Iterations: The New Movable Type

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah (@semil) is currently an EIR with Javelin Venture Partners

Back in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg changed the world with movable type, laying a foundation for a new printing press to spread ideas faster. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the comparisons made between the Internet and Gutenberg were predictable. Specifically with respect to the written word, the web made any literate person with access to a computer into a writer. Today, most barriers to creating, sharing, and distributing written content have been stripped away, and for every newspaper that seems to be going out of business, a victim of modern times, a new publishing engine is born.

As someone who writes a bunch online, I’ve been thinking about the sheer plethora of choices I have at my disposal today to publish content, as well as what people have used historically over the web. I’ve only had a blog for a few years, but from what others tell me — and this will be a gross oversimplification compared to how new media experts may portray this — there have been many online publishing phases over the past decades. People used to set up their own sites on properties like Geocities, for instance. One could argue email lists, groups, and community boards, such as Craigslist, also created places for writers to post content and connect with others. Powerful forums, such as Reddit, Stack Network, Hacker News, were built as communities to surface novel content and communicate with others. Then, more robust writing platforms were created, such as Blogspot and WordPress, among others, providing writers with better publishing tools, the ability to customize, optimize SEO, and in some cases, to earn income.

Over the past few years, new properties such as Tumblr and Posterous, among others, emerged to further simplify the ease of creating and sharing content, though at the same time, users could have also just used the “Notes” product within Facebook, or posted directly on Quora or on their Google+ pages, or simply used Twitter as a microblogging platform. I’ve even experimented with creating a visual “storyboard” with images and written content on Pinterest — see here. With these asymmetric “follower” model networks (including Facebook now, with the “subscribe” feature), users have to potential to tap, build, and maintain larger audiences, to know more about their audiences tastes and preferences. Readers also don’t have to rely on finding content that’s optimized for SEO through backlinking, but rather through social discovery filters and interest-matching algorithms.

It would be too easy to assume these advance in publishing platforms occur each decade. That time frame is compressed. Today in 2012, the publishing category is once again, all of a sudden, crazy competitive. Branch has implemented a subtle and clever twist on Quora’s formula for content generation and quality controls by employing an “invite-to-thread” model for each “branch” (many of which are prompted by questions), as well as allowing users to create new “branches” by forking discussions when users want to take a topic elsewhere.

Branch, which is funded, in part, by Obvious Corporation, is in the same overall category as another Obvious creation — Medium — another publishing platform with a fast, clean interface and can, at times, resemble the Pinterest layout, too. Earlier in 2012, Dustin Curtis unveiled a beautiful new blogging platform, Svbtle, which received critical acclaim and has been been growing at a steady clip. The twist with Svbtle is that contributors must “apply” for access and be accepted, a technique to keep quality high and/or to grow within specific networks of authors.

If you’ve read a Svbtle post, you’ve probably recognized that readers cannot comment. That’s intentional. While Svbtle has hinted they may try to develop a new form of commenting that ensures quality and looks good, there are definitely a vocal group of content creators who would just as soon never deal with comments again, outsourcing any activity to networks like Twitter. Now that Quora is open, anyone can sign up and contribute comments; on Branch, the only way to contribute/comment is to invited by someone who is already a member of that specific thread.

Comments rouse passions among writers, but they also bring a new form of content online. Products like Disqus, Livefyre, and Facebook’s Social Plugin provide writers with a host of social and community tools to attract and moderate the discussions that are ignited by the original piece of content. The value in a product like Disqus, for instance, is partly the tools they offer, but mostly the identity and interest data that they’ve uncovered and mapped out, the tissue connecting many different blogging platforms. As Branch has smartly picked up on, it’s not unusual to find more engaging content in the form of a comment rather than from the original piece, so branches provide a way to continue that discussion in a structured way.

You may think now, as this post is long, and that I’ve touched on comments, that we’re done. Not so fast.

With the high-minded and crisp design in sites like Quora, Branch, Medium, and Svbtle, there are a class of lesser known, grittier sites humming along driving millions of pageviews in the dark corners of the web. 9gag, a site specializing in the sharing of eccentric pictures and content, is growing like a weed, and PandaWhale has built an discussion and sharing community around technology and other topics, where users can also post original content and then take their work and conversations to whichever platform they seek. (I read the PandaWhale email digest every morning.)

This is a dizzying amount of options, even for someone like me who likes to write online. The good news is that there are so many great, easy ways to create, share, and distribute written content that there will be a platform out there to suit everyone’s taste. Audiences have multiple channels by which to find new content, and even though it may seem fragmented beyond all recognition, the destination doesn’t so much matter to the reader. It’s all an artful gimmick to attract the content creator, and when it comes down to eyeballs, the best content will get discovered regardless of platform and be routed to the right audiences. To share an example, I follow the work of writers who have their own Tumblr, Svtble, and have created branches, but I just save them to Pocket, which strips away everything but the words, so to me, it all looks the same.

All of this activity may, on the surface, appear to be yet another over-competitive gold rush to win in a crowded reinvention of an old category. Digging a bit deeper, however, it’s worth noting that many of the world’s top websites are themselves some version of a publishing platform (whether it’s pictures, or the written word), and many of the incumbents here run on older systems or have simply just been around for a while. Web and cloud technologies make faster, prettier sites possible, and the mobile and tablet input methods and form factors cause friction (WordPress, which powers TechCrunch, is nearly impossible to use on a phone or tablet), yet also create opportunities for reinvention. The folks running Obvious, who have had a major hand in conceptualizing and building Blogger and Twitter, are now adding to the mix with Branch and Medium. It is all an evolution, an iteration, just happening quicker today. Naturally, after this competitive period, we can expect some consolidation by the winners (ex:  Twitter’s acquisition of Posterous), and the possibility of new platforms cracking into the world’s Top 25 websites. At the end of the day, this is the prize these builders are after, this rare opportunity during a time of chaos to completely reinvent online publishing platforms, to attract the best content, and to win in the race to harness the reach of the web and make the next Gutenberg.

Photo Credit: Avinash Kunnath / Creative Commons Flickr