How the nature of content defines the long-term failure point in content-centric apps
The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time — John Fowles
It’s no news that we are living in a world of content glut. There is more content than any of us can realistically consume in the time we have. Many a great businesses have been built around enabling humans to create and consume more and more video, audio and written content effectively. However, given that human creativity has no limits and consumer consumption preferences are fluid, it’ll continue to be hard to anticipate successes and failures of content-centric apps.
My goal here is to develop a framework for thinking about content-centric apps such that their outcomes become easier to reason. To start, let us first define content, specifically a “unit of content”. A unit of content is something that one can appreciate standalone i.e. without necessarily needing to consume any other content along with it. Some examples are an article on Medium, a video on YouTube, a song on Spotify, a season of a series on Netflix (an episode could be a unit only if the episodes in the series are largely independent or each other).
The content-centric app stack
Any content-centric app works across one or more of the three layers — sourcing, curation and presentation.
Sourcing layer is the part of the app that enables the app to source more content by enabling new content creation or through purchase of existing content. For example, for Medium, its sourcing layer is its freely available blogging tool which I used to write this post.
Presentation layer is the part of the app that exposes the content to consumers in a suitable form. For example, for YouTube, its presentation layer is its website, mobile and TV apps with all their nuances such as the theater mode.
Curation layer is the part of the app that functions as the brain, taking the large volume of content gathered by the sourcing layer and deciding what content to push to the presentation layer at what moment for which consumer. For example, for Spotify, its curation layer is its ML models that power Discover Weekly and playlists recommendations with consumers playing their part in creating and sharing playlists.
Not all apps play effectively across all the layers of the stack at all times. For example, Anchor, in its current form, is primarily focused on the sourcing layer as a tool for podcasters to create podcasts easily. That said, apps can always expand to other layers of the stack.
While content-centric apps might want to be cutting edge across all the layers of the stack, it’s usually one layer of the stack that turns out to be the most challenging depending on the nature of the content and the business context.
Divergence in the nature of content
It’s obvious, but the experience of consuming text is not the same as that of consuming a video, and the experience of consuming a short video is not the same as that of consuming a long video. What works for one type of content might not work for the other. One way to understand the nature of content is to look at it as a 2×2 of Agony vs. Volume.
Agony quantifies the extent of suffering one might experience on consuming a unit of content of average quality. Agony is lower for a unit of content that is entertainment focused and to consume which only a small amount of valuable time is required. Defined this way, most YouTube videos are low agony because they are short and one typically consumes them when there is nothing better to do. If you consume a few YouTube videos that weren’t truly great, you aren’t really upset. It also helps that YouTube is free.
By contrast, it is more agonizing to watch an average series on Netflix instead of spending that time watching one that all your friends are talking about. Though it is entertainment, it is supposed to be very high quality entertainment that is worth paying for, and out of which we want to extract maximum value. You also need to invest a reasonable amount of time in watching at least a few episodes to determine if a series would be worth continuing to watch or not.
Given this lens, long-form written content is the highest on the agony scale. Though it takes little time to consume, it takes a lot more focus than mindlessly watching YouTube videos. It isn’t entertainment and is instead something that we engage-in to learn. We typically need some discipline to set aside some valuable time for consuming such content, so it’s important that it better be worth it.
Volume quantifies how much content of a particular type is (or could be made) available on the web. Content type here is defined brutally in terms of length of the video or the article without making judgment about its quality. Volume of available content is determined mostly by how easy or hard it is to create a particular type of content of a passable quality.
Layers as points of failure
As mentioned earlier, it’s usually one layer of the stack that turns out to be the most challenging depending on the nature of the content and the business context. That layer is likely the point of failure in the long term. Eventually, a failure in any layer percolates through the stack i.e. sourcing layer will fail if curation or presentation layers aren’t set up to maximize the rewards for the content creators.
“Sourcing layer” failure
The risk of sourcing layer being the failure in the long-term is the highest for content that causes high agony but can only have limited volume, the most obvious example being a Netflix series. This puts a lot of pressure on the sourcing layer as we saw reflected in Netflix’s recent earnings. While this doesn’t mean that the curation layer is healthy, there is definitely an element of choice paralysis that is increasingly obvious whenever one turns on Netflix, it does mean that failure in the long term will likely come from the sourcing layer.
“Curation layer” failure
The risk of curation layer being the failure in the long-term is the most extreme for content that causes high agony and has high volume, the most obvious example being long-form written content. The bar for curation is just much higher. The failure of curation layer is usually a business model failure rather than an execution failure. Business model dictates what kind of mechanisms are put in place for curation to ensure that the best content creators get rewarded in a sustainable manner.
The failure of this layer is the most evident in the case of Medium whose excellence in sourcing stands in stark contrast to its suboptimal curation. Medium has failed in the curation layer because of two reasons: One, its compensation model ensures that that the only way for writers to make a living on Medium is to play the volume game i.e. publish a lot of articles so that cumulatively they can get eyeballs needed to translate the $5 per month subscription per member into something tangible for the writer. Two, it has failed to develop any higher level trust signals for the quality of content. Claps on articles are pretty much the only signal as opposed to say publications whose editors are incentivized to carefully curate content. Publications on Medium never really considered themselves to have an editorial responsibility beyond a certain basic level; they are all trying to just aggregate as much content as they could.
Medium now has the responsibility on itself to be the centralized curator which it possibly can’t do a great job at given the nature of the content (high agony and high volume). Compare this to Substack that considers the unit of content to be the newsletter as opposed to an article, and facilitates a direct connection between the newsletter creator and the consumer. The curation, therefore, happens at the human curator level which is likely to be very high quality, and there is all the incentive for it to be high quality because the creator of the newsletter is earning a stable subscription income for it.
“Presentation layer” failure
The risk of presentation layer being the failure in the long-term is very little. While presentation layers need to adapt to changing customer behaviors, successes or failures in this layer are mostly short-lived. The longer term advantage lies in the curation and/or sourcing layer depending on the nature of content. The apps most susceptible to these short-lived failures of presentation layer are either legacy businesses that haven’t yet caught up with large shifts in the new forms of presentations or businesses dealing with content forms that are in the state of flux.
An example of the former would be The Economist which, until recently, had a terrible mobile app that limited engagement inspite of excellent content. An example of the latter would be short-form videos which have been going through a shift to vertical video (and stories) with the increasing ubiquity of internet connectivity on mobile phones. Even long-form written content is going through some presentation layer flux with newsletters in email inbox gaining traction as the preferred method of consumption.
Creation and consumption of content is central to human creativity, and to us understanding and enjoying the world around us. Given this deep relation to human identity, content-centric apps are very powerful and also very hard to get right. I hope that looking at these businesses through the lens of the content stack and the nature of content is a helpful step in developing some intuition around these businesses. Feedback welcome.