You Don't Have to Like This

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The next five years is going to be defined by the apps and depth of engagement ... now that everyone has their connections in place. - Mark Zuckerberg, F8 keynote

Media is fundamentally about focusing attention. What makes TV, print and radio such powerful media environments is that they're very efficient mechanisms to focus consumer attention, dividing it neatly between content and advertising. As linear mediums, it's possible for them to create a delivery pattern of entertain, advertise, entertain, advertise.

On the Web, it's not so simple. The non-linear nature of hypertext, combined with a set of lowest common denominator advertising standards has led to a confusing user experience, and an economic model for publishers that rewards clutter. It's hard to deliver a great content experience or compelling brand advertising if the consumer's attention is fragmented into a thousand pieces. We think this is wrong, and it's why we've kicked off our Clean Campaign.

But the challenge for media brands isn't just about reducing visual noise and focusing attention. If they were operating in a wide open Web, they'd only have to worry about their own sites. But they're not - they're part of an ecosystem that's increasingly dominated by one large player: Facebook.

Facebook is fundamentally a communications platform, letting friends and family connect with one another. The recent announcements at F8 - the ticker, the timeline and the Open Graph API - are all designed to make sharing bite sized announcements of what you're doing frictionless. The automated ticker-based status update "Michael is listening to Feist" is the new unit of content on Facebook. With dozens of those flashing by every minute, it's hard to imagine Facebook as a place where consumers focus on anything for very long.

It's fascinating that traditional media companies, the ones that are routinely criticized for not moving quickly enough to save their core businesses, jump so quickly to "innovate" inside Facebook. Desperate for attention, they subjugate their brands to Facebook, in return for access to audience. The problem is that when the platform and the brand compete for attention, the platform always wins.

Take a look at this screenshot of The Guardian's new Facebook application.

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There are at two layers of branding, two layers of navigation, two tickers of friend activity (one for the Guardian, one globally) ... and let's not even talk about the advertising. The consumer's attention here is not focused on The Guardian's content or The Guardian's advertisers. It's being diverted to serve Facebook's needs: their nav, their ads, their apps.

If media companies believe that the only way to survive is to plant their experience inside Facebook's garden, then it will be a step backwards for the industry. The beauty of the Web is its openness. And the underlying technology (devices, bandwidth, browsers) have evolved to the point where it's possible to create beautiful, compelling experiences that are worthy of focused attention. On the Web ... not inside Facebook.