Friday, September 18, 2015 at 7:25 AM

Avoiding balkanization in news

Balkanization is a "pejorative geopolitical term, originally used to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or non-cooperative with one another."

We're at an interesting junction, with several competing incompatible distribution systems for news about to be introduced. I've probably got as much experience with this process as anyone, and I can see how this is shaping up, in a bad way, for pretty much everyone. Here are some bullet points leading to a conclusion, a set of proposed action items for Facebook.

  1. Each of the major tech companies is planning as if their news system is the only one anyone will ever need. I'm sure it feels that way, from their internal point of view. People who work at big tech companies are greatly affected by the gravitational pull of the social structures of those organizations.

  2. When I visited Microsoft in 2007 as they were about to launch their RSS initiative, they were sure that when their new Windows OS shipped, immediately the vast majority of RSS users would also be Vista users, so they felt free to ignore the installed base and prior art. It didn't work out that way, so there were new ways to do familiar things. Windows did not become the RSS OS as they expected it would. Too bad, RSS could have used a friend in the OS business.

  3. I also saw this play out in the process that led to SOAP, which was simple protocol that was eventually obscured by a maze of messy specification languages. Underneath all the WS-junk there was a beautiful idea, that we could all build systems that worked with each other out of the box. This is known as interop. Balkanization and interop are basically opposing forces.

  4. Big tech companies really are all the same in this way -- they want to be able to claim to be compatible with open standards, without the problems that come from interop. Interop makes it hard to sell expensive software and services when a competitor could undercut your price or provide a more efficient or useful product. Life is easier for the bigco if they can do anything they want at any time and the cost of switching is prohibitively high.

  5. Users, when they are aware of the pitfalls of balkanized markets, are very much in favor of interop. The news industry is on the verge of learning those pitfalls, over the next few years, if things don't turn radically in the next few months.

  6. Balkanization is an important concept. It's what happens when there are several competing confusing ways to do the same thing, each of which has some support in the market. If you want to participate, you have to support them all. It's often impossible, by design, as the vendors try to control their partners by throwing ever more complex requirements at them.

  7. Google has apparently teamed with Twitter making an announcement by leaking it to Re/code. They claim their approach will be "open" but no one but them and their partners (maybe) have seen what this might mean. I'm skeptical. Given past experience I expect there will be a hidden trap door in the open-ness, a way for Google and/or Twitter, to foreclose on it, if it even exists at inception. Both companies have awful track records in this area. Twitter unilaterally nuked their developer community in one day. Google camped out in and dominated the RSS reader market, then killed the product. Nice. You trust these guys? You need to see a shrink. But they have standing, and anything they use will have to be supported, it seems. Google has two excellent news products, Google Now and Google News, and Twitter is the current leader among tech companies in news, but Facebook looks poised to quickly become #1, which is presumably why Twitter is in motion now.

  8. Apple. Their approach builds on RSS, somehow, but again, the track record here is pretty bad. And Apple has never had a successful product in news. But they are Apple. And the mobile market is where the action is, and Apple has a lot of power when it comes to what people do with mobile devices.

  9. Facebook. Their announcement and demo of Instant Articles started the push by all the other big tech companies to try to own news distribution on the net. It's why we're having this discussion in the last part of 2015.

  10. RSS. The open news distribution format, quietly doing as much work as any of the tech companies, controlled by no one, guaranteed not to make your software obsolete, and free to use. RSS could easily be the basis for a new open market with interop everywhere, and no single company controlling anything. No wonder the tech industry hates it!

  11. While I have very little insight into what Apple, Google and Twitter are doing, I have some clue how Facebook's news system works. I signed a NDA last summer, and have been briefed a few times as work has progressed. My opinion: If Facebook wanted to settle this, they could, right now, and prevent the crazy balkanization we're about to embark on. That's why it's a good time to write a blog post. It might inspire them to do something great, or it could serve as a milestone for an I-Told-You-So post in 2018 or 2019. I don't think Apple, Google or Twitter will listen to me, but Facebook might.

  12. I'm pretty sure Facebook's news system is built on RSS. If so, please tell everyone that, now. And show us how to plug in. Not just famous news orgs, also bloggers, and makers of blogging tools like WordPress and Tumblr. I have my own tools that I'd like to be part of the Facebook network. I've seen the impact of having full text on Facebook, vs linking to a story on my site. But I won't give up my blog, it's important to me not to become dependent on Facebook for publishing. Everyone who writes seriously has to feel this way, imho of course.

  13. I want an API so I can publish to those sexy Medium-like Facebook posts. Both because they're beautiful and I know people want to read that way.

  14. Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple can make an awful mess of news on the net that will take a decade or more to clean up. News won't get back on track until Zuck is in his 50s. Or, Facebook could do the gutsy thing, and tell your big competitors that you're on the side of really irrevocably open systems, with no hidden card up your sleeve (that we all can actually see) and trust developers and your momentum to carry you into the leadership position in this market.

  15. Facebook + RSS would be absolutely unbeatable. Apple and Google would never be able to escape the pull.

Last built: Fri, Sep 18, 2015 at 9:31 PM

By Dave Winer, Friday, September 18, 2015 at 7:25 AM. This aggression will not stand.