Ask any digital editor at the largest mainstream news publishers — places like the New York Times, CNN, and Reuters — what are their biggest sources of web traffic, and they’ll list Google within the top five, if not the very top referrer. But this would be slightly misleading, because when most of us think of Google, we think of the main Google.com search engine. But included in these publishers’ Google traffic is a substantial flow of readers from Google News. In fact, whenever these outlets win the algorithmic lottery and land on the front page of Google News, they’ll see upwards of tens of thousands of visits in a single hour from that one source.
If you’re someone who writes a single-author blog, perhaps you didn’t know about this potential traffic firehose. That’s perfectly fine, because your chances of getting indexed in Google News are virtually non-existent. Sure, you can apply, but Google tends to reject you if you’re not a professional news organization. So if you’re a Tumblr blogger offering up commentary and reporting on the Apple Watch, commentary that’s just as high in quality compared to a column in Time, that audience is forever closed off to you.
By itself, this isn’t a travesty; there are plenty of other traffic sources. But what we’ve witnessed over the last few years has been a circling of the wagons — or perhaps the more appropriate metaphor is the digging of a moat — that has allowed entrenched content producers to receive preferential treatment when it comes to new distribution channels. For years, web activists have obsessed over lobbying the FCC for it to ensure net neutrality. These activists have warned us that a world without it would permit Fox News to pay for special favors from ISPs, thereby creating an “internet fast lane” that would deliver its website to you faster while a site like Daily Kos is treated to slower loading times. But what if Fox News didn’t need to worry about faster loading times because the largest and most powerful internet companies are automatically giving it special and early access to their millions of users?
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Nowhere have we seen this trend more prominently than on mobile. Case in point: Snapchat Discover. Launched in January, Discover is a new icon added to the Snapchat homescreen that whisks the user to a display of about a dozen brands, all of which have created rich media content exclusively for the app. According to Kevin Roose at Fusion, being featured on the app has resulted in “millions of views per day, per publisher.” Snapchat generated a gargantuan viewership for these publishers virtually overnight, all in pursuit of corporate synergy. I guess my invite got lost in the mail. We’ve continued to hear murmurs that Facebook has been in talks with news orgs to host their content within its massively popular mobile app. I don’t think we should be surprised when, in a few months, the company announces a handful of partnerships with major media outlets.
These exclusionary practices aren’t just occurring within the most popular mobile apps; you’ll also see them with the distribution of apps themselves. In a brilliant piece called “The Internet is Rigged,” Dave Pell described how he watched the Apple event in which it announced the Apple Watch — not with excitement at the possibilities such a piece of technology would unlock, but with dismay. Pell is the author of the popular email newsletter NextDraft, as well as the creator of a mobile app of the same name. With more than a hundred thousand downloads of his app and thousands of email subscribers, Pell exemplifies the promise of the internet — that indie writers can use its frictionless distribution to gain audience and make a living without the help of a corporate media property. But the Apple Watch represented one more barrier to his audience, one more device for which he’d have to pay expensive app developers if he wanted to gain access to its platform.
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At the Apple event showcasing the watch, Tim Cook and team demonstrated a lot of cool apps. But none of them were mine. Don’t get me wrong. I’d do the same thing if I were Apple. Give your biggest and best partners first dibs on designing apps that will be featured. It makes sense. And some of those apps are made by companies in which I have investments. So good for me the investor. But bad for me the writer and publisher.
Back in the day, no one got a heads up on anything. No one got to develop for a platform the rest of us didn’t get to access until after it launched. No one had to be approved to get put on the web. No one had to convince anyone else to feature them in a store in order to matter. Even writing this, I worry that someone in the app store might be less likely to put my NextDraft app on the front page.
This isn’t to say that you need to work for a multi-billion dollar brand to have a voice on the internet. It’s not difficult for your average person to reach hundreds or even thousands of people on his Facebook or Twitter account. But for those trying to make a living on a property outside Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, those with an independent news app or blog or newsletter — they’re consistently shut out of some of the largest distribution channels simply because they don’t have the resources or the money or the brand recognition to be offered access. It’s becoming more and more difficult to get outraged about the possibility of ISPs offering internet fast lanes when, increasingly, we’re not given any access to the lanes at all.
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