Wire services have to provide a product all of their subscribers can use — no matter how they publish or design their paper. So wire copy needs to be simple. Stories the Associated Press sends to its customers can’t be as innovative in their form as stories the New York Times or the Washington Post lovingly design for their front pages… So it won’t make much sense to pump endless energy into innovative, custom articles. Why spend so much of your time on a piece or a format that will only be available to a fraction of your audience? [I]nnovation will slow.

Ezra Klein

Klein’s other concern is that relying on platforms stifles particular types of innovation, because there’s no incentive to play around with new forms anymore. Facebook probably doesn’t care about Card Stacks, or big interactive features—or it is pretty sure, at least, that it can come up with something better and faster and more appropriate for its platform. This hints at a larger concern: that the energy and creativity used to create new content management systems and layouts and ways to display news and information will be redirected to a narrower—or, at least, externally determined—purpose: getting an edge within the arbitrary confines of a platform. This kind of media innovation is everywhere. It’s screenshotting important paragraphs into a tweet, and creating an app to streamline this process. It’s figuring out how to make videos for Facebook that don’t need sound to get viewers’ attention.


Yep, creating content within the bounds and limitations of specific social networks is challenging and limiting! Making publishing tools (which we can call Distributed Publishing Tools?) for them can be pretty fun though!

To the problem that Klein and Herrman bring up– that forcing publishers to post to platforms will stifle product innovation: Currently publishers are looking at the limitations of given social platforms in regard to media and aspect ratios and doing their best to creatively adapt to them. For example: most if not all social networks accept video, but if they are auto-played there’s no sound, so publishers are creating short videos with text captions– see How Facebook Is Bringing Back The Silent Newsreel. On Vine BuzzFeeed’s BFF have a type of game where a video shows a series of images and asks the user to stop on a random one to “find out” which one of the images they are. You can even use Twitter’s 4-photo photoset to make little quizzes!

Limitations can be inspiring for creativity, but ultimately I think Klein is correct when lamenting the shift away from customized CMSs, since product and editorial teams can do so much more in that environment. (And there are other problems with screenshorts in particular.)

But let’s talk about what exactly is lost here. One thing to note is that most people are seeing content and browsing Facebook on mobile devices. BusinessWeek’s “What Is Code?”, an example Klein brings up, is nothing special on my iPhone 6 browser– just text and GIFs really. If your audience is mobile, even with a custom CMS you can’t do a ton of innovative stuff.

Aside: OK, at this point you’ve got to go read Nilay Patel’s recent post: “The mobile web sucks”

Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the web to build replacements for the web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of web innovation it’s taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve.

How do you build Fanboys or Snowfall or What is Code using Apple’s toolset and Facebook’s when they’re entirely different? How do you do a better job of integrating video? How do you build interactive news apps?

Secondly: even something as complex as Snowfall, and more recently “What Is Code?”, is just plain text code. Here it is on GitHub (I even contributed to it!). Literally everything that the most creative interactive team could dream up MUST be able to be boiled down into plain text (and ultimately 1s and 0s, just like a telegraph wire service!)

So here’s the question: What’s to prevent Facebook from allowing some portion of the front-end stack to live in the Newsfeed? Apparently at one point Twitter considered allowing users to attach “envelopes” to tweets– called Annotations– that could contain anything. Sure, some features available to developers coding for normal websites would be limited or restricted for practical or security reasons, but (a) publishers are, or at least should be, publishing and coding for mobile environments, and (b) we could definitely get a workable quiz into 50 lines of code or less. We could even use iFrames!

I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here. Facebook’s growing power over media worries me. It’s definitely not given that Facebook will ever let code run free in a 2 to 1 ratio pen in its Newsfeed. But if that is ever at some point good for Facebook, we might have a chance? Question mark? Man, Herrman is really good at writing about this stuff.