Facebook and News Publishers: The Writing is on the Wall

Publishing has been swallowed up in the vortex of big data and the pimply-faced prodigies from Silicon Valley are to blame. The sentiment is overfamiliar, almost prosaic—its utterances are recurring conceits of most every critique and discourse on the Information Age. Yet, it’s not without reason: the fraught relationship between content creators and enablers is now poised to enter its second decade and neither side is willing to sign an armistice. Yet.

On March this year, The New York Times ran a scoop on itself; the report quoted anonymous sources confirming that the Grand Old Lady of journalism had been holding backchannel talks with Facebook to work out a business deal that would effectively allow the world’s largest social network to host the media giant’s content on its website. Two others—the highly adaptive National Geographic and Buzzfeed, the dark overlord of click bait—are the other media concerns which have joined NYT at the negotiating table. Details of the business plan haven’t been disclosed but there are strong indications that Facebook has offered to share revenue from ads which would be displayed alongside the publisher’s content. The deal, if inked, will not just prove to be a turning point in the new internet economy but could also bring about a paradigm shift in the ‘adapt or die’ environment of digital disruption that has, over the years, thrown the publishing industry into an existential crisis. More on that later.

First things first: Why is Facebook, a colossal player in the information economy, making overtures to NYT. Media gazers believe it’s because the world’s largest social network is facing the heat from suffering a steady loss in user base as newer social media platforms take hold. By hosting content within its contours, Facebook can limit the number of out-bound links and contain users within itself. Additionally, there is the time factor: according to Facebook, the average time it takes a news article to load on a third-party website is eight seconds; the lag period may seem innocuous but to Facebook, it is time lost in a breakneck digital environment where even milliseconds matter and impatient users can just as easily navigate to quicker alternatives. Sounds plausible enough but a closer look at Facebook’s recent activities shows the move is part of a bigger plan.

It all began a few months ago when it tweaked its algorithm to demote videos from third-party websites like Youtube and Daily Motion and lend more visibility to videos embedded on its own platform; the proposal to host written content from publishers is thus in step with Facebook’s larger plan of making all content native to its website.

Is the impulse to nativize all content an attempt to supersede the other but substantially larger news aggregator—Google, which, for all intents and purposes, exists as a kind of gateway to the web at large. Indeed, by cozying up to publishers, offering them access to its billion plus users and the ad revenue perks that come with it, is Facebook trying to undermine Google News? Already, Facebook has left Twitter and Reddit behind to become the second largest provider of referral traffic to news websites. Publishers, especially new media ones such as Buzzfeed have shown a 80% leap in referral traffic on the back of Facebook. In the case of Buzzfeed, Facebook has overcome Google as the leading provider of referral traffic: in fact, Buzzfeed, which has seen spectacular success over the last few years, would have stood scant chance had it been confined to Google News’ highly intransigent search algorithms which are given to promoting newsworthy content from established publishers over lighter content from start-ups. Over the years, Facebook’s quiet entry into the content space has reaped significant dividends for publishers, especially newer upstarts like Buzzfeed, Vox and Gawker which rely on high shareability and clickability of content to spread like virus across the social network. Indeed, both Vox and Buzzfeed have made much of their charmed association with Facebook, releasing fawning case studies of their lucrative partnerships.

One of the principal differences between Google News and Facebook’s newsfeed is that while the latter lets users decide what’s interesting, Google’s algorithm is a nod to the time-honored tradition of news publishing: Whoever breaks the scoop first gets visibility over and above the others. While Facebook’s algorithm has been a boon to newer publishers who, save a few exceptions, do not scruple to uphold substance over shareability, it has similarly given free rein to content farms. Only recently did it add strictures in place to prioritize high-quality content over memes and gifs. More crucially, unlike Google, Facebook is not a search engine; it merely makes visible an article, assuming it satisfies its pre-reqs, if your friends and the networks around them have liked and shared it.

