As the line between platform and publisher continues to blur, who wins and who loses?

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As publishing tools have become cheaper and more distributed, many have benefited from this ongoing democratization of distribution — whether it’s Twitter users posting newsworthy updates from war zones, or would-be authors publishing their thoughts on Medium. That’s the power of a platform that allows anyone to publish. It’s when the line blurs between platform and publisher that things start to get tricky, not just for writers but for readers as well.

In a recent post at Re/code, Jonathan Glick of Sulia — which is itself both a social-media platform and a publisher — came up with a rather ugly portmanteau of a word to describe this phenomenon: he called them “platishers,” a term that not unsurprisingly unleashed a storm of ridicule from media insiders on Twitter.

But while Glick’s chosen term borders on the gag-inducing, what he describes is very real. There is a whole category of service that exists somewhere in between platform and publisher, and it includes companies like Medium, Gawker and LinkedIn. I think that list should probably include Facebook as well, since it exercises editorial control over content by deleting things — including pages about the war in Syria. It even has a paid staff of editors now for its Paper app.

A spectrum from open platform to publisher

There are a wide range of models along the spectrum from open platform to true publisher. Twitter has made a point of repeatedly telling users that they are the free-speech wing of the free-speech party, and they go out of their way to protect their users’ rights to post content. When they have to, they choose to block certain content rather than deleting it without explanation.

Medium and LinkedIn, meanwhile, allow anyone to publish on their platforms, but at the same time they also actually commission pieces from specific writers and in some cases pay them. Forbes has gone from being a traditional publisher to one that offers its blogging platform to almost anyone who wants it, including brands. Even Digg — formerly a pure aggregator — recently started commissioning content.

A number of issues arise in this kind of environment. From a practical point of view, one of them is the sheer profusion of choices for writers when it comes to where they should publish their content. To some extent, Medium and LinkedIn and Forbes provide an outlet for those who like to write, but only occasionally. Even writers like David Carr of the New York Times and Felix Salmon of Reuters have used Medium, despite the fact that they work for a traditional publisher.

What does a writer get in return?

One of the questions to ask is what the platform gives writers that they couldn’t get anywhere else, and the number one answer is usually reach — something Medium editor Evan Hansen joked about in a response to Glick’s post. It’s also partly about branding: Medium is seen as cool and new, and brings some cachet because it is run by former Twitter CEO and Blogger founder Evan Williams. It also has a great, minimalistic writing interface that many writers admire.

LinkedIn is more utilitarian, and aimed at a more professional market, while Gawker — with its Kinja platform, which turns every commenter into a blogger — and BuzzFeed are on the irreverent end of the branding spectrum. Kinja in particular is a fascinating attempt by Gawker founder Nick Denton to level the playing field between readers and writers.

As a number of people have pointed out since Glick wrote his post, this phenomenon is not brand new: The Huffington Post was one of the first to try and straddle that line when it launched in 2005, since it combined “professional” writers with the hoi polloi. But it arguably wasn’t a true platform because it exercised some editorial control over everything that appeared on the site. SB Nation and Bleacher Report have also had various aspects of both platform and publisher as they have evolved over time.

Publishers need to be transparent

We seem to have gotten past the debate over whether platforms or aggregators should pay their contributors — although there is still some criticism of Medium for not making it more clear who gets paid and why. A true marriage of platform and publisher, Glick argues, would ensure that both free and paid contributors are on the same level and are treated more or less equally.

One interesting aspect of these blurred lines is that it often forces platform-publishers like Medium into an awkward position. After a controversy over one recent post, a Medium spokesman said “we stand by her story,” in much the same way editorial outlets like magazines stand behind their reporters — and yet other types of questionable content appear on Medium all the time.

For me at least, one of the most disturbing aspects of this phenomenon is when a platform like Facebook starts to act like a publisher, but doesn’t give its users any way of knowing why it makes the decisions it does. One of the things that I think makes people so upset about Facebook deleting pages (apart from the impact on information about things like Syria) is that the process is so frustratingly opaque — no one really knows why some pieces of content disappear and others remain.

In that sense, the process is a black box (a very old media approach), and that’s disturbing. For any publisher/platform, the bottom line is that it’s our content, which we are lending to these platforms in return for something else — reach, feedback, etc. What are their duties or responsibilities toward us? Without our content they would have no business, and they would be wise to remember that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Worac

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