Facebook Timeline for Artists (When Platforms Forget Their Responsibilities)

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of content platforms and ecosystems.  Indeed device based ecosystems such as iTunes, Kindle and xBox are the success stories of paid content. More recently these platforms have been complemented by a new wave of ecosystems by the likes of Facebook and Spotify, that depend upon software and user data for walls instead of hardware.  Both sets of ecosystems depend upon 3rd party developer and / publisher platforms for success.  A thriving platform is one which is defined as much by 3rd parties as it is the host company.  But just as a blossoming garden requires careful tending so does an ecosystem.  The host has a responsibility to ensure that developers and publishers have the support, processes and transparency necessary to instill the confidence necessary for them to invest their time and resources into the platform.  It is a responsibility that does not always come cheaply to the hosts and isn’t always respected to the full, as we have seen with the impact of Facebook’s Timeline on a number of artist app developers.

Artist Timelines are Throttling Artist Apps

Facebook’s Timeline feature is looking like a great innovation from the social networking behemoth and there are many examples of artists, music services and music publications using the feature to great effect.  (Take a look at Spotify’s Facebook Timeline for a super cool implementation).  However the way in which Timeline was implemented on artist pages has had a dramatic cooling effect on what was beginning to shape up to be a vibrant community of Facebook artist app developers.  Latest data from AppData.com and reported on Digital Music News shows that Band Page (formerly Root Music), Reverb Nation and FanRX (formerly BandRX) all saw a steady decline in usage in the lead in to the Timeline switchover date and then a ‘falling off a cliff’ drop on the date itself.  All three apps have remained stuck at their decimated levels.

The key reason for the collapse in user numbers is that as part of the Timeline feature Facebook prevented these apps being able to act as the landing page for artist profiles.  There is very well thought out reasoning for this move: Facebook remembers only too well the anarchic chaos of MySpace artist pages, indeed the pared-down minimalism of Facebook’s UI was an intentional antidote to MySpace messiness.  But none of this detracts from the fact that Facebook has failed to fulfil its duties as platform host.  It should have done more to accommodate the concerns of artist app developers and would be well advised to work with them now to improve their lot.  Although it would be stretching credulity to claim these apps were responsible for artists switching from MySpace to Facebook, they certainly played an important role in easing the transition for many.

Being a Platform Means Looking Out for the Small Guys Too

If Facebook is serious about becoming a platform for music, it needs to ensure that it doesn’t just lay out the red carpet for Swedish streaming services.  The value of Facebook as a music platform will come from the functionality, utility and experience delivered by 3rd party apps that help artists differentiate the way they engage with fans.  Apps such as Band Page, Reverb Nation, Fan RX and Bopler Games.  Ensuring that strategic priorities can be implemented without destroying the livelihoods of developers is a key responsibility of platform hosts.  Of course sometimes hosts patently ignore the responsibility and use app developers as free R&D – just think about the number of times Apple has killed off app companies by integrating their functionality directly into iOS.  But even Apple knows you can only do that so many times before you risk killing the proverbial golden goose.

I continue to maintain that Facebook’s platform strategy is subtly brilliant, and in the bigger scheme of things the artist app Timeline debacle is pretty small fry.  But if Facebook is to establish itself as a genuine music platform it must learn from the lessons Band Page et al are painfully teaching.

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Ecosystems In The Age Of The API

Walled gardens, Ecosystems, Platforms, call them what you will, but the mechanisms through which our digital content experiences are managed have evolved much over the last 15 years.

In the early days of the web, ISPs tried to control our entire online lives by building proprietary walls around users.  These so-called Walled Gardens were exemplified by  AOL.  But as Internet users got savvy  they banged away at those walls until they crumbled under the weight of inevitability in much the same manner as the Berlin Wall did.  Mobile carriers briefly brought Walled Gardens back from the dead (and there’s still an extended death rattle in some parts), but these days we expect our Internet journeys to be broadly free.  I say ‘broadly free’ because of course many of the destinations on our digital journeys are not open, and some of them are harder to get in and out of than others.  In fact the journey of the digital consumer is analogous to that of a traveller in Medieval Europe.  The highways are sometimes wild and unpredictable, while the coveted destinations are walled cities and heavily fortified castles.

Ecosystems are the success stories of paid content

The reasons the walls exist in the digital realm are not entirely different from that of Medieval Europe’s mercantile cities.   Walls protect their inhabitants from unwanted external intrusion, but most importantly they guarantee those inhabitants a quality of existence that could not happen externally.  This is why ecosystems are the success stories of paid content.  The xBox, Kindle and iTunes ecosystems have all succeeded in converting portions of their users into paid content buyers at rates unachievable elsewhere.

Walls alone though aren’t enough

As many a newspaper will tell you, simply throwing a pay wall up around your content doesn’t magically create a loyal paying audience.  The reason that iTunes et al work is because the priority of their walls is to create and guarantee a quality and consistency of experience within them.   Protecting against external intrusion is of secondary concern.  Once you have created a high quality experience within those walls, then you can start thinking about leveraging revenue.  Just in the same way a successful Medieval city state that could guarantee prosperous trade and commerce within its walls could also demand greater taxes from its subjects than one that could not.

Take the example of xBox Live, the networked gaming component of xBox.  When the service was first launched it was a gimmicky extra.  But when, years after launch, Microsoft turned off access to Live to xBox users who had pirated games on their consoles there was a massive outcry from jilted (pirate) users who claimed that their xBox experience was useless without Live.  What Microsoft had done was use the confines of their ecosystem to create a unique experience that could not exist externally and of which users quickly realized the emotional and monetary value.

A new generation of ecosystems

But as successful as closed, device-based ecosystems are, things are changing, quickly.  We are seeing the emergence of a new breed of ecosystem that doesn’t have the straightforward mechanism of a device operating system to define its boundaries.  Instead this new generation of ecosystem almost paradoxically uses openness to create its closedness.  These ecosystems use software developer APIs to create vibrant platforms in which a quality of experiences exist.  Nobody exemplifies this approach better than Facebook with their Socially Optimized Web Strategy. 

The net result is that we now have three key types of Content Ecosystem Models co-existing (see chart).

  • Closed Door Ecosystems: these have the most impermeable walls, typically defined by the operating system of a family of devices.  Apple’s iTunes is the best of breed example.  User experiences and all externally developed experiences (typically Apps) can only exist within the ecosystem of supported devices. 
  • One Way Ecosystems: these leverage software applications to define boundaries, but unlike Closed Door Ecosystems they do not have the benefit of proprietary hardware so rely upon the quality of the experience delivered by the software.  To help achieve this, One Way Ecosystems leverage developer communities via APIs.  This enables bite sized chunks of the  ecosystem’s experience to be delivered externally, though almost always with a view to ultimately encouraging users in, or back in, to the centre. Control is exercised by ensuring that a core level of experience, and Apps, can only be experienced internally.  A contemporary example is Spotify, who already support some externalization, but last week announced the creation of an internal, closed wall API platform.  Thus Spotify aims to benefit from the external reach of the API era while simultaneously reaping the rewards of the Closed Door model.
  • Revolving Door Ecosystems: these are the true child of the API era.  Typically they exist without an OS or other proprietary software to define their boundaries.  Instead they leverage APIs to deliver a subtler but highly effective ecosystem that fully supports inward and outward flows of externally developed experiences and Apps.   What protects these ecosystems from disintegrating under this laissez-faire approach is tightly policing the flow of data, so that the ecosystem’s data and context is depended upon entirely to deliver the value of Apps and other experiences.  Facebook isn’t the only example of this approach but is simply leagues ahead of anyone else.