It is no great revelation that news dissemination has become highly socialized—that more and more internet users receive their news from social networks instead of from search results. ‘If the news is that important, it’ll find me’ seems to be the general refrain among users, particularly younger ones. In the current state of the news business, it isn’t just publishers who are pitted against each other as they vie for ever more clicks. There is a bigger contest in progress: new battle lines are being drawn between search and social and social has staked its claim to Google’s numero uno position. By hosting content within its own platform, Facebook is coming after Google and seems determined to fight tooth-and-nail to eclipse its long shadow over online content.

Meanwhile, publishers are mere spectators, their mouths agog, as the big bears of Silicon Valley tussle it out. But now, Facebook’s offer to host their content has created a frenzy among insiders in media circles whose opinions are firmly divided between both sides of the spectrum. While NYT considers its options, The Guardian, which has, over the years, reinvented itself as a suave digital news publication with an international focus, is reportedly trying to band together with other publications to enter into an alliance with Facebook but only if it’s on its own terms; the same NYT report indicates that the British media company is trying to drum up support in order to cajole Facebook into letting news publishers retain control over advertising. This is a politic move on The Guardian’s part considering advertising control allows publications to collect and harvest data on users which is then utilized to bargain for more revenue from advertisers. It’s difficult to say if Facebook will bite the bullet because to many publishers, its offer, which, with privileged access to a billion plus users, offers gargantuan scale in place of advertising control, is already irresistible. Truly, the gains from leveraging such scale cannot be underestimated; moreover, even if Facebook withholds advertising control from publishers, it still helps publishers create optimally targeted marketing campaigns: for example, it unveiled new tools in December to give publishers access to specific demographics—premised on age and location and other parameters—from its masterful collection of detailed data on its legions of users.

Scale is paramount, but is it enough? NYT, which, until recently, was in dire financial straits before being rescued by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, has fought a long and hard battle to weather digital disruption. Both NYT and The Guardian have concentrated considerable resources to stabilize their online presence and have managed to import their print legacies into the digital space so much so that advertisers have finally begun to take notice and pump considerable money into their coffers. NYT went a step further and, against market wisdom, introduced a paywall to milk its brand value. How does it expect to transplant its content into Facebook without risking its robust subscription model? Is Facebook’s offer a Faustian bargain that cannot be accepted without jeopardizing all that NYT has accomplished in the last few years?

But unlike NYT, BuzzFeed, inarguably one of the largest content spewers in the World Wide Web, does not have to contend with such problems. Evan as Facebook has been on a silent crusade against click-baiters over the last few months, it still continues to be BuzzFeed’s largest traffic driver. But—and this is where the long established rules of online publishing get tossed out of a moving car— BuzzFeed couldn’t care less if users stopped visiting its website. Yes, we have arrived at the pearly gates of a new epoch; months before Facebook advanced its new business proposal, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti had announced his company’s grand plan of channeling content across different platforms. It’s important to keep in mind that BuzzFeed gamed the new internet economy while it was still a bit player; unlike other publishers, it does not rely on display ads or advertisements native to its platform, rather it has built its own species of advertorials: editorial products crafted to market its client brands. And it has already embarked on a campaign to entrench these products into as many platforms as it can. Peretti has said that so long as it reaches hundreds of millions of readers, he does not care where his content lives. Indeed, in January this year, BuzzFeed received 420 million views via referrals from Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. But it generated a whooping 18 billion impressions on those platforms. When it comes to BuzzFeed’s unique operating model, advertisers don’t care where the content is being consumed, as long as it’s being consumed. In fact, as Peretti points out, organic social shares of their content qualify as earned media as opposed to viral hits, which can be easily obtained by buying cheap traffic.

For BuzzFeed, Facebook’s offer is a no-brainer. But when it comes to legacy publishers such as NYT, The Guardian and the other old-timers, the rules of operation are markedly different. With their rich publishing histories, their cultural capital is inextricably tied up with their brand appeal. The crucial reason why BuzzFeed and its like work best with Facebook is because they are digital natives: they are in the business of floating individual stories to rake up hundreds of millions of numbers. But, the old guards are institutions in and of themselves; the emphasis is on the whole rather than on one isolate story. Granted, the imperatives of social media have put an end to newspapers’ age-old practice of slot fillers or token stories published to merely fill space; but, legacy publishers still exist as whole entities even as their reliance on social media increases. To neglect their platforms in the face of an inexorably changing digital landscape is tantamount to undercutting the very fundaments of their traditional publishing model.

