Publishers, curation and algorithms

Publishers take two risks to bring new ideas to the world.

(And I’m talking about any middleperson–a gallerist, a TV network, a movie studio, a label–they’re all publishers).

One risk is the time and money spent attracting and supporting the creator/artist.

And the other risk is curatorial. They are risking the trust and attention of the audience by choosing THIS instead of THAT. If they develop a reputation for having good taste (in however the audience defines that) they earn more attention and trust and the benefit of the doubt.

The great publishers might not be famous (Motown was, and The New Yorker is) but they change the culture.

TED takes a risk when they put someone on the main stage or feature a video online. And a podcaster takes a risk when they choose a guest.

The artist gets two benefits. They get the benefit of being picked: cash, editing, the emotional solace of being selected and supported.

And they get the benefit of curation. They reach a scarce audience with help from an organization that’s good at that, and is willing to risk their permission asset to support the artist’s work.

The internet has pockets where all of this is intentionally undermined, often by organizations that adopt the mantle of publisher when it’s convenient.

The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s term for a library with infinite shelf space, one where the rules of scarcity don’t apply in the same way. The internet platform doesn’t care how many different titles they carry, and in fact, benefits from carrying all of them. Spotify and YouTube and Amazon don’t actually care what you listen to or watch, as long as you come back tomorrow.

Because they have nothing much at stake when it comes to content, and because they are focused on scale, they defer to an algorithm. It’s the mysterious program, by now so complex that no one knows exactly how it works, that decides what works get attention. Even the people who work there guess at what the algorithm wants.

And this has consequences.

Look up a recipe online. It’s a very different experience than finding a recipe in your favorite cookbook. The recipes online offer nearly infinite variety, but they’re largely untested, and they’re formatted in a time-wasting upside-down sort of way because someone decoded that this is what Google’s algorithm would like.

Look at most of the junk in the app store, or most of the content in social media. The algorithm sorts through everything, and when anything can make a buck, anything will.

Of course, there are enormous benefits to the long tail. It gives creators who don’t match an existing editorial paradigm a chance to be heard. It gives readers/listeners/watchers a chance to discover things that would have been unpublished in the old model. And it creates room for discussion and access where it might not have existed.

But…

Publishing to an algorithm is not the same as publishing to an audience. If the creator has no publisher and no permission asset, then being heard is dramatically more difficult. As is getting paid.

And living in a culture that’s driven by profit-seeking algorithm owners is different as well. Because without curation, who is responsible? Who is guiding the culture? Who pushes the boundaries or raises the standards?

Wikipedia has 5,000 curators who work overtime to keep the site from becoming yet another example of Godwin’s Law. Sites that only obey the Long Tail and the primacy of the algorithm have fewer standards. They view curation as a last resort, and if mass is the standard, then mass is all that will be rewarded.

It’s tempting to hope that there’s a hybrid out there. But for that to exist, the algorithms have to work for creators and publishers, not the other way around. The publishers have to embrace the cost of curation, focusing on what they want to promote and paying the price to do so, owning the upside and downside of that intervention.

Culture is almost always improved not by what the masses want tomorrow, but by what a small and dedicated group of people are willing to commit to for the long run. “People like us do things like this” is the recipe for culture.

Creators: It’s possible (perhaps required) to not wait to get picked by a traditional publisher. At the same time, we benefit when we realize that the algorithm isn’t rooting for us and quite probably is working against us. The only winning approach is to earn permission and a direct connection with our fans and then act as curators for ideas (and as our own publishers).

Platforms: It helps to acknowledge that you’re not actually a publisher, that ceding decisions to the crowd and the algorithm and walking away from curation might make you a landlord, but you’re not incrementally improving the culture. Yes, it’s possible to find a middle ground, as Netflix has, but it requires awareness, persistence and discipline.

You probably won’t find this post by searching for it on Google, because they moved my blog down in the results a really long time ago. That’s okay, I’m not writing it for them, I’m writing it for you.

Seth’s Blog

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