The De-Democratization of Online Publishing
One of the wonderful things about the rise of the web, twenty-something years ago, was the way in which it democratized publishing – suddenly, anyone with an idea could set up a website and make them available to anyone. Early on, publishing online required at least a rudimentary understanding of code. To be an online writer meant you also had to be a coder. But, services quickly emerged that created WYSIWYG editors for online publications, so literally anyone who had used a word processor could create online content.
Recently, however, we’ve seen the rise of proprietary formats like Google’s AMP, Facebook’s Instant Articles, and the Apple News Format, which threaten to de-democratize publishing on the web. To be clear, I’m not making a philosophical argument about the closed nature of these platforms but something much more practical: creating content for these formats reintroduces a coding requirement and online code is vastly more complicated today than it was in the mid-1990s.
A personal history
I first encountered the web when I entered university in 1994. It was a pretty primitive thing back then, with very limited ways to access it, and it was almost entirely text-based. But over the next four years, things moved forward rapidly, with additional web browsers improving the process of browsing the web and hosting and other online services making it easier for ordinary people like me to set up an online presence. By the time I graduated in 1997, not only was browsing the web a big part of my life but I had a website of my own. In order to build that website, I had to learn HTML which, at the time, was a very simple thing to grasp, at least at a basic level. But that coding requirement still prevented many people from creating an online presence.
Interestingly, I basically took a two-year break from the web between early 1998 and early 2000 while I was serving as a missionary in Asia. When I returned, the web had again moved on significantly. Blogger had launched in 1999 and was one of the first sites that enabled people to create their own websites without knowing anything about coding, web hosting, or any of the other more technical aspects that had previously characterized online publishing. Almost all of my online publishing since has been based on various blogging platforms and, for the last ten years, almost exclusively on self-hosted WordPress sites. Along the way, because I’ve always had something of an interest in coding, I’ve beefed up my understanding of HTML, grappled with CSS style sheets, and even done some messing around with PHP. But I’m always enormously grateful I don’t have to try to build sites that would perform well from the ground up – I’ve long since given up on that idea.
Enter AMP, Instant Articles, and Apple News
So much for my personal history. Since last summer, we’ve seen what I’d argue is the latest phase in this online publishing evolution. It involves the creation of a variety of proprietary formats for online publishing. Google has been spearheading the Accelerated Mobile Pages project (AMP), which launched officially almost a year ago. Facebook introduced its Instant Articles format last summer, with a similar objective of accelerating the delivery of articles on mobile devices. And Apple introduced News as part of iOS 9, opening it up to publishers over the summer and to most users in the Fall, albeit with different intentions.
As a solution, each of these platforms has provided tools intended to bridge the gap – all three, for example, have WordPress plugins to convert content to the appropriate formats. But a quick read of the reviews for the Facebook and AMP plugins tells you they don’t seem to be doing the job for many users. The Apple News plugin has a higher rating, but I know from my own experience that it’s problematic. Both Facebook and Apple also offer RSS tools to import existing content but there are limitations around both (Apple News doesn’t allow advertising in RSS-driven publications, while Facebook IA requires a custom RSS feed with IA-specific markup, which is again going to be beyond the ken of most non-coding publishers). Apple news offers a WYSIWYG tool, but it’s extremely basic (it doesn’t support embeds, block quotes, or even bullet points).
Why does all this matter? After all, no one is forcing anyone to use any of these formats – publishing to the open web is still possible. While that’s technically true, at least two of these formats – AMP and Instant Articles – are being favored by the two largest gatekeepers to online content: Google and Facebook. Google now favors AMP results in search, while Facebook does the same within its News Feed, though less explicitly (by favoring faster-loading pages, it gives IA content a leg up). Apple News is different – it’s a self-contained app and it’s basically irrelevant to you as a publisher unless your readers are using it. But if you do decide to use it, unless you publish in Apple News Format, you can’t monetize your content there and Apple is pushing the News app heavily to its users.
Turning back the clock
The upshot of all of this is, unless you’ve comfortable with fairly advanced web coding, or can pay someone who is, your online publication is likely to become a second-class citizen on each of these new platforms, if it has a presence there at all. And, as these platforms – especially AMP and Instant Articles – suck up an ever greater proportion of online content, that’s going to leave smaller publishers out in the cold. That, in turn, means we’re effectively turning back the clock to a pre-web world in which the only publishers that mattered were large publishers and it was all but impossible to be read if you didn’t work for one of them. That seems like an enormous shame and, from a practical standpoint, matters a lot more to me as an online writer than more philosophical debates about open vs. closed platforms.