Notwithstanding all the ominous talk, it is still possible for them to come out unscathed. In NYT’s case, the outcome pivots on their online subscriptions. One of the reasons why online subscribers are important is because they fetch more advertising money. How would its online subscribers react upon finding that the story that they have paid good money to read is being freely shared on Facebook? Will they unsubscribe? Will we ultimately witness the fall of the paywall? It’s equally possible that there won’t be a backlash at all. Paid subscribers, especially in an environment where everything is free, exhibit an unyielding brand loyalty and reverence for august publications. The Financial Times, which has performed numerous experiments with its paywall, can attest to that.

There are no authoritative answers to these questions largely because no one is privy to the back room deals that are in progress at the moment. But one thing is manifestly clear; online publishing is in for a seismic change. Whether the old guard chooses to jump aboard or stay marooned in its own platforms, there’s no denying that Facebook is on a single-minded mission to overshadow Google. Even if it fails to win bigger publishers over, it will go after smaller fish. The game is about to change and those who change first will have a heads-tart. Once again, the writing is on the wall: Sooner or later you’ll have to join us or you will perish.

Bibliography

Facebook May Host News Sites’ Content, New York Times
Facebook turns 10 but are its days numbered?, BBC News
Why you may never need to leave Facebook ever again, Digital Trends
What the Rise of Native Video on Facebook & Twitter Means for Brands, Adweek
Facebook Reminds Media Companies: We Still Really, Really Like You, All Things D
Facebook Is Totally Dominating Google In Referrals … For Buzzfeed, Social News Daily
Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass It On, The New York Times
BuzzFeed’s New Strategy: Fishing for Eyeballs in Other People’s Streams, Recode
Is the Financial Times the perfect digital model?, The Guardian
How Vox.com approaches publishing on Facebook, Vox
Why ad buyers are upbeat on The New York Times’ digital transformation, Digiday

Network Realism

The topic for discussion today is Network Realism, which is a somewhat nebulous and imperfectly formed theory and I’m certain no one’s really understood completely. It was coined by James Bridle as we all know.

What is Network Realism? For that we’ll need a cursory idea of what Realism implies. I’m sure most of you have an idea already.

Realism was an art movement, which enjoyed a long period of patronage particularly of writers and critics in the late 1800s. It was realism because it bore a close relationship to the material reality of its time. The time factor is significant because unlike most other movements in literature, it did concern not itself with any mythic or grand historical themes; it was very much entrenched in daily life in and of its time.

Right, now that we have realism sorted, we can try to understand Network Realism, but before getting into that, I’m going to contextualize it using my own vantage point.

There was this book that I’d read a few years ago: It was called White Teeth. It was by this British author Zadie Smith. I was very taken by the book, in particular this character of a Bangladeshi immigrant. About a few months ago, I was reading up on the book and it came to my attention that the character I was talking about is actually based on a real person who was known to Smith. This person is a well known public figure. And this was very ambivalent for me because here you have a character from a book who’s literally come to life and is a real person. And yet, I felt that this person was more real inside Zadie Smith’s fictional universe rather than in the actual physical world.

That’s probably just me but I suspect it’s not an alien feeling and I think this approximates my own relationship to the internet or the network and how it bears upon my understanding of reality as we know it.

I realize this is turning into a discussion on metaphysics but I do think that it’s important to not take the network for granted and understand how it changes our notion of reality. There is a French philosopher. His name’s Jean Baudrillard and his work on Simulacrum and Simulation is, in my opinion, a good framework of reference to understand what’s happening here.

Simulacrum is essentially a copy or imitation of what one might call the real thing. Baudrillard believes that all of reality has been replaced by simulacra; that everything, including our conception of reality is just an imitation.

