Tech platforms were supposed to democratize online content. They’re not

Back in 2006, technology author Nicholas Carr wrote an incredibly prescient blog post in the form of a fable. It addresses a widely-held notion that the internet is a meritocracy where the best content, regardless of whether it comes from the New York Times or a blogger in their basement, floats to the top. “What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere [is] that it’s open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media,” Carr wrote.

But even by 2006, most of the “bloggers in their pajamas,” as they were pejoratively called back then, were aware that this myth of meritocracy was a form of “innocent fraud,” as Carr puts it. The very tech platforms that were touting their meritocratic values were already opening their arms to the established media companies. Carr’s fable ends this way:

One day, a blog-peasant boy found buried in the dust beside his shack a sphere of flawless crystal. When he looked into the ball he was astounded to see a moving picture. It was an image of a fleet of merchant ships sailing into the harbor of the island of Blogosphere. The ships bore names that had long been hated throughout the island, names like Time-Warner and News Corp and Pearson and New York Times and Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast and McGraw-Hill. The blog-peasants gathered along the shore, jeering at the ships and telling the invaders that they would soon be vanquished by the brave lords in the great castle. But when the captains of the merchant ships made their way to the gates of the castle, bearing crates of gold, they were not repelled by the lords with cannons but rather welcomed with fanfares. And all through the night the blog-peasants could hear the sounds of a great feast inside the castle walls.

That was written more than 10 years ago. Now, consider these recent moves from the largest tech platforms that claim the majority of our attention:

  • Google is building a new Snapchat-like story widget that sits at the top of Google search results. It’s courting established media companies to produce content for this widget. If you’re an independent content creator, the search results that link to your articles or videos will sit below this widget, which is given prime real estate.
  • Medium has recently launched a platform for paying members and has formed syndication deals with mainstream publications like the New York Times and Fast Company. These outlets now flood the homepage of Medium, and ever since Medium started courting publishing partners, my organic reach on the platform has fallen to virtually nothing.
  • Snapchat launched its popular Discover section a few years ago and it’s given prime real estate on the screen of every Snapchat user. The section is invite-only and only caters to some of the largest media players.
  • Facebook recently launched its Watch tab, which is its effort to take on both YouTube and traditional TV. Again, the feature is invite-only, and Facebook is no-doubt giving these videos a signal boost in its algorithm, which means that every independent content creator who amassed a following on Facebook is now being crowded out.

I could go on. Every tech platform that gains even a modicum of credibility and user interest immediately runs to the major players to cut deals with them.

Meanwhile, independent content peasants like me continue plowing our fields, hoping for a splash of rain.

***

FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com