get a better feel for your professional style, how you treat others around you, how you treat new ideas, and your successes or failures including examples or tutorials. Then reserve any content for paid products or services for only paying customers.
Jeffrey Zeldmen also recently shared valuable insight into the problems individuals and businesses face alike who offer too much for free through their content or other offerings or make the mistake of relying on only advertising or subscription revenue without other possibilities mixed in as well. He ends by asking and offering an actual solution that:
Could the next generation of internet startups learn from older, stable companies like Basecamp, and design products that pay for themselves via customer income—products that profit slowly and sustainably, allowing them to scale up in a similarly slow, sustainable fashion?
The article includes a lot of important information about the long-term sustainability of websites, applications and blogs as well.
How you can rebuild the Internet
The landscape of 2019 is completely different than the one from the last 5-8 years. Creation off platform monoliths is once again thriving and with it, a new level in quality, originality, and creativity.
Rebuilding the web with content that creators and brands actually own and control has effects for both individuals and the globe and economies as a whole. For businesses who are able to leverage content marketing on domains they control, this means more customers, professional partners, and overall growth. For individuals, it can mean better, healthier careers and benefits that allow people to do their jobs better and more easily.
The type of truly expressive and immersive content that thrives on blogs and websites cannot be fit into an Instagram caption, Twitter thread, or Facebook group post. If you do manage to do it, you don’t want to automatically give up all intellectual property rights just to reach a few potential customers. In my opinion, if you want to break away from homogeneity and anti-autenthic “aUtHenTicItY” of Instagram and other platforms, then owning your site and content might be the right choice for you at any stage of your career regardless of your industry.
To avoid losing out on future potential profitability try thinking more like Beyoncé who was able to leverage a single experience into multiple products and global events controlled and sold exclusively by her brand.
With some thought about long-term sustainability and profitability you can leverage your content for yourself rather than handing off untapped value to others.
In the next post on this topic I’ll explain development strategies you can use for migrating your content off platforms and onto a website or blog you actually control. I’ll also cover the fundamentals of content marketing in more detail for businesses and individuals of all types so you’re able to earn some of the value of your content rather than leaving it all on the table for social media companies instead.
If you have more questions about the value of your content or content marketing on a website or blog you own or want to talk more about the benefits and costs of migrating some of your content off Medium or another platform, let’s talk.
I invite you to join the conversation on your personal blog or social media using the hashtag provided Jeffrey Zeldman: #LetsFixThis. It’s a great opportunity to discuss and focus on the solutions and trends helping to reshape the Internet today. Let’s fix this!
Lara Littlefield is a remote engineering lead and full stack developer. She's also a product manager, UI & UX designer, founder & business strategist based out of New York, NY & Boston, MA. For over 21 years Lara has designed, developed and shipped mission critical websites, consumer & enterprise web and mobile apps, online marketing, and technology strategy at scale for both clients and her own internet businesses.