He uses this parable, it was originally a short story by John Louis Borges, the Argentinian writer. The story goes that there was an empire and it was covered by a map that was drawn to scale. It’s a simulacrum of the empire. This map was as big and as detailed as the very territory that it was covering. It was an evolving map so that every time, the empire acquired or lost a new piece of territory, it would change accordingly. Overtime, people began thinking of this map as the empire itself. The map itself became their notion of the empire that they inhabited. Their spatial position was on the map and not on the actually physical territory of the empire. They began living in the map, so to speak and eventually could not tell the difference between the map and the physical territory that it was covering. And in time, they were unable to comprehend that there was ever a territory beneath the map.

I think the internet is sort of like this map; it is the ultimate simulacrum because it is a real-time and constantly evolving representation of the world and by the world. People actively participate in modifying and making changes to it.

In effect, as happened in the case of the empire and its subjects where they started seeing the map as the actual territory, we, too, with our increasing engagement with the network, are losing touch with reality from which the network used to be absent. It is like perpetuating a myth without knowing that there is a myth in the first place. The internet, in its initial days, used to be thought of quite abstractly because such a thing was unprecedented. Now, we are slowly reaching a position where we don’t find ourselves looking at the network as the other or as anything remotely foreign or unnatural to the human experience.

And none of this is strange to us because we created the network; it is us, collectively, who are the network.

We are spending more and more time on the network. We trust the network, for the most part; our thoughts, conversations, fears, feelings or points of view are either informed, trained or directly shaped by it. The network is our window to things that our far removed from our offline experience. The empire’s map was created to make its citizens understand the geographical contours of the empire. The internet was our guide to the world but it is becoming its own reality.

And the reason why that is is because it’s an irresistible reality. It is an infinite reality where, by virtue of what you search and what catches your fancy, you can change and choose your reality. There are no limitations, you can vicariously be what you want, be in the presence of anything you want. The limitations of your offline existence do not apply here. We spend our most curious hours online. It is a distraction to which we, without much resistance, volunteer our attention.

This, of course, is by no means a novel theory by any stretch. There were similar anxieties about television when it first came along. But, I think, the situation with the internet is a game-changer and since we happen to be in a publishing class, despite all evidence to the contrary, we can make some sense of it by looking at fiction.

“Turn off the computer. Write by hand!”: Will Self

“I keep Word open on top of Firefox”: William Gibson

We all know Will Self, the bane of the novel. William Gibson – I’m sure most of you’ve hear about him – is a science fiction writer who actually happens to live in Vancouver.

So, now we have two entirely opposing schools of thought. Will Self, who’s all about disconnecting and locking himself up in French garret to write the next great existential novel. And Gibson, who probably spends more time on the internet than all of us combined.

Now, the reason I suspect Gibson spends so much time on the internet is because his novels show it. James Bridle talks about how his novels are turning less and less futuristic over the years. Science Fiction itself seems to be in a crisis because lately it just does not seem to be able to imagine futures that seem too distant. This might be because we are living in an age of inexorable technological advancement. But, there’s more to it. James Bridle gives us this example of flying penguins, which appear in Gibson’s recent novels. They’re basically like surveillance drones that appear in one of the chapters. And, of course, this is bizarrely fantastical and a perfect imagining for a science fiction novel but a few days after Bridle read the book, someone Tweeted him a link to a company that actually manufactures these aerodynamic penguins. This can’t be mere coincidence; Gibson definitely found them online and worked them into his fiction. In fact, he seems to be doing this more and more. There are actually forums on the internet where users are annotating his texts and looking up digital footprints of his narratives. Some of these are actually very good and they’ve managed to trace Gibson’s Google history from start to finish.

And Gibson is very much a miner of information on the internet. A lot of the anxieties that Will Self has about net usage have a full-blown effect in Gibson’s novelistic imagination. He compares trawling through the internet to rummaging through the forefront of the global collective mind.

And Gibson has somewhat acknowledged that as well. He says that he gets plenty of ideas from his Twiiter Feed.
What’s obvious is that none of this would have been possible had it not been for the network. It’s a hyper-connected labyrinth of links.

