P064: On Platform Antagonism

The Economist believes that people want to be informed and so they sell their particular version of news across any number of digital platforms, in addition to their storied print edition. This determination to project a unified product regardless of medium stood out to me in this refreshingly candid NiemanLab interview with Tom Standage, deputy editor in charge of digital products at The Economist. Key quote:

“So we sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. And we did that initially as a weekly print product. Then it turns out you can take that same content and deliver it through an app.”

For a title that has been in continuous publication since 1843, it is tempting to view this platform agnosticism (antagonism?) as an expression of an empire in decline, desperately trying to hang onto the Good Old Days. At least, that was the general consensus when it came to discussing The Economist’s position on not linking out to source material:

“…we’re not big on linking out. And it’s not because we’re luddites, or not because we don’t want to send traffic to other people. It’s that we don’t want to undermine the reassuring impression that if you want to understand Subject X, here’s an Economist article on it — read it and that’s what you need to know. And it’s not covered in links that invite you to go elsewhere.”

Mathew Ingram published a convincing rebuttal to this mentality and has been banging that drum for a while now. And I agree with Ingram – obviously – that in-line linking is how the web should work. But I appreciate the fact that Standage is putting the needs of his product first. Many, many publishers have been ground to dust just figuring out how to exist on the web and it’s highly likely that we are only now starting to grasp at what the web should be.

Ed Sullivan is pretty great. We’re done here.

The publishing platform we call “the web” is young, volatile and built on conflicting and confusing standards. To say that we know how this thing should be done is to plant your flag in the ground of a shifting landscape – a useful and often required gesture in the moment, but one that may look downright Christopher Columbus-esque in hindsight.

TV didn’t stop evolving with Ed Sullivan, pop music didn’t stop evolving with The Beatles, movies didn’t stop evolving with Citizen Kane and the web will continue to evolve as long as HTTP requests are being made. What we now see as the purest expression of form is but a blip on the radar in the longview – same as this current expression of The Economist.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron