The internet has disrupted multiple industries, but the impact of the disruption has probably been most significant on publishing. Publishing was run by a gatekeeping model in the old economy whereas, to quote Clay Shirky, the internet has reduced publishing to a button.
The real disruption in publishing, however, came through with the emergence of platforms. Blogging disrupted every form of online publishing that existed prior to it (most of it required you to know web scripting to start with) and Twitter/microblogging significantly broadened the entire market of ‘publishers’. There is an interesting trend over the last few years which explains the reason for this widespread disruption.
Platforms that blur lines between Communication and Publishing disrupt the latter
Here’s the thing about building a publishing product: it needs a market. If you are writing something, it needs a market of readers – to consume it. Access to market is the key value a traditional publisher adds to budding writers.
In the age of the internet, getting a market is equivalent to discoverability online. And the primary mode of discoverability is either search or sharing. The new breed of publishing is interesting because it takes the thus-far trivial act of communication, and by a simple tweak, makes it discoverable and ‘published’. This drastically reduces the barriers to production because users produce while engaging in a much more relaxing activity: communication.
Communication + Permalink = Publishing
Think of the disruption in publishing over the last ten years or more. Let’s put in a few variables into the above equation:
Email + Permalink = Blog
IM + Permalink = Twitter
And, more recently,
Forum + Permalink = Q&A site
I’m over-simplifying the innovations the right hand side have brought about. But the key point is the fact that publishing as a by-product of communication has been the bedrock of all major publishing platforms that have come up of late.
It’s interesting to note this relationship. Blogging and Microblogging have opened up the market of ‘publishers’. Users who would never produce have started producing. The interesting thing is that the very act of publishing has gradually become easier while the distribution of published content has gradually become more sophisticated (moving from search to search+share). The simple underlying tweak driving this change is the permalink.
The permalink is a critical element of platforms running on user-generated content:
A. Permalinks are great SEO tools and when employed well, can lead to all the discoverability that a platform driven by user-generated content needs. Quora is an interesting two-sided platform that relies entirely on community activity. A permalink, with rich keywords stemming from the user’s question, increases the discoverability of the content, hence driving the discoverability of the platform for users searching for related content.
B. Permalinks carry a static reference to user-generated content and can, hence, be easily distributed around the web on social sharing platforms.
Permalinks as a seeding tactic?
The success of Q&A sites like Quora and StackOverflow shows us that good permalink structure can be an important audience acquisition tactic. Your SEO and discoverability are essentially being crowd-sourced. In addition to creating the content that drives the platform, users are also driving discoverability. In general, platforms work best when adoption scales with usage i.e. users do all your marketing, and much like widgets, permalinks are a great tactic for user-driven marketing.
Communication vs. Publishing Decisions
This leads us back to a larger question and provides an interesting framework for designing platforms for user contributions:
1. At every point on the platform where a user contributes, how can you leverage that snippet of user contribution to maximize discoverability?
2. How can you minimize the barriers to contribution by disguising publishing as a byproduct of communication?
3. Where do you draw the line between discoverable and non-discoverable user contributions?
4. How does discoverability of user-generated content get curated? How do better contributions get discovered better off-platform?
How have you solved the off-network discoverability problem while building a user-contribution platform?