Digital Media

People, the New Distribution Platform: Part 1 of 3

One of the more interesting pieces of informational art to grace the web recently was this depiction of Gawker’s traffic growth driven by social networks:

via Allthingsd

There are a number of remarkable things about this graph: the heterogeneous array of social media sites, all driving relatively large amounts of traffic to Gawker; that Stumble Upon as a source of traffic is nearly as big as Facebook and growing; and that Facebook has become a much, much more important source since its introduction of a web-wide “Like” button last year.

But what the graph shows, above all, is that we’ve clearly reached the point where social media — or put in plain English, people sharing links and media and information with other people — matters.

People, it turns out, are the new distribution platform.

For most people who work on or write about the Internet and digital media, this is very old news. The evolution of social media platforms, from Delicious to Digg to  Twitter and Facebook, has been the focus of much commentary the past three to four years (including on this blog). But many people — including, I know for a fact, many media company executives — believe to this day that “social media” and “Web 2.0″ are just empty buzzwords without much relevance or real-world import to their bottom lines. The Gawker chart, emphatically, gives the lie to all that.

If you are an owner or maker of media, whether a blogger or broadcaster, you’re in the business of getting your content distributed. And in the coming years (perhaps decades) that will require you to enlist people to be your distributors — to share your content with their friends, or with people who have similar tastes and interests.

And so you’re faced with interesting new strategic questions. Do you rely on Twitter and Facebook to provide that distribution for you, on their terms and under their control? Or, do you invest building out social media distribution platforms over which you have more control?

Some media companies tried to address this question in 2006 & 2007, in the wake of the Myspace boom, by buying or building their own social networks. But almost all of these efforts conflated controlling a “social network” with “social media distribution.” They attempted to replicate Myspace and Facebook, offering their own proprietary “friending” platforms, instead of thinking more broadly about how to build different, more specialized social graphs around their content.

Newer companies like Quora and StackOverflow might suggest a better approach. Each are building very specialized social graphs around specific topics or categories (“content verticals” in the industry parlance). They utilize existing relationships and connections on Facebook and Twitter but then enhance them, building new connections between people based on interests, tastes, expertise. We are doing something very similar at Vodpod, by building a specialized graph around discovery of video online.

Over the next few years, I expect an explosion in services and companies looking to offer specialized social graphs. Media makers and owners need to decide if they want to own these capabilities, or outsource them.

In the next  two posts, I’ll address:

Part II: Why “Winner Take All” Doesn’t Apply to Social Graphs

Part III: The Facebook Effect: Why are people scared by FB, and should they be?

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