And that’s Network Realism. Network, because like Gibson’s fiction, it comes from the network. It was networking that introduced him to the Flying Penguins. He would have had scarce chance of seeing one of those from his window. It was the network, as a simulacrum, as a psychic remove from immediate reality, which made it possible. It’s Network because it is from a place in the network which was a copy of an objective fact. It was a copy of a copy.

It’s realism because it’s real-time, it’s entrenched in the moment; Bridle read it and only days later found it trending on Twitter.

That’s Network Realism.

And Gibson already has a term for it. He calls it in the endless digital now which is made possible by this extremely heightened level and volume of communication that takes place on the internet. It’s like being in an arena where half a billion voices are being heard in simultaneity. This is an unprecedented pace and degree of information dissemination; It’s never been seen before and it does have an implication on temporality. It as if our Present Tense is being infinitely accelerated.

Rather it is as if time itself has been flattened. The Future is a notion. But nowhere more so than on the network which pulsates with millions of connections every millisecond. The Future already exists in the network’s present; to someone like Gibson and his ilk, who’re the first to receive information, there is only the present; The rest of us have to wait till they share the information and it trickles down to us. Their present is our future. The Future has arrived; it’s just that it’s unevenly distributed.

 

 

 

Too Fast Too Facile: The Rise Of Online Annotations

In 2014, technocrats and open source crusaders from around the world gathered at an annual conference in California to ruminate over the possibilities of palliating an information-saturated internet with the use of online annotations. Conspicuous among the attendees were representatives from Genius, formerly Rap Genius, which has been provisioned with millions of dollars of VC funding since its inception in 2009. The thrust of the conference was the creation of a universal online annotation system that would not only critique and question the veracity of online content but also network it by hyperlinking and minimizing the degrees of separation between reams of webpages which might otherwise be insulated from each other.

At the conference, Nick Stenning, a developer with hypothes.is, made the most compelling case for online annotation. “…the web will be a vast, varied assembly of sources of information. Annotation provides us with the way of navigating that information…without requiring that the publishers provide it themselves.” The crux of his argument lies in the phrase without requiring that the publishers provide it themselves. As it happens, it is often the web publisher—by having sole discretion over inserting hyperlinks to sources, related webpages—that lays down the route a seeker of information must take in navigating the web. Discounting his comments, which are— besides being at the end of the page and hence inconspicuous and relatively decontextualized—vulnerable to deletion, the user has no recourse to link a webpage to another. Conversely, annotations, by virtue of being inline, function as an incisive, line-specific commentary that let users paste hyperlinks to related webpages without requiring the publisher’s imprimatur.

And indeed that is how Genius, with its melioristic mandate—Annotate The World, could affect a change. Of all the emergent annotation platforms, Genius seems poised to break new ground not least because it is buoyant with venture capital but also because it is being shepherded by Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of the now defunct Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers which also introduced online annotations to the nascent internet community of the early 90s. Having failed in creating an annotatable web on first attempt, Andreessen, with Genius, hopes to reinvigorate online annotation and this time for good. But the concept of online annotations predates Mosaic. Even though it can be argued that the idea harks all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s Memex Machine, it was Ted Nelson, who, with his seminal Project Xanadu, first began to think critically of the possibilities of creating an annotatable web.

Despite having similar intentions, Nelson’s and Andreessen’s visions were fundamentally dissimilar. Much before Hypertext, which would link countless blogs and primitive webpages that hitherto existed in isolation, Nelson, who actually coined the term, was busy ideating a radically different but vastly superior version of the internet as we know it today. An exposition of how Project Xanadu differs from the contemporary World Wide Web would require another paper but a brief excursus into its fundaments is crucial to drawing lessons for online annotations.

To Nelson, the World Wide Web is an aborted and slipshod version of what he had in mind for Xanadu. “[Xanadu] has always been much more ambitious…where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; where it is possible to see the origins of every quotation; The Web trivialized this original Xanadu model, vastly but incorrectly simplifying these problems…Fonts and glitz, rather than content connective structure, prevail.”

It is Nelson’s emphasis on connective structure that makes WWW pale in comparison to Xanadu; two-way links, as he labels them, allow the user to view a document that either borrows, references or derives content in simultaneity with the source document from which it borrows, references or derives. In fact, by using beams to connect content to its source document, it visualizes not just connections between documents but between lines and paragraphs scattered across documents.

