Apple, distributed media and the struggle to keep news content relevant
Apple’s newly announced News product seems to focus on design and ‘premium feel’, but it’s a product with the fight for relevancy at it’s core. Is it a concentrated distributed media play or just the democratisation of design tropes and a way to polish the usual recycled content?
Previously I talked esoterically about design in terms of distributed media strategies — specifically in terms of design existing within ‘superstructures’ (thankfully it was short in length). ‘Superstructure’ was used as an artificial edifice with architectural language to describe the reality of how content is presented by the major social networks. The Facebook ‘Timeline’, however, is a superstructure in the purest sense of the word — if the underlying structure of the Timeline contains multiple posts from multiple destinations, each with a degree of freedom prior to algorithm, the Timeline that most of us are faced with in our interactions with Facebook has a degree of freedom of zero. The posts within the Timeline exist within a time period and fall within this natural time coded hierarchy. But the Timeline itself sits as a superstructure, above the baseline of the reams of data, algorithm and product Facebook produces, with the single role of enabling consumption. My argument in terms of superstructure adoption was — why build a new superstructure to contain your content? The process of building new websites, marketing them to users, building communities, enabling tribes, all while attempting to elicit social network shares from them (via clunky APIs and modals) seems almost as prosaic as trying to accurately recreate a print magazine page on a tablet. There are counter arguments to this of course — some content should remain in a curated experience or branded space. There needs to be a solid brand presence to maintain editorial or brand trust. I get these counter arguments and indeed the products they produce are often highly convincing — the current app industry looks profitable and influential and by it’s nature encourages walled gardens and the proprietary control of users — the more we know about the user the more we can enhance the relationship with the user, therefore the more we can monetise the products. Yet I’ve seen very few content brands develop walled garden products with any significant level of profit or established user relationships. Walled garden products — unless they do one thing incredibly well or solve a broadly felt user requirement — tend to suffer from discoverability and (if a user ever finds it in a store or home screen) significant adoption. It’s worth pointing out that Apple in iOS9 seek to change this discoverability issue with app-level SEO, but the effectiveness of this remains to be seen (set your email filters NOW, however, for an inevitable plethora of companies touting to sell you access to that SEO ‘goldmine’).
Jumping back to superstructures, we’re seeing specific news products loosing out to a growing Millennial and Generation X need to discuss and consume (in this illustrated case - politics) in a distributed media environment. This illustrated superstructure is Facebook, but delve into the demographic, alter the editorial topic and it could be any number of growing superstructures currently filling the home screens and being adopted by millions of users.
Famously at the back of the adoption curve is Apple, who have now unveiled a new distributed media channel which should be ignored at any brands peril. Not because of the design or the user experience, but purely on the basis of discoverability and sheer number of home page installs. Sure it looks pretty enough, and from what we can tell designers will get a few more tools to play with in the coming months, but this is a distributed media play at it’s core. Yes it’s RSS focused. Yes it’s lean. But it’s also a highly complex experience based in a Natural Language Product and algorithm that don’t prioritise search, but rather discovery through relevancy. Apple News brings distributed media directly into the iOS with all that entails — better discoverability and functionality, yes — but more important, user relevancy. Natural Language opens the playing field. Where once the distributed model relied on the opaque nature of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm or that of Google’s PageRank, with Apple it’s — potentially — more to do with language. The input in iOS9 of a keyword will display related contacts, web searches, apps, locations — and related News articles.
So in a distributed media model, we’ve gained another channel — but we’ve gained a channel with a robust user experience already in place and the promise of design tools and options to share beyond the walled garden. Will this become the gateway for editorial brands to begin to consider fully distributed media models? And will this create new tools for designers and experience makers that could influence the other superstructures Apple is now squaring up to? Of course we won’t know. What we do know is Apple’s want to create a ‘premium feel’ to it’s News content as shown in their recent Keynote - but how well this will sit with Millennials is an unknown. Apple News is an interesting development that creates relevancy, transparency, permeability and discoverability across news content and it’s operating systems beyond the basic algorithms — and that is a very Millennial construct, if not a worryingly iOS centric one. The Apple News articles themselves however, with their focus on animation, print hierarchies and page furniture look distinctly aimed at the Baby Boomer, and while Apple could create the democratisation of New York Times ‘Snowfall’-style experiential editorials, the question remains — ‘is there actually a user need for it?’.