It was in its own way predictable. As news of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress dominated headlines, there were shocked outcries about the invasion of privacy and the billionaire's evasiveness. But the next day Facebook's stock went up — and it has continued on an upward trajectory since.
Despite the negative stories, it seems like Facebook is doing just fine. What's more, some pundits claim that the data in question in the Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn't ours anyway, or that Facebook's new goal is in reaching the next billion users coming online in Africa and Asia, an aim it will likely succeed in. It feels like the leviathan hunts unperturbed.
It's reason for pause, in no small part because such seemingly unstoppable success is part of a pattern: First tech companies establish a userbase, then with the power that comes from capturing all those people, they go on to do wildly profitable and occasionally dubious things. It's the new dynamics of the attention economy. To update the line from Scarface for the digital era: First you get the users, then you get their eyeballs, then you get the money.
And now, the most recent entrant in that pattern may well be Apple. Recent well-sourced rumors suggest the company is going to release a for-pay news subscription service. Bloomberg reports that the iPhone maker is going to build off its existing Apple News service and meld it with its recent acquisition of Texture, an app that let users digitally read a variety of magazines for a monthly fee. The resulting product is likely to be akin to Texture, but built into the Apple News app, so that users might pay $9.99 a month to get access to either a certain number of articles, or a set of entire publications. As Nieman Lab put it, it's less Netflix for magazines than Hulu for magazines: The publishers get aggregated onto one convenient platform and then get a cut of the subscription revenue.
For Apple, the move is clearly meant to mirror its success with Apple Music, which now has 40 million paying subscribers. That itself is part of a broader effort to bolster the amount of money it makes from services as the company starts to recognize that the iPhone, by far its biggest revenue driver, cannot keep growing in sales and profitability forever.
But for the rest of us it speaks to the way in which tech operates: amass a userbase and then find more and more ways to monetize it. That in and of itself isn't bad; such an approach is the basic method of capitalism. Yet, the trouble with tech today is that because the sheer scale of the audience is so enormous, merely capturing users' attention gives companies an enormous amount of power.
Consider: Apple only has a mere 15 percent of the smartphone market, but overall, has about a billion iOS devices in use. Apple News can already drive significant traffic to some publications, and with a potential audience of first tens and then hundreds of millions of people (these kinds of services tend to roll out on a country-by-country basis), a more complete subscription offering means Apple stands to become as significant a force in publishing as they are in music.
We know what kind of power that leads to. It's that well-worn tale of advertising revenue leaving print and being gobbled up by Facebook and Google, who then hold significant influence over how publishers operate, whether in Facebook's ill-considered pivot to video, or how Google organizes both search and its News rankings. Control shifts to the platform owners and their capacity to make small shifts in how media gets distributed, as happens with Facebook's now famous tweaks to its Newsfeed that can have enormous ramifications to publishers.
With Apple entering the publishing world, it's one more sign that power in media goes to who controls the audience — and in the early 21st century, that is tech.
The question then becomes what, if anything, is to be done about it. If music is the model being followed here, the situation is not promising for publishers. Spotify has never been profitable and though we don't know the specifics about Apple Music, it's unlikely that the company runs in order to generate profit; it's there instead to augment the overall offering of the Apple ecosystem. But just as with iTunes before it, the music labels gave in because of the platforms' enormous bases. Publishers must thus content themselves with Apple's network as part of their offering, lest they miss out on the valuable eyeballs that constitute the company's users.
If they choose not to, they will have to increase their focus on subscription models as the ad-business proves to be insufficient to sustain all but the most popular websites and apps. But that publishers have to make the choice at all speaks to where the real power lies. And with behemoths like Facebook and Apple moving forward seemingly unchallenged, unless something drastic changes, the situation is only likely to get worse.