A screen shot of Xanadu’s working deliverable, courtesy: www.kottke.org

Stated laconically, Xanadu traces not just the genealogy of documents but functions as a kind of an omniscient library system, mapping the web of interconnections in the accumulation of human knowledge.

But one could argue that the web, as it exists today, allows for comparing a source document and a derivative document by displaying them in different tabs or windows; but, it does not provide for two-way links. For example, a news report about discrepancies in a company’s financial statement would hyperlink itself to the said financial statement released on the company’s website. But, despite the availability of myriad backlink softwares that notify a webmaster every time another webpage links to their website, it is unlikely that the website would reciprocate the action by linking its financial statement to the news report. As mentioned earlier, this is because hyperlinking to another webpage is at the discretion of the web publisher. Xanadu’s provision for two-way linking ensures that no document can exist in isolation which effectively means that it displays not just links (or beams, as illustrated above) to a source document but links from a source document to all documents that source from it.

In the ground-breaking Death Of The Author, literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote:
“The text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture”

Arguably, Barthes’ aphorism is a more elegant summary of the more banal dictum: All Knowledge Is Derivative. With two-way links, Xanadu imitates it by tracing every quotation or idea to its very source such that there is no document or text that exists without being foregrounded in the scholarship that precedes and influences it and that which proceeds and is influenced by it.

But how does this inform annotations?

Although Xanadu never got off its feat and is considered more or less vaporware, online annotations can be an effective tool in mitigating some of the damage that the shoddy implementation of hypertext has wrought on the web. And this is where Genius can be of service.

Any user, after signing up for a free Genius account, can annotate the web. Genius is different from other annotation platforms which tend to be browser plugins; rather, it looms over the web which is to say that it precedes the URL—for example, past Genius annotations on the LA Times website can be viewed by Genius users and new annotations can be made by going to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com. If a Genius user finds a story on Seattle Times that is related to another story on LA Times, he can make an annotation on http://genius.com/www.seattletimes.com and insert a hyperlink to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com. This is, however, still a one-way link. But, with the right backlink software, Genius will be notified that a user has linked to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com and can use bots to display the in-bound link to Seattle Times (http://genius.com/www.seattletimes.com) on LA Times (http://genius.com/www.latimes.com)

What makes this prospect of two-way linking irresistible is that Genius can do this without needing the permission of either newspaper. The whole mechanism may seem tedious even undoable. But, with the weight of influential investors and millions of dollars behind them, Genius is perfectly positioned to delve into two-way linking and channelizing funds into conceiving new ways of accomplishing it.

Two-way linking is essential not only for more transparency and navigability of information as the two examples illustrated but also for creating a highly interlinked web. More connections and reciprocal connections would create an infinitely networked and heuristic World Wide Web where information would be more accessible and one where users can amble from one website to another without solely relying on search engines and a list of favored websites as their gateways to the web. It would pave the way for a more equitable internet—one where information would be scattered across multitudes of websites—and where a few media organizations would not hold a monopoly over privileged information and take editorial calls over the publishing of sensitive content.

Nelson’s Project Xanadu was a spectacular failure; but it prognosticated problems that have only come to the surface since big internet companies started implementing Hypertext with little foresight and content began pullulating the internet in the last two decades.

Online annotation, which is yet to come to fruition, can, to some degree, bring us closer to a Xanadu-like internet. But, Genius, with its emphasis on the ‘Worse Is Better’ model of business, seems to be prioritizing scaling up over and above other imperatives. In fact, the founders of Rap Genius are taking comfort in the fact that the introduction of Hypertext was met with similar consternation which eventually fizzled out. In doing so, it is evincing the same haste and impatience that the internet behemoths demonstrated in their road to El Dorado.

Nelson wouldn’t be surprised.