The value of uniqueness

The secret ingredient of success of any ecosystem is uniqueness,   a monopoly on control of uniqueness.  A uniqueness that consumers know they cannot experience anywhere else.  However uniqueness isn’t just valuable for the technology companies building ecosystems, it is a crucial commodity for media companies in the digital age.  Piracy and the wider Internet swept away media companies’ monopoly on supply, so now uniqueness is the most important tool they have left to create new senses of monetary value among audiences.  Only when uniqueness has been achieved, can other important assets such as context, convenience and curation be fully brought to bear.

It is easy to fear ecosystems (indeed there is much to give cause for concern) and there are growing issues about how competing  ecosystems will co-exist (if at all).  But they are also the key to successfully monetizing content in the digital age, and they will continue to evolve.  Devices transformed Walled Gardens into Ecosystems, and APIs have transformed Ecosystems into Platforms.  Change will inevitably continue at a bewildering pace, but  the challenge which media companies must rise to, is to become active participants in, nay, catalysts for that change, not shell-shocked observers.

 

Free Report: The Socially Integrated Web

I have just released the latest Music Industry Blog report:

The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems

If you are a subscriber to the blog you should already have received your free copy. If you do not yet subscribe to this blog then simply enter your email address into the ‘Email Subscription’ form to the left hand side on this page and you will receive your free copy of the report.  (If you are a subscriber but have not received your copy yet then please email musicindustryblog AT gmail DOT COM.)

Here are some highlights from the report:

The Universal Content Dashboard

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web.  Facebook is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself.

The Timeline announcements at f8 saw Facebook establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Joining The Digital Dots

The Socially Integrated Web is the strategic architecture of Facebook’s digital content strategy.  It is a strategy that others’ are following too but that Facebook is currently doing best.  Facebook has been quietly putting many of the building blocks of the Socially Integrated Web into place over the last year or so, but the most dramatic moves were announced at Facebook’s f8 conference in September.  It was there that we heard about Facebook’s controversial Timeline feature.  This – along other functions such as Likes on websites across the web – are Facebook’s attempts to join the dots in our increasingly fragmented and cluttered digital lives.

Four Ecosystems Now Define The Content Landscape

It was not so long ago that content ecosystems were the domain of device manufacturers like Apple, but all of that is changing.  Indeed now it is possible to view the entire digital content landscape through the lenses of 4 different types of content ecosystem (see figure).  If we think about content along two axis, one of ownership and one of openness we end up with four key groups of content types, each of which in-turn leads to a different form of content ecosystem:

  • Device Based Ecosystems. The traditional territory of content ecosystems, these are defined by consumer devices such as the iPad, the Kindle and the xBox.  They revolve around device based consumption of owned content that is either purchased from an integrated store (and typically is tied to the ecosystem with some use of DRM) or is sourced from a user’s own collection.
  • User Based ecosystems.  These are based upon users’ own content collections.  The photos and videos we create ourselves and all of the unprotected professionally created content we have either ripped or purchased.  We create our own ecosystem walls around this content by choosing who we share this content with and where.
  • Open-Web Based ecosystems.  These are the least structured of ecosystems, based around openly accessible web content destinations.  At first sight these might look anything but like ecosystems, yet there are numerous tactics that open-web sites increasingly use to create virtual ecosystems.  For example a video destination might define a narrow set of partner sites where it will make its content available, forcing the user to stay within that ecosystem of sites in order to access that content.
  • Protected-web based ecosystems. Here content companies pull walls down around their content. Sometimes these walls are paid, sometimes they are free but password restricted, sometimes they are created by making content experiences app based, ensuring the content experience can only happen within the app.

To receive your free copy of the report simply enter your email address into the ‘Email Subscription’ form to the left hand side on this page.

Here is the full table of contents:

Setting The Scene

  • Joining The Digital Dots

Analysis

  • Preparing For Long-Term Competitive Strategy
  • Facebook, The Early Follower 21st Century Portal
  • Four Ecosystems Now Define The Content Landscape
  • Ecosystem Co-existence And Competition
  • The Reach And Risks Of Facebook’s Universal Content Dashboard

Conclusion