Big Data and Media: Everything Is OK

August 19, 2014 10:12 am

Here’s a bold prediction. Or, more accurately, a mediocre one.

The future of media is OK. Not amazing. Not awful.

Just… OK. Average.

Big Data

It’s not because people don’t care anymore, or that the good old days were some sort of magical time in which everything was awesome. Mediocrity has always dominated; greatness has always been rare.

But we’re in for a lot more mediocrity. In fact, we are relentlessly optimizing for it.

The rise of Big Data and better analysis tools all but guarantee mediocrity. It’s the reason movies are just OK, BuzzFeed headlines are just OK, Huffington Post articles are extremely OK, etc etc.

All of our feedback loops tell us that OK is awesome. So we create more OK things.

Everything Seems Pretty Formulaic Now, Because It IS.

Today Gawker published a very OK piece revealing that Time Inc rates its writers based on how beneficial they are to advertisers.

My friend (and one of my favorite industry analysts) Jonathan Yarmis asked,  “Is this shocking? Smart? A seminal moment at which we embrace falling off a cliff?”

Great question. But in fact, it’s not shocking.

And it’s not really smart, or dumb.

It’s just OK.

Publishers no longer decide what’s good; algorithms do. Algorithms favor bunt singles and avoid grand slams, which are always a hairsbreadth from being a strikeout or long pop fly.

Is it a seminal moment at which we embracing falling off a cliff?

Nope. We fell off that cliff so long ago that we can’t even see it anymore.

I know people who are convinced they’re holding on to their standards, but in fact they are just clawing at the air.

I used to be horrified at this, but I’m not anymore. It’s really not about a loss of standards, or a decision to choose mediocrity.

It’s just what happens when media loses its scale, and audiences get tiny.

Things are OK now because it’s really the only way the publishing business can be OK.

We can and will still have good journalism, but I predict that eventually it will be done for free.

The Job of Algorithms Isn’t To Seek Greatness. It’s To Avoid Flops.

Today, most algorithms are designed to create plain vanilla, and plenty of it. It’s true in publishing, in movies, in advertising and marketing, and in anything else you can think of.

Eventually, a few brave souls will decide to tweak their algorithms to allow for more weirdness. We’ll gain the confidence to allow some really lame ideas to fail in order to enable a few precious, surprisingly great ideas to succeed.

So if you’re worried that nothing will ever be good anymore, don’t worry.

It’s all going to be OK.

And one day, when everybody gets a little braver, we’ll start getting a few things that are better than OK.


Photo credit: Thomas Hawk




  • Tom, nice piece. But I *believe* the reliance on algorithms actually INCREASES the cost of failure. It may initially create a feeling of safe complacency…all the while removing what Clausewitz said was essential: “fingerspitzengefuhlen”..a mouthful, but it means “finger tip feeling”.

  • I think since there’s so much competition out there, and everyone has a deadline to push something great – whether that’s content, ads, etc…quality starts falling and that’s when things end up being “ok.”

    Honestly though, I’m more up for quality than quantity, but you’re right – it is hard to find something extremely great.

    • Tom Cunniff

      Thanks for the comment, Tiffany. Quality has always been hard to produce, but today the odds are significantly stacked against delivering it — and those odds get tougher almost daily. The imperative is to produce ever more content that ever more closely resembles content that has gained views in the past. Our email boxes are the canary in the digital coalmine: despite spam filters and rigorous unsubscribing, I currently have 8,176 unread messages in one of my primary email accounts — and that is a real number, not one plucked out of the air to make a point.

      • I get that pushing content out first before optimizing its quality has its pros. For one, it’s a faster way for Google to see what content you have and start ranking your site based on your keywords (meaning faster traffic to your site). And I think that’s what everyone is trying to do, as it’s the “shortcut” to outranking everyone.

        But ultimately, if you can create content that people love and will share, I feel that’s what will get you better reputation in the end. Plus, people will be more curious to see what other content you may have written on your site. What do you think, Tom?

        • Tom Cunniff

          I agree that “content that people love and will share” is the right goal. I also think that “publish it all and let God (aka Google’s algorithms) sort it out” is a formula for creating a glut of absolute garbage. But… here we are. The key problem is that we don’t know in advance what “people love and will share”. Worse, people tend to love and share what you and I might mostly consider to be garbage. In the end, I guess it’s all about whether you want to reach and influence a LOT of people or a FEW people. In my business, it’s far more valuable to influence a few people than to drive massive amounts of page views. I can afford to ignore data entirely. But if I was selling ad space and page views mattered, at some point clickbait and cat videos would become impossible to resist.

          • I think a good way to know what people would love and share is counting the total number of shares it has. Because that directly translates to an article that has great content/value.

            And I do feel, like you, that it’s better to connect with a few big influencers, because ultimately if you can get at least one to share your content, you already got exposed to the thousands of followers that they have.

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