Bibliography

RapGenius Rebrands With $40M, Aims to ‘Annotate the World’, Lora Kolodny, Wall Street Journal
Perpectives on Annotation, W3 TPAC Conference, Oct 2014
Why Andreessen Horowitz Is Investing in Rap Genius
Toward an ecology of hypertext notation, Catherine C Marshall, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
Pioneering hypertext project Xanadu released after 54 years, kottke.org
The Death Of The Author, Roland Barthes
Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever:
Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use, Project Xanadu

The curse of Xanadu, Gary Wolf, Wired
Genius Idea, Reeves Wiedeman, New York Magazine

More Horsepower To Wattpad

In this paper, I will try to examine how Wattpad, an online reading platform, has built a global community of over 30 million readers. This paper tries to understand the website’s position and utility vis-à-vis traditional publishers and makes the case that Wattpad’s most vital asset is not its content but rather its role as a social network and conduit to a global community of readers.

Consider the curious case of Anna Todd. In March, 2014, twenty five year old Todd uploaded one of the last few chapters of After, her Wattpad novel which would soon turn her into the cynosure of the publishing world. Within 13 seconds of the upload, comments started pouring in. In the next 24 hours, Anna received close to 10,000 notifications. According to Wattpad’s metrics, After has been read over 299 million times [1] by just under 10 million unique readers [2]. Some weeks later, she signed a six figure contract with Simon & Schuster who published it in paperback [3]. Later, Paramount Pictures acquired screen rights [4] for the book.

There are two things, among others, to take away from this brief anecdote. The first being Wattpad’s astonishing ability to forge such a massive readership and the second—the serialization of the story as opposed to uploading it in its entirety.

By no means is serialization a new fashion; rather it is atavistic: it was how The Three Musketeers was published in the mid-19th Century and later, how Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner— the Lost Generation—came into prominence [5]. Allen Lau, who co-founded Wattpad in 2009, credits it with making stories more conducive to being read. “Two thousand words is roughly 10 minutes of reading. That makes the story more digestible, something you can do when standing in line,” he told [6] the New York Times. But in the Wattpad universe, serialization holds an added advantage. Unlike the traditional model of publishing, Wattpad is able to facilitate a direct dialogue between the writer and his/her readers. Unlike Youtube, the comments section doesn’t serve just a perfunctory function; rather it puts the writer and reader on common ground where the two are wont to discussing plot, characterization and other intricacies of the craft. Often times, these suggestions find their way into the next chapter and establish a loyal following for the writer. More importantly, Wattpad catalyzes the reader-writer relationship with push notifications every time a new chapter is added to an existing work.

Perhaps, it is this form of social reading that distinguishes Wattpad from its peers in traditional publishing. This and the fact that the content is entirely free has brought into focus not a few Wattpad sensations like Todd but also certain types and genres of writing that are generally considered to pander to more populist tastes. Although it has been championed by the likes of Margaret Atwood [7], Wattpad is generally regarded with skepticism by denizens of established media. That Wattpad literature abounds in but fails to extend beyond fan fiction is the general refrain.

These concerns are not without substance. Indeed, fan fiction predominates Wattpad and is its fastest growing category [8]. Once can make the case that even Todd’s six figure advance owes itself to millions of dedicated Wattpadders who seem to derive great edification from her erotic reimagining of a One Direction band member. However, such criticism might seem wan when viewed from a more panoptic context.

It is instructive to situate Wattpad in the realm of traditional publishing wherein a manuscript either lulls in the slush pile or acquires the attention of an acquiring editor. In either case, the writer is powerless once the submission has been made. Contrariwise, Wattpad imbues the writer with the power to publish his words immediately and, unlike self-publishing, there are no costs involved.

Since the dawn of the digital age, the arena of trade publishing has become a battleground of sorts between its humanist gatekeepers and disruptive technologists. Many, including Amazon—the elephant in the room, have tried to wrest the means of publication from the old guard. Self-publishing, notably Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has succeeded but only to the extent that it has weeded out publishers and editors as middlemen in the rarified market that it commands. Wattpad, however, has been instrumental not only in delivering writers from the caprice of the acquiring editor but also in vesting readers with the power to decide what’s best for them. If self-publishing undercuts the traditional publishing model, Wattpad, with its 35 million users [9], would be abler in toppling it. A Mashable story called this watershed development “People-powered Publishing” [10]. By shunting out the Merchants of Culture, Wattpad gives every writer a chance to be published; without the weight of marketing and promotions behind it, every new story is on equal footing while competing for readers’ attention and in this laissez-faire system, every reader, by way of voting for the work, decides if it is good or at any rate, deserves his time and attention.

Most shafts directed against Wattpad seem to ignore the collaborative, DIY ethic that lies at its nub. Indeed, one needn’t think too hard to detect similarities between Wattpad and the primitive crowd-sourced or Commons-based peer production [11] days of the internet. On Wattpad, it’s not just plot suggestions, character development that elicit readers’ inputs; most every book comes with a cover that is often designed for free by fans of the work. Fan-made book trailers that are, for the most part, bricolages of existing movie scenes from Youtube are also evidence of Wattpadders’ spirit of collaboration that is unencumbered by any financial motivations. Additionally, by allowing writers to embed songs and clips into their stories and effectively trying to shake up the form, Wattpad may have unwittingly set the wheels in motion for the cross-pollination of storytelling itself.

However, it still remains unclear how Wattpad sees itself vis-a-vis trade publishers. Anna Todd’s story was co-opted by Simon & Schuster but this unlikely alliance between Wattpad and publishers has more examples in the Philippines than in North America. Next to the United States, Wattpad’s largest user base resides in the Philippines. In 2013, it was receiving 20 million unique [12] visits from Philippines on a monthly basis. At least three of the top Wattpad reads have been been taken up by publishers and TV adaptations [13] are in the works. With its users scattered across 200 countries and its active cultivation of users from the developing world, Wattpad is more Facebook than Kobo and having received successive infusions of venture capital worth $17.3 million in 2012 and $46 million in 2014, it is more a cash-rich company than a start-up experiment [14].

Ultimately, it is the scale of its reach that distinguishes it from trade publishers. In a 2013 interview with Macleans, Allen Lau had asserted that it was possible for Wattpad to coexist with publishers [15]. Instead of replacing the old guard, Wattpad’s chief preoccupation is achieving maximum penetration as a social network—bringing a billion users under its fold [14]. Perhaps Wattpad’s greatest asset lies not in its content but the massive community of readers that it looks set to create. It certainly explains why publishers are harnessing it to reach a readership they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Even self-published authors have seen their sales jump [16] after uploading their books on Wattled.

As a coda, let’s attempt to understand Wattpad by considering the prescient words [17] of Shane Smith, founder of Vice Media, the other and substantially bigger Canadian success story that has now turned into a colossal force in the content industry. “I know why I’m sexy to them, which is what I said to Rupert [Murdoch]. ‘I have Gen Y, I have social [media]…you have none of that. I have the future, you have the past.’”

Citations:
[1] After by Anna Todd, Wattpad
[
2] Q&A with Anna Todd, Recode
[3] S&S Acquires After, Publisher’s Weekly
[4] Paramount Acquires Rights to Wattpad Book, Deadline
[5] Novels on the Installment Plan, Rachel Ihara, Google Books
[6] Web Fiction Serialized and Social, David Streitfeld, New York Times
[7] Margaret Atwood joins Toronto-based writing site Wattpad, Christine Dobby, Financial Post
[8] A Look Ahead to Self Publishing in 2015, Jennifer McCarthy, Publishers Weekly
[9] Wattpad now has 35 million users, Ian Hardy, Betakit
[10] People Powered Publishing is changing all the rules, Amy-Mae Elliott, Mashable
[11] The Internet? We Built That, Steven Johnson, New York Times
[12] How a site for posting stories is changing Philippine publishing, Philippine Daily Inquirer
[13] Wattpad stories come alive on TV5, Nathalie Tomada, PhilStar
[14] Wattpad raises $46 million to build a Global Literary Community, Seth Feigerman, Mashable
[15] Could Wattpad be the killer app for aspiring writers, Jason McBride, Macleans
[16] What’s up with Wattpad?, David Gaughran, WordPress
[17] Lunch with FT: Shane Smith, Matthew Garrahan, Financial Times