The Author-ity Wedge

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

“Authority” is an interesting word to contemplate. On the one hand it invokes images of dictators and repression. But it also breaks down as author-ity. A seal of approval, of unspecified acceptance, of authorship as opposed to creatorship. By appearing under an official banner, of seeming to be better than all those 10,000 choices out there. If it’s paid for by Netflix it must be better than if it’s self-made on YouTube. If it’s shown as a TED talk it must be better than a talk recorded on someone’s personal Tumblr. If it’s published it’s probably better than if it’s just made.

Isn’t interesting how much that idea has reasserted itself in the last couple of years? It wasn’t really supposed to according to a variety of potted cultural theories about how the Internet was going to change everything. And yet the sentiment of a preference for authority is repeating everywhere, from music to video games, books to blogs. Even here.

Here’s a simple example: I could write and post this article to many a site but because it’s on TechCrunch it will travel further and be more attributed than elsewhere. PR people will email me for weeks afterward saying they loved it and ask would I be interested in covering their product or service? (For the nth time I’m not a journalist). Why? “Being on TechCrunch” makes me seem like an author. Am I? I’m not so sure. My  text would be the same either way. But because it’s under that TC green banner, folks perceive it differently. Nobody is immune, not me, not you. You, dear reader, tend to respond more positively to a thing created if it appears to be being sold by someone else. And so does everyone else.

This is an important lesson as the Web traverses its third decade because it explains a deep shift in how the platform business operates. Think of it this way: Most of the obvious platform opportunities are gone. From search engines to spare room sharing it seems like many of those efficiency itches that got them started have now been scratched. There are a few still ripe for better solutions (auctions for example) but not many. This leads the platform model to push toward the fringes in search of fresh ground (watches, VR, messaging, live video etc) but also for the platform business to start pushing into the authoring business. This in some ways is an evolution and in others a reversion.

A great example is the shows now being made by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. According to the efficiency model of platforms that powers much Valley thinking they shouldn’t need to do, but of course they should. Netflix isn’t going to keep driving attention if all it has is old movies and last year’s TV series. It needs that front-facing attention that only Daredevil can bring. PlayStation isn’t going to work if all it has going for it is indie games already available on Steam. It needs its Bloodbornes. Messy as it is, exclusive content is a draw.

Another example is the heroing of key and exclusive content on supposedly egalitarian platforms. Apple’s App Store, for example, is really all about getting featured and into the top 25 in the charts. If you don’t get there then you need to spend an awful lot of advertising money to get installs in other ways, and usually that doesn’t work. The choices may be there, but the users are not that motivated to make the choice most of the time. They don’t look like they have authority.

In essence Chris Anderson, Seth Godin, Clay Shirky and many of the other early thought-formers seem to have over-attributed the power of infinite choice in a variety of markets. The assumption was always that the niches would define and the mainstreamers would follow, but it’s only half-true. Instead we have mono-networks that are increasingly top-heavy and less and less do we hear the story of the artist who got their start on a website. Our choice economy has proved not as universally applicable and often driven by the novelty of platforms over sustained interest.

All across my space (games) I’m seeing the same story play out of developers who feel they have no way to get the attention, and I hear much the same from folks in other fields. Markus Persson didn’t precipitate a wave of new rich indies. Amanda Palmer’s success is largely Amanda Palmer’s. Hugh Howey’s done really well from Kindle, but he’s not the tip of a sword. Not that I have anything against any of these creators mind, I’m talking more in the macro here than assigning blame. Each is largely associated with novelty phases of platform economics while the oft-predicted curve that is supposed to follow in their wake? It just doesn’t materialize.

Assertions that the economics of everything are all going curve-shaped seem over-egged. What we’re seeing instead is authority wedges forming as new platform novelty tails off and familiarity grows. We’ll see it happen in those platforms that are still in that novelty phase too, from YouTubers to live streamers, from Greenlight games to Kindle Scout. Audiences increasingly prefer to turn toward familiar formats of authority and ignore the rest. Sure their sources of authority may now be online rather than on TV but in many respects their function is much as they were. We’re seeing the gathering of many disparate voices into smaller sets and a set of infinitely-provided audiences that only care about choosing Number One.

Where then does that leave creators? Barefoot and pregnant.

More